How to move forwards by looking back
By the time the opening scene of Arrival had played out, I knew I was watching something remarkable. The movie begins with a montage that needs only three minutes to convey the depth and love of a mother-daughter relationship until the daughter’s death in her teens. Repeat viewings lose none of the urgency or awe that accompanied my first experience and are also filled with melancholy, nostalgia, and a sense of intimacy between myself and Louise, the mother and main character – she and I both know what is to come.
I don’t ordinarily issue warnings for spoilers because I assume that if you have not seen the movie or read the book in question, you have more sense than to read an essay discussing that piece in detail. In this case, I rather like the irony of cautioning readers against going any further if they don’t wish to know how Arrival ends. (I suppose you need to know the film’s ending to understand the irony – like the apocryphal turtles, it is irony “all the way down”.)
Arrival is a movie made for repeat viewings. I would even say that to see it only once is to have an incomplete experience. Through clever hijacking of our expectations of narrative chronology and Kuleshov editing (we assume the second scene is influenced by the first), we approach the opening sequence as if it precedes the rest of the film, as if it is the beginning. A clue to the truth lies in Louise’s voice-over in which she says, “I’m not so sure I believe in beginnings and endings.” This beginning is the ending – or, more appropriately, an ending. We learn along with Louise that what seem like flashbacks are in fact memories of the future, that the seemingly unexpected death of her daughter will be known far in advance. Trauma becomes tragedy.
This recontextualising of the event gives a narrative and meaning to an otherwise senseless, random loss; what is, in the first instance, awful misfortune becomes, with reappraisal, the foreknown consequence of a choice Louise makes. Why would Louise make such a choice? This can be summed up with reference to a scene in ‘Story of Your Life’, the short story from which the film is taken. In a “future-memory”, Louise’s daughter, Hannah, wants to be read the same story again at bedtime. Louise asks, “Well, if you already know how the story goes, why do you need me to read it to you?” to which Hannah replies, “Because I want to hear it!” Another instance of something translated – re-examined, retold – into another context.
Recontextualising is at the heart of Arrival. There is great value in dialectically reappraising the old and applying to it new knowledge, and from that synthesis extracting new understanding. It would be easy to assume that Louise, in living out the future she has already seen, merely confirms what she already knows. But understanding and experiencing are different categories of knowing. I can describe all the properties of a square to you and, without seeing a square for yourself, you will know less than the person who has my description and has actually seen a square. This is referred to as “experiential knowledge” and it is what Louise gains by living through what she had previously only known intellectually. As such, revisiting the death of her daughter adds depth to her decision to have a baby. Revisiting the past is key, which is why Kierkegaard wrote in his journal that “life can only be understood backwards”.
Recontextualising runs throughout the movie: One of the aliens (called Heptapods) is quoted as saying (through translation) that “there is no time. Many become one.” The human characters worry over whether the second part of the statement implies unity or hegemony. This leads a military man to fear that the Heptapods mean to divide and conquer, justifying his anxiety with reference to historical conflicts: “The British with India, the Germans with Rwanda ...” Past disputes between nations are here recontextualised for a dispute between planets. Meanwhile, they overlook the first statement, that “there is no time”; they assume that the Heptapod means they do not have long, they are up against the clock. By the final act, we learn that the Heptapods are outside of time, seeing no difference between then and now, so “there is no time” becomes a literal statement. The most poignant recontextualising comes during the beginning/ending: Louise’s new-born daughter cries in the arms of a nurse, and Louise takes her child back, whispering, “Come back to me. Come back to me.” Moments later, we watch Louise sobbing over her teenaged daughter’s body in a hospital bed, pleading, “Come back to me. Come back to me.” The same words, a different context, an entirely new meaning.
