If you’ve never cried while reading a book or watching a movie, this essay isn’t for you. There are only three times I remember out and out weeping in response to either: As a child on the roof of my mother’s house, in my wife’s and my first apartment, and this December, alone at the kitchen table while my wife and our three-month-old daughter slept. Each time I was surprised by the tears, and each time I welcomed them as some cleansing phenomena. I’m not talking about welling up. I put the books in question down and buried my head or stopped the movie so I could go hide in the bathroom. I was knocked off my tracks, interrupted, more than moved.
At their very best, such instances capture part of what T.S. Eliot called the “moment in and out of time.” Most people, in my experience, like to talk about the latter, the way reading transports you or how movies melt away the daily grind. But crying while you read a book or watch a movie is very much in time, an experience that is physically immediate and which necessarily reflects the context of your life during which that moment hits. What’s more, the work in question becomes tied to a time, to a period or even a day of your life that will resonate through the work on any subsequent revisit. For me, there are three art-instances that struck water, one in adolescence, another in my early marriage, and again this last year, which saw the birth of our first child, and the loss of my wife’s first pregnancy. I wish I had a fancier argument to attach to these stories. They’re three modest tales, and all of them embarrass me.
My best friend at the end of grade school was named Skyler, and when we got together any afternoon or weekend, worlds were born. He had a definitive birthmark on his cheek, beautiful eyes, and elfin features. We lived in houses on the opposite side of a small neighborhood that were the exact same build. His yard was bigger. My basement was finished. Competition was mostly friendly, though I once shoved his head into a brick wall and was called into the principal’s office. An accident, of course. I didn’t realize the wall was so close. His blood terrified me.
Originally from Idaho, his parents threatened to move back home from almost the first summer I met Skyler. Threatened me personally, I felt. They brought it up with amazing indiscretion. Sitting at dinner with them, watching their TV, shadowing every step of their lives, I wondered if they realized that discussing the desire to leave so openly was, ahem, rude. They were going to ruin my life, and that just didn’t seem to be much of a factor. When Skyler’s dad almost got a job in Amarillo, Texas, they brought me along with Skyler and his sister for a weekend road-trip to get the lay of the land. “Three kids, huh?” everyone in Texas said. They simply nodded, unbothered to have me on a one-way, seven-hour car ride that almost, to my mind, ruined their lives. We were from Colorado. The endless flat of the horizon unnerved us.
This was the emotional atmosphere in which I read Where the Red Fern Grows the summer after fifth grade. Skyler hounded me to read the book, obsessed with the story’s two dogs, Old Dan and Little Ann, animals he projected onto his own mutts, Copper and Bear. Every summer, I camped in something like the Oklahoma Ozarks, where the book takes place, and encountered gummy elders who still noodled for catfish, who probably coon-hunted themselves. I saw my own grandfather set trot-lines and listened with reverence to his stories of angling audacity. Read the book? The book read me. Skyler felt the same, and liked to list the ways in which Little Ann explained Copper, or how Old Dan was as loyal as Bear.
When I was close to finishing, I climbed out my second-story window to the roof of my mother’s house. I sometimes read there. Summer evening, a bright sun, warm weather, and I sped through the story’s denouement, the mountain-lion chase that ends Old Dan’s life, and eventually Little Ann’s, too, from grief. I couldn’t believe the dogs died, and maybe my reaction was some sort of Margarét moment, crying in the setting light for my own mortality.
But what happens at the end of the book is not simply a confrontation with untimely death. The narrator must face his sudden aloneness, the fragility of his child’s community. He peers at the doghouse in the moonlight, and notes how “lonely” it looks, how he often “had lain in…bed and listened to the squeaking of the [doghouse] door.” There is a terrible isolation in growing older, when you realize the easiness of being-in-the-world, of being content with others, is going to fade because you will change, they will change, or their parents will move them to Idaho. Idaho, uh, being the universal dumping ground for everyone’s childhood friend. Skyler moved there when I was 12. He was a world-class buddy, and I was the boy left behind. That’s not some easy life lesson, but rather the source of quivering I feel every time I think of the book. It’s a happy thought, now. The book is better because of it.
I wish the second story revolved around some other tome, but this list doesn’t comprise my favorite works. I’d never hold them up as exemplary of my taste. Oh, well. In my third year of marriage I read A Severe Mercy by Sheldon Vanauken, and I will only read it again when I have a weekend to myself sometime in my 50s, a useful amount of scotch, and enough tissues to survive the experience.
