Arrival, a departure
from the novella

The difference between a well-rounded script and a novella

By Luc Archambault

Arrival, movie poster - L'Arrivée, affiche de film - WestmountMag.caAnyone can write a short story. Anyone can write a novella, or even a novel. But to turn a story into a movie script is somewhat of a challenge. Of course, such a script will go through numerous rewrites. Some of them to make the story more cinematographic. Some to please the studio behind its completion. Some to satisfy the stars hired to fulfil the roles. And some to create a balance between the director’s and the original writer’s divergent visions.

A perfect example of this struggle towards a ‘happy end’, i.e. a film made from a written piece of fiction, can be observed with the film Arrival, directed by Denis Villeneuve, and Story of your life, a novella written by Ted Chiang, and scripted by Eric Heisserer.

Reading the novella and one of the intermediate iterations of the script, writen by screenwriter and executive producer Eric Heisserer, gives us a view into the development process a movie goes through before landing at your local movie theatre.

…to turn a story into a movie script is somewhat of a challenge. Of course, such a script will go through numerous rewrites.

So let’s start with the novella. In it, there are 112 alien ships all over the planet, with nine in the US. The aliens greeting Dr. Louise Banks (Amy Adams) are named Flapper and Raspberry (Abbott and Costello in the movie). These aliens have seven eyes placed all around their ‘head’, which explains their non-linear view of reality. Now, these differences are all incidental. The main one concern Dr. Banks’ daughter. She doesn’t have cancer but will live through her 25th year and die in a mountain-climbing accident.

Arrival Amy Adams Denis Villeneuve

Denis Villeneuve directing Amy Adams

In the script, only the ending differs from the movie, but radically. In that version, all the twelve nations (as in the final movie) hosting an alien vessel start working together once they realize that the aliens are giving them each one-twelve of all technical information on how to build a spaceship to colonize a distant planet, thereby saving the Earth from overpopulation and the resulting war. The script ends with Dr. Banks reliving her daughter’s death (from illness) as the newly built spaceship takes off.

Arrival, by Denis Villeneuve, collected eight Oscar nominations, including Best Picture and Best Director.

What differs from the novella to the finished film is a matter of scale. The only negative aspect of this downsizing is the apparent misdirection given to the character of Dr. Banks, placing her in the pivotal role of Saviour of Humanity. A choice, yes, but not a satisfactory one. The circular aspect of time is however well exploited and very well used, and the downsizing of the storyline gives this movie a softer edge. With the visual dexterity of Denis Villeneuve, one can rest assured for his upcoming Blade Runner sequel… but for such a challenge, he’d better have mastered his skill as good judge for a script… because this film will come with a heavy legacy behind it.

Images: courtesy of Paramount Pictures Canada

Luc Archambault

Luc Archambault
Writer and journalist, globe-trotter at heart, passionate about movies, music, literature and contemporary dance, came back to Montreal to pursue his unrelenting quest for artistic meaning.

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