The screenwriter of Arrival on how hard it was to adapt Ted Chiang for the screen

Eric Heisserer adapted Ted Chiang's novella Story of Your Life as the screenplay Arrival. Both are brilliant, but in different ways. It wasn't easy.

In all my draft work on the adaptation, I spent the most time on the intellectual and political challenges of the story. But if I ever encroached on the intimate, emotional through-line of Louise’s journey, the story fell apart. Other scenes could be sacrificed, reworked, moved, or cut to the bone. But director Denis Villeneuve and I found a bare minimum of steps to Louise’s personal journey, and that became our Alamo; our hill we would die defending. Denis had a knack for visuals that spoke on an emotional level while also dovetailing with the intellectual challenges our characters faced. Marrying those two, sometimes in a single line of dialogue or image, made the film come alive. It made us feel the story. And at the end of the day, what drew me most to Ted Chiang’s story was the way it made me feel, and above all else we wanted to transport and share that feeling with audiences

It's always fascinating to see how the sausage is made. Screenwriters must write for several audiences--the author being adapted, producers, directors--at different stages of the process, while keeping moviegoers in mind all along. You can see here how a master makes his script align with each on its journey to the screen, somehow without alienating everyone.

Also interesting is the fact Final Draft, the expensive and mandatory screenplay production software package, can't handle images—an unusual but unavoidable requirement for a movie full of alien logograms to be deciphered. Your first thought is probably to marvel at Hollywood's cultish traditionalism and what happens to software when a market gets locked in. But it strikes me that screenplays are like code or markup, a form of plaintext tightly attuned to an expensive technical process. Embedded graphics would tend to be a disruptive amateurism, at war with functions of the document that aren't easily visible to observers.

I saw the movie this weekend. It's great: moody, beautiful, sweeping, fascinating and touching science fiction that honors Chiang's original while borrowing heavily from Contact to generate dramatic tension and scope. It literalizes the novella's key theme--the immanence of time--in a way that I thought was too on the nose. Removing just one scene, where a Heptapod literally explains the movie (with English subtitles!), and we'd have been left with Louise's visions and her encounter with General Chiang to do the same work--a more mysterious and ambiguous movie, perhaps.