Arrival Ending Explained: Changing The Source Material In Just The Right Way

This post contains spoilers for both "Arrival" and the novella "Story of Your Life."

"Arrival" is a notable sci-fi film for many reasons, not just because it's what convinced Hollywood to let director Denis Villeneuve take charge of a sequel to "Blade Runner" (which was awesome) and then "Dune," which was even better. Villeneuve seems to have a knack for taking an already-impressive existing story and putting his own spin on it, and it was with "Arrival" that this talent of his became clear to everyone.

The movie is based on Ted Chiang's novella "Story of Your Life," first published in 1998. The story's around 50 pages long, and it doesn't seem particularly interested in creating any sort of dramatic, ticking-clock scenario. Aliens still visit Earth and the main character is still a linguist trying to communicate with them, but there's not much sense that these aliens might be a threat or that the world might actually be in danger. There aren't many details in the novella telling us how the other countries in the world are dealing with the aliens, but it seems like everyone's working together drama-free. 

"Arrival," meanwhile, bases most of its final act around the actions of General Shang (Tzi Ma), the Chinese military leader who nearly causes World War III before our protagonist Louise (Amy Adams) uses her new time travel powers to change his mind. The day is saved with a paradoxical time loop that "Doctor Who" fans are deeply familiar with: Louise knows how to call Shang and tell him the exact words to change his mind, but only because Shang will recount the event to her years later. The whole third act basically centers on a bootstrap paradox, one that the novella handles very differently.

A movie that keeps its cards close to its chest

The lack of suspense over a potential war in the novella makes sense because, unlike the movie, the novella is pretty up-front about the time-travel element. From the very first page, we can already get the sense that the narrator is someone who knows the future. From the way Louise talks about her future daughter, we know that after the aliens leave, she gets to enjoy a fairly mundane life after her interactions with the aliens. This means there's not much tension to be milked over the fate of the world, since we know from page one that everything's gonna turn out fine. 

"Arrival," meanwhile, hides this element for most of its runtime. The movie starts off with a montage of Louise losing her daughter to an unspecified terminal illness; we assume its a flashback because this is how movies generally present flashbacks. The future is still a mystery throughout the first half of the movie, which means it's able to build up a lot more anxiety around the premise of mysterious aliens suddenly showing up on Earth. It's only when Louise asks "who is this child?" that everything shifts. By this point, it's clear that the aliens are benevolent and that the fate of mankind is secure; the only question left is how it all plays out, which is answered with Louise's phone call to Shang.

But of course, when people think about "Arrival," it's not really the geopolitical crisis that sticks out in their minds. It's that final montage where Louise gets together with Ian (Jeremy Renner), has a child with him, and gets to enjoy her young daughter's company even as she knows the tragic end in store for her. 

Hannah's death in the book

In the novella, Louise's daughter (who's never given a name here) dies at 25 in a rock-climbing accident. This raises a big question: why doesn't Louise just tell her daughter to stay away from rock climbing? The answer is that she can't, not really. Her experience of knowing the future has fundamentally changed her, making it so that most of what she says and does is more like a performance in a play; by the end of the story she's saying things because she knows what she's supposed to say for things to continue going along as she's seen them. At one point, Louise muses to herself:

"What if the experience of knowing the future changed a person? What if it evoked a sense of urgency, a sense of obligation to act precisely as she knew she would?"

The reasoning behind this is explored in detail throughout the novella, in both a scientific and emotional way. It's not like Louise is a prisoner of time, exactly; she might not have free will as we'd understand it, but she also doesn't have any desire to change any of the most painful upcoming moments of her life. "I would never act contrary to that future," she says, "including telling others what I know." 

It's sort of like how Doctor Manhattan operates in "Watchmen." Like him, Louise doesn't have much of a desire to change the future because she's already experiencing it before, and now, and later. Past, present, and future are all going on inside her at once, and she seems pretty comfortable in this state of existence. (There must be something especially captivating about this sort of character, seeing as Manhattan's spotlight episode in the 2019 show was a highlight of the series.)

Hannah's death in the movie

Likely because it would take a while to explain why Louise wouldn't just let Hannah know about the dangers of rock climbing, the film changes her cause of death to an unspecified terminal illness, one that kills Hannah as a young teenager. On the surface, the main appeal of this change is that it makes the movie's twist easier to hide and easier to believe. (After all, if Hannah had lived to 25, the movie would've had to figure out how to deal with the fact that Louise would've noticeably aged within that time frame.)

The other appeal to the change is that it simplifies Louise's situation. Presumably, there's nothing she can do to stop her daughter's eventual death, so the audience doesn't sit through the final montage wondering why doesn't she try to do this or that. Even though Hannah hasn't been born yet, Louise has already come to know and love her. The only way to avoid the eventual heartbreak is to never have Hannah at all, but Louise decides that having her is more than worth the trouble. 

It's a version of the story that seems to give Louise a little more agency. She's not portrayed as someone instinctually compelled to follow what fate tells her to do, but as someone who actively chooses the path she sees. This is what allows its central message (basically the old saying, "better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all") to shine all the brighter. As Louise puts it in her narration during that final sequence: "Despite knowing the journey and where it leads, I embrace it, and I welcome every moment of it."

Embracing the advantages of film

It's no surprise that Denis Villeneuve got to direct "Dune" not long after this, because "Arrival" has got to be one of the most successful sci-fi movie adaptations of all time. Then again, "Story of Your Life" also provided him with a lot more creative freedom than Dune has; not only is the novella much shorter, but it's also nowhere near as famous as the "Dune" books. Villeneuve could afford to make massive changes to the source material without drawing the ire of millions of internet fans of the novella.

More than anything, Villeneuve seems to understand the value of a director putting their own personal spin on the story they're adapting. If you're only adapting a book faithfully to its movie form, you're ensuring that your movie will always be secondary to its source material. It'll be a copy of the book, just in a medium the story wasn't originally intended for. A lot of what makes "Story of Your Life" so great is how the prose is able to jump back and forth between past, present, and future, sometimes all within a single paragraph. This isn't something a movie can really do.

Just as Stanley Kubrick understood that a completely faithful adaptation of "The Shining" would be impossible to pull off, Villeneuve understood that "Arrival" was a movie that could benefit from massively rearranging the order in which Louise's story is told. "Arrival" emphasizes and expands on the more cinematic elements of the novella while changing or downplaying the stuff that works best in prose, and that's how it delivers such a strong emotional punch in the end. Villeneuve didn't give us a faithful adaptation at all, and it's one of the best decisions he's ever made.