Arrival How to turn the impossible adaptation of the novel into a masterpiece

Growing up my mother loved to read to me, as all mothers do, but instead of children’s books like Dr. Seuss or Baez-Baias, she read science fiction stories by Heinlein, Bradbury, and Asimov, stories about new and strange worlds, full of novel ideas and endless possibilities for the future. It was an important nourishment for me as a child. But I also learned early on to keep quiet about it in Oklahoma, where I grew up, because where I came from, adults would occasionally mention the word “science” with a sarcastic double quote in the air.Nevertheless, science fiction became my first literary love. Years after I broke up with her, the story of Johnnie Kang brought me back to her. Jiang Fengnan is a “rare animal” whose novels are both intellectually stimulating and emotionally touching. With a set of theoretical physics doctrine, he can press me into the sofa, sinking deep into the cushions and sobbing. His work is purely literary in nature, and I largely disregarded the “cinematic” nature of the material when I intended to adapt his story. I was more interested in how the novel touched me emotionally.

The Story of Your Life” has stayed with me for a long time; I am in its shadow during the day, and it haunts me even when I sleep at night. I knew I wanted to turn it into a movie, but I didn’t know how to start or who to ask to do it, the only thing I knew was that I had to find a way to do it.

In my career up to that point I had written thirteen screenplays (non-employed, non-commissioned scripts) on my own, six of which were science fiction. I had only written one horror script, but it was also the only one that sold, so I soon discovered that it was the only kind of script people would come to me to write and trust me to write. Every time I showed that story by Johnnie Kang to a producer, they would show obvious skepticism, “This stuff is scratching my head, I want a Stephen King kind of story!”

After years of searching and writing a lot of non-horror scripts, I finally came across the producers who supported the project, Dan Levine and Dan Cohen of Circle 21. They both fell in love with “The Story of Your Life” as I did. For years I’ve had Johnnie Kang’s book in my car, the corners of the pages curled up, and now the project is finally coming together. I wrote my idea formally as a synopsis and lobbied around for venture capital.

But my idea did not sell. Not a word of it sold.People rejected it, most often on the grounds that it was “too dependent on the outcome of the execution”. Well, really, what movie isn’t dependent on the outcome of the execution? That’s a euphemism for, “We don’t think you can write this story.”

By then, I had already devised a non-linear narrative structure. I saw so many possibilities for expansion in the most central themes and ideas of Jiang Fengnan that I couldn’t stop. It was like putting on your best running shoes, with your feet on the starter and your knuckles propped up on the track, but the starting gun never went off. So I went to beg Jiang Fengnan to allow me to write the script first without the promise of investment, which meant I wanted him to extend the authorization period for the adaptation. I did my best to tell him my idea as if to say, “I’ll borrow your car for a drive, and I might come back with an extra surprise, and maybe a fresh paint job all over. Please believe me.”

He really believed me. I spent the next year wondering why it wasn’t easy to write a good script for a science fiction movie. Here are some of the things this script taught me.

1. Sometimes mundane truths are more interesting than beautiful lies.

Embrace your movie story for what it is supposed to be and what it will be, and you will spontaneously get closer to it. If it’s an action movie, the characters and the story will unfold within the structure of the fight sequences. If it were a musical, the subtext would all be in the songs. Our film, on the other hand, is about a process – deciphering a new language, while also teaching our own.

For the benefit of those who haven’t seen the trailer and read the original, I’ll belabor the story: Twelve alien ships descend on several locations around the world. The U.S. Army enlists the help of two scientists to help communicate with the aliens, a linguist named Louis Banks and a theoretical physicist named Ian Donnelly. Their mission was uniquely challenging: the alien beings had no recognizable language (they had seven limbs and were called “seven-limbed humans”), and humans could not understand them, and perhaps they could not understand humans. Teams were sent from various countries at the alien landing sites to try to figure out the purpose of the spacecraft hovering on Earth, resulting in global tensions. Everyone realizes that it is easy to misunderstand or even make a big mistake when communicating with a true alien.

In my first draft, I had Louis teach the most basic vocabulary to the Seven Limbs. This process I designed a montage of shots of Louis taking a language lesson, teaching the aliens the concepts of verbs, nouns, subjects, and predicates.

Several producers immediately overturned the design of the scene. “It’s not sexy. Why not use more specific words?” These guys were sharp, and they were right. I nodded and took notes as I went back to revisit the process, and it dawned on me: basic kindergarten-level vocabulary was what was absolutely necessary.

When I met with the group again, I wrote down all the core questions that humans wanted aliens to answer on a single sheet of paper. I broke the questions down, word by word, focusing on the most basic ones. I realize I sound a bit ridiculous: I’m explaining the behavior of a woman who wants to teach the aliens the details of the language of life, such as “eat,” “go,” and “home. But isn’t this movie about process? I was really obsessed with presenting these processes in their entirety for Louise.

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