Words are also the life-blood to Arrival, as Louise is a linguist and translator hired by the US government to teach them the language of the Heptapods – which she must first learn for herself. When she first meets Ian, the physicist on her team, he quotes her own book at her: “Language ... is the glue that holds a people together,” he begins, having to repeat himself after she realises she must turn on her headphones to hear him (thus proving the point he quoted; they cannot connect without hearing each other). He continues, “[Language] is the first weapon drawn in a conflict.” In her book, Louise was writing this in the context of how civilisations form and operate. Later in the movie, it is language and the joint venture to learn the alien tongue that unites disparate countries, and it is the word “weapon” (translated perhaps inaccurately from Heptapod) that instigates the collapse of their unity. This is not only another example of recontextualising, it speaks to the way that translation can recontextualise the ideas contained in language.
Nabokov took an appropriately hard line on translation in Strong Opinions, claiming that the translator’s only job is to offer the reader a foreign text composed of equivalent words from their own language. As hesitant as I am to argue with the master, I am not convinced that there is such a thing as “equivalent words” between languages. Milan Kundera, in The Art of the Novel, goes as far as rejecting “the very notion of synonyms” and with them the notion of equivalent words within a language. He argues that “each word has its own meaning and is semantically irreplaceable”. Perhaps by “meaning” he means context or, the word I would use, baggage. A thesaurus might supply alternatives and the basic meaning of the passage will remain, but its deeper implications may not. If a character “hollers” or “screams” they are, in either case, speaking loudly, but the first conveys an aggression that the second, with its intimation of fear, lacks. Similarly, a thesaurus taken to Hemingway might retain the literal meaning in one of his paragraphs loaded with repetitions, while losing all of its melody and emphatic rhythm.
There are creative possibilities afforded by this restriction. The lack of direct analogue in language that forbids a “pure” translation offers opportunity for new readings, for discovering other truths, other stories, other questions and answers in these subtly altered texts. Amongst literate English speakers, it is common to fret over what we lose by being unable to read Dostoevsky in the Russian or Proust in the French, but we rarely take stock of the fact that Russian and French readers who have no English will lose our version of the text. Both sides get only one view of that which is at the centre.
Translation can even reveal meta-questions about the source story: If the original asks, “Question X?” then the translation might ask, “What does Question X mean in this other culture?” This is what Louise is getting at when she explains why she must first establish the fundamentals of language with the Heptapods before asking them, “What is your purpose on Earth?” If they do not understand the concept of purpose, or they take “your” to be singular rather than collective, or if they don’t grasp the nature of a question – perhaps they only communicate declaratively – then what really matters will be lost, as they say, in translation. Learning that and why Heptapods struggle with words such as when, later, or before (having no need for temporal distinctions) allows us to see our own language, our own worldview, and our own assumptions with new eyes. This is the sort of thing that can be found in translation.
Arrival is, of course, another kind of translation, one from literature to cinema, words to images. There will always be those for whom the measure of a successful film adaptation is how closely it adheres to the source material. This is ticked off against a list of trivial details from esoteric mythology to the backstory of a character – the absence of which does not affect the narrative at all. These viewers are invested not in the literary and cinematic value of the work but in what the story represents to them, usually in sentimental terms. (Although not an adaptation, Star Wars: The Last Jedi evoked cries of “It ruined my childhood!” across the internet, and the same happens to every film adaptation of classic books from The Lord of the Rings to On the Road.) As amateur critics, they are closed to any innovation or new interpretation of the source material.
Ted Chiang’s readers seem a more mature bunch, because reception to the adaptation of his ‘Story of Your Life’ has been widely approving. There were several changes, some quite significant, required to translate the story to cinema. As I went into some detail about the nature of adaptations in my essay on Call Me By Your Name, I won’t dwell on the topic too long here. But there are changes in Arrival that may serve as examples for the fruit of recontextualising a story from one medium to another. Let’s just take the matter of Hannah’s death.