Let me set up the moment in time: my wife and I married young (23), and we both finished grad school during the first and second year of our new life together. Facing our third Christmas, we were in new jobs, I was listless and anxious about being a university office drone, and the way forward was suddenly a little murky. Our syllabi life was now without 16-week outlines. For years, my mom had suggested that I read A Severe Mercy, a true story about a guy who knew C.S. Lewis and whose wife died young. Spoiler: the wife in fact does die young, it’s heartbreaking, and the book is essentially a grief-stricken reconciliation with how so meaningless an event might have more meaning than it first appeared. I know! The entire situation is worryingly emotional, possibly cheap.
But I kept reading because I grew up on C.S. Lewis and attended Oxford for a year, and the book had a vein of Oxford life I’d always wanted and half-experienced, and because I recognized in the love story of Vanauken and his wife, Davy, so much of what I desired. They were absolute romantics, promising not only never to marry if the other died, but to go to sea and die themselves. They were atheists, too, and the story of their love slowly becomes a revelation of their conversion, an almost Wauvian progression of romantic love giving way to ultimate, spiritual love. Stuck in an admissions desk job, swaybacked professionally by my master’s in literature, I vibrated at this literary return to Oxford.
What crept on me, however, was the slow realization of something I thought I knew, but was only now appreciating. My relationship with my wife was the great adventure of adulthood, and needed to take the place of adolescent dreams. The romantic hopes of childhood, of living with an intensity of purpose, were most possible in the very different romance of my marriage. The quotidian as heroic is a little overstating the situation, maybe, but that was about the gist. Commitment, sacrifice, excitement, all features of healthy intimacy. And yet we weren’t (and aren’t) some heart-burned couple canoodling over poetry by the fire. We don’t live every moment planning the next backpacking adventure. She’s a reader, and has become the best reader of my work to date, but at that point in time our great overlap of interest was that we liked each other. Sometimes we went skiing.
Well, Davy dies, and Vanauken writes to Lewis and they discuss the possibility of ghosts during grieving, of there being a special presence for the mourning period that isn’t simply emotion, but is some Christ-like grace that we receive. Christ (you know, your mileage might vary on this) hung around after his death, appearing first to those who loved him. It made sense, they told each other. It hurt beyond bearing, and my own death-pact, that essential vow of marriage, became vivid. Our intention to part only at dying and the great goodness, the great grief all of this might mean fell on my stupid, mid-20s heart. Of course I cried. The best-case scenario was to have a romance that’d haunt me. Or maybe it was to die first.
My wife read the book and did not cry, for the record. She decided she’d pick the next book, and I decided that literary experience will always trump one’s pretensions about literary quality.
At the end of 2016, my wife told me she was pregnant by handing me a note. We still have the note. We have what I wrote in response, my clumsy, bursting enthusiasm. I’m a depressingly simple human at times of great feeling. We have subsequent journal entries, too, which trace my wife’s discovery of miscarriage, and the final goodbyes both of us wrote to a person we wouldn’t get to meet. We both felt tricked, as if a promise had been made and rescinded, and we both feared that maybe something was wrong, that perhaps a second chance might not come around.
Before we knew we were pregnant, a good friend from college texted me and told me she was sure we were. I had a similar premonition before my wife spilled the news, and before her period abstained for long enough to suspect anything with credibility, my wife felt sure the process was underway. We were probably reading physical signs without knowing, sensing and reacting and intuiting. Except my friend. She was in Ethiopia and the text was without precipitant. Nonsense or otherwise, there was an abundance of forward-looking that preempted the event, and once my wife handed me the announcement, our inner lives went even farther. I’d always thought we’d have a daughter first, and we knew the name we hoped to use immediately.
The night she started to bleed, but before we knew what was taking place, we went to dinner and a movie with some friends. The movie was Arrival, based on “Story of Your Life” by Ted Chiang. Amy Adams’s character learns a language that changes her perception of time and begins to see her daughter’s life and inevitable death before her daughter is born. She looks ahead, quite literally, and mourns her child before her child is even living. The resonance of our pain with the film was almost laughably parallel. I’d pictured a daughter, and felt grief without knowing her. My wife, the same. And, I guess, also Amy Adams? We avoided the film in any form thereafter, despite enjoying it, and my wife will always avoid it, I think. But this December, a year after the whole sad experience, I couldn’t help myself.
I started the movie and skipped right to the heartbreaking moments, to Amy Adams’s character realizing that she has yet to meet the daughter she grieves in flashes. Someone else is welcome to explain my decision to me. I can only say I acted on instinct, and then fell apart. There was no breakthrough, no insight into life’s coming trials or a neat reflection the stages of aging. Instead, a memorial played across the screen for someone I didn’t get to bury. Our three-month-old daughter, conceived quickly after the miscarriage, was in the other room. Not some daughter we’d imagined, but one who we couldn’t, one too specific to grok with even prophetic foresight. Sobbing, I feared waking the baby, felt immense gratitude that she was born, and turned off the screen.
Art has the power to warp and relieve daily life, but I also believe that art isn’t reducible to a few therapeutic instances, no matter how useful the unloosening. A good poem isn’t good because it was read many times at many funerals. That simply means a poem attended some ceremonies. Art’s value, if we’re wise, will never be commensurate with its utility.
So where does that leave my above emoting? While fiction and movies offer pleasurable reprieves, I sometimes get the same kind of jolt from a good airline magazine, or lunch. People cry at commercials all the time. As such, a book’s use in my life says only so much about whether it is in fact an interesting art project or even whether it’d be a welcome addition to your life. But as a reader, I’m fundamentally left not with a bunch of premises, but with several anecdotes about when a story anticipated my epiphanies, reflected my numb-nuttery, or broadened my sense of wonder. Every now and then, we should try and let them speak for themselves.
Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons.
I have a dwindling reserve of patience for movies that treat death as a handy time-saving hack that can be deployed against characters (to push them around as the plot requires) or audience (to elicit sympathy without the hassle of creating characters strong enough to bear empathy). I gave up on X-Men: Apocalypse right when it cynically introduced a wife and daughter for Magneto solely so that they could be promptly murdered in order that he would lurch back to the dark side. So the first five minutes of Arrival — in which Amy Adams’s character, Louise, has daughter, loses daughter, is sad — did not endear the movie to me. No, we have not given you any reason to be emotionally invested in this character, I heard Denis Villeneuve sneering in my ear, but you must feel sorry for her all the same, and here are the tremulous strings of an emotive Max Richter track just to make doubly sure you do.
So it was a pleasant surprise to learn that Arrival was actually doing something quite different (confident that its acting and atmosphere would be strong enough to retain the attention of more sceptical audience members). Eventually we learn that this sequence — and the other, briefer glimpses we see of Louise and her daughter later on in the movie — are not flashbacks, but flashforwards; not memories, but premonitions. Louise’s ability to understand the written language of the extraterrestrial heptapods has granted her the power of foresight and we don’t have to feel sad for her after all because none of this tragedy has actually befallen her yet.
The relationship between Louise and Ian, played by Jeremy Renner, also comes across like a cliché at first. Of course they’re going to fall for each other — even though she’s the wordy one and he’s the sciencey one! They’re so different! — because they’re the protagonists of a blockbuster movie, and that’s what the protagonists of blockbuster movies do (and because, as we know — or thought we knew — Louise is a divorcée who has lost a child and thus especially in need of the restorative succor of True Love). But again, something different is happening: yes, Louise is falling for Ian, but she does so with (in spite/because of) the knowledge that they will ultimately fall apart in the most heartbreaking of circumstances. This is not the typical emotional timbre of a relationship that springs from a meet-cute.
But these subversions of cinematic tropes assume a certain degree of familiarity with movies and the way they work. The relationship between Louise and Ian is formed from lightly sketched cinematic signs (the camera lingering just slightly too long on the reaction shot) that we recognize from the hundreds or thousands of onscreen romances we have witnessed before. And we assume that the emotionally ambiguous expression on Amy Adams’s face is sadness because we expect characters to respond to sad flashbacks with sadness. Eventually she vocalizes her feelings, stating that she doesn’t recognize the girl we have been seeing with her onscreen — and in that stunning moment we realize that the emotion she has been experiencing is, in fact, confusion, and that the scenes we thought were flashbacks are not flashbacks at all.
These twists are dealt with quite differently in “The Story of Your Life,” the Ted Chiang short story from which Arrival was adapted. The will-they-won’t-they is resolved earlier on (they will), and the true chronological sequence of events is never concealed: from the very beginning, the life (and death) of their daughter is described in the future tense, while the interactions with the heptapods are in the past. The surprise lies not in the sequencing of events, but at which precise point Louise, the narrator, is positioned on that timeline. We assume at first that she is using a kind of “historical future” tense: looking back from a time after she has met some aliens, had a child, lost her child, and her entire career has unfolded:
I remember one afternoon when you are five years old, after you have come home from kindergarten. You’ll be coloring with your crayons while I grade papers.