In the short story, Hannah dies at the age of twenty-five in a rock-climbing accident. In the film, she is in her teens when she dies of an unnamed “unstoppable” disease. Eric Heisserer, screenwriter of Arrival, explained that if Hannah had lived to be much older, they would have had to “age up the actress playing Louise”, which would have revealed too soon that what appears to be in the past is actually in the future. Why, though, the change from death in an accident to death by disease? This came about as the result of a clever insight by Heisserer.
The central thrust of ‘Story of Your Life’ is that the universe is deterministic and Louise must make peace with this. Nothing Louise does can stop Hannah dying in that accident. Her future is as fixed as a repeat on television: What will happened has happened and cannot be altered. All Louise can do is embrace that hard fact. Heisserer expressed to Chiang that it was more profound to him if Louise “has a choice ... and can change the future, and yet she chooses to have Hannah”. In this universe with free will, Louise could potentially stop Hannah dying in the accident, meaning her choice to have her is not fraught with the tragedy of her certain death. So Heisserer wrote it so that Hannah dies of a disease Louise can do nothing to prevent. ‘Story of Your Life’ exists at the intersection between a deterministic universe and our desire for freedom; Arrival, thanks to the way it was recontextualised, centres on the collision between what we can control and what we cannot. This simple deviation – translation – in the details of Hannah’s death take us somewhere the original did not.
It should be clear that recontextualising in the manner I am discussing is not nostalgia (revisiting the past in the hope of capturing it as it was, unchanged) and it is not the kind of empty “innovation” seen in, for example, the worst of our contemporary obsession with rebooting classic TV and film. The lie that such films are homage is in their total disrespect for what the originals achieved. These reboots blatantly appeal to nostalgia and say nothing of any substance or interest. Jurassic World, for instance, bothers only with a grumpy, half-hearted nod at responding to the overt and subtextual conversations about identity, family, scientific hubris, and gender politics started in the original movie. Jurassic World shrugs off this complexity and mumbles something about youth these days being jaded.
In the Times Literary Supplement of 18th May, Marchella Ward reviewed a production of Othello at the Liverpool Everyman, in which the titular role is played by a woman. This simple casting choice carries the profound ability to reinvigorate the social commentary of the play, shifting the subtext from one bigotry to another. As Ward puts it:
“When Iago ... soliloquizes that ‘Cassio’s a proper man’ (and therefore a more likely suitor for Desdemona) in comparison with Othello, it is not racism that we hear between these lines, but homophobia.”
Questions of Othello’s masculinity can be taken literally here, leading also to a re-evaluation of Othello’s final, awful deed: Is this violence, if not born of the male sex, a product instead of military conditioning or overly-passionate love? Does this mean that sexual and romantic jealousy transcend gender? Do we find it as easy to accept a woman murdering Desdemona as a man doing the killing, and if not, why? This kind of fresh take on a well-established piece of art is what recontextualing can do at its best. It is this opportunity for new ideas that makes it worthwhile.
Arrival is not the only film worth re-watching, but it is a film that has a particular relationship with recontextualising that makes re-watching it the only way to fully engage with it. Revisiting the past, in this case, is not about capturing it as it was; it is about finding the new, having an experience much like the first time you watch a movie, one of discovery, but discovering what only exists in the retelling, in the translation. The forward momentum of progress is not always linear, it can take a cyclical form. Perhaps this is what Kierkegaard meant when he wrote that “life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards”.
• Arrival, dir. Denis Villeneuve, screenplay by Eric Heisserer (2016)
• Ted Chiang, ‘Story of Your Life’ in Stories of Your Life and Others (2002)
• Søren Kierkegaard, Journals IV A 164 (1843)
• Vladimir Nabokov, Strong Opinions (1973)
• Milan Kundera, The Art of The Novel (1986)
• Alberto Manguel, ‘Reading White for Black’ in Into the Looking Glass Wood (1998)
• Marchella Ward, ‘Shakespeare’s Sisters’ in Times Literary Supplement (18th May 2018)