Gradually, however, this insistent use of the future tense, preceded by the jarring simple present “I remember,” becomes more conspicuous. We realize that this is actually just regular, vanilla future tense, describing things that have not happened yet, with the certainty granted by her newly acquired powers of clairvoyance. She is telling her story from a particular moment (as the present tense sections that bookend the story make clear) that is post-aliens but pre-daughter, and she is remembering forwards, not backwards.
The fact that this reveal depends on grammar is entirely appropriate for a story so preoccupied with language. “The Story of Your Life” is unafraid of spending time exploring such nuances as the distinction between glottographic and semasiographic writing. The discoveries about how the heptapods’ language works (and Louise’s consequent transition from a “sequential mode of awareness” to a “simultaneous mode of awareness”) unfold naturally from the linguistics. In Arrival, however, the process that forms the crux of Ted Chiang’s story is mainly connoted through visual shorthand — the elaborately annotated whiteboards that films use to indicate unfathomable genius, and the furrowing of Amy Adams’s brow — and that most cinematic of conceits: the montage (with a Jeremy Renner voice-over).
Because despite name-dropping Edward Sapir and Benjamin Lee Whorf and hiring an actual consultant linguist, Arrival’s interest in language is essentially superficial. The plot requires Louise to gain the ability to see the future, but what if Louise was an engineer instead of a translator, or a specialist in toxins? What if the MacGuffin was not the heptapod language itself, but a piece of machinery or alien milkshake? Arrival would certainly be a lesser movie — lacking the thematic resonance with the breakdown in communication between different nations around the world — but it would still work.
Yet this doesn’t mean Arrival is an unfaithful adaptation. The act of translation is not just a case of switching words from one language to another: it requires countless extralinguistic tweaks and alterations to account for differences in the target culture. And there is more to the adaptation of a short story to film than simply producing a visual rendition of what is written on the page (so it’s no wonder that the movie’s screenwriter, Eric Heisserer, felt “an emotional connection” to translator Louise). The change in medium itself necessitates additional changes. Some of these are purely practical: the lifespan of the daughter is shortened in the movie, for example. In “The Story of Your Life” she lives to the age of 25 and dies in a climbing accident. If she had lived that long in the movie then Amy Adams’s face would have had to be digitally wizened in the flashforwards, and the twist would be no twist (for either us, or her). Thus, in Arrival the daughter must die young, from cancer — the default trauma of cinema, with the most easily recognizable visual code (the bald head of chemotherapy, the blue palette of the hospital lighting).
But some of the other tweaks are self-conscious acknowledgements of a more profound shift in focus. As Jordan Brower has noted in the LA Review of Books, the two heptapods, named Raspberry and Flapper in the original, become Abbot and Costello in the movie — Hollywood allusion. And the sad Max Richter theme that plays such a key part in setting the mood at the beginning and ending of the film — “On the Nature of Daylight,” from his 2004 album The Blue Notebooks — is tantamount to a cinematic citation, having previously been featured in several other movies (notably Martin Scorsese’s Shutter Island in 2010 — another adaptation of a story that plays tricks with memory). Because the plot of Ted Chiang’s story is so intricately meshed with its medium — the very words that comprise a short story, and the way that we process a linear narrative as we read it off the page — it would be impossible to make a film that engages with language in the same way. The continuous interior monologue of “The Story of Your Life” is the exact opposite of the discrete visual slices that make up a movie. So Arrival doesn’t bother trying: what it does instead is mirror its reflexivity. Where “The Story of Your Life” is about language, Arrival is about movies.
Nowhere is this more true than in the finale (which is a completely new addition to the story, extrapolated from a brief governmental intrusion into “The Story of Your Life”). In the same way that Arrival toyed with the trope of the tragic backstory (not unlike the recent HBO show Westworld, which also played with our assumptions of linearity) and the inevitable romance of the two romantic leads, it subverts our expectation of a climax that imperils the very existence of the Earth, which our protagonists will then defuse through their heroic behaviour. How does Louise save the day in Arrival? By literally seeing the future. We, the passive audience, watch along with her as she observes herself, in the future, having the conversation that will provide her with the information she needs to avert catastrophe. To save the day, she must become as us: a watcher of movies.
And so we should not be surprised that Arrival has received a clutch of Oscar nominations. La La Land should watch out: as The Artist, Argo, and Birdman have made very clear, these days the academy loves movies about movies