5 Ted Chiang Stories That Deserve Adaptations

adamsIt’s no secret that Stories of Your Life and Others is a classic among science fiction short fiction collections. Between its imaginative use of language and structure, Ted Chiang’s ability to make every story distinct while still quintessentially his, and his ability to make even the most far-fetched concept seem grounded and well supported by internal logic, it achieves a consistency and brilliance few books can hope to match. It’s gained the attention of the film industry, too: the big screen adaptation of “Story of Your Life” (now known as Arrival) opens in theaters this November, with Amy Adams and Jeremy Renner in the lead roles. Today, we analyzed the first stills from the film (see above; what’s that mysterious oblong shape in the sky?) and pored over the teaser trailer, which together got us thinking: what other Ted Chiang stories might make for a good screen adaptation?

“Liking What You See: A Documentary”
If Chiang ever penned a screen-ready work, it’s this one. Presented as a documentary about inducing a variety of face blindness known as “calliagnosia” in children and young adults, the story follows an attempt by one university to get all its students to accept the neurological treatment, rendering themselves unable to recognize physical beauty. Chiang is careful not to paint one side or the other as particularly villainous, playing out the merits and flaws of both pro and anti-Calli arguments. Since the story is already in a documentary format, it wouldn’t take much to translate it to the screen—though it might work better as an episode of Black Mirror than a full-length feature film.

“Tower of Babylon”
The opening story in the collection,  this is a tale about building a tower to Heaven. Beyond that outlandish premise, Chiang puts a lot of detail into the world-building, creating a grounded example of how such a thing would work, complete with social conventions (never lose a trowel on the Tower), living spaces, food production, and an ending that comes out of nowhere, but also makes perfect sense all the same. With its unusual architecture, surreal ending, and subdued pace, it’d be a perfect subject for a director with the right visual style. Maybe a Terry Gilliam or Tarsem Singh?

“Division by Zero”
While this story’s central support is the idea of a mathematician proving that any number is equal to every other number, “Division by Zero” goes much, much deeper than that. It’s an emotional study centered around obsession and the erosion of a relationship because of where that obsession leads. Under the right circumstances, it would work wonders as a two-hander drama, given its focus on emotion and character relationships over incident. As a film, perhaps it would work in a similar way to Her, with the speculative elements a little less fantastical at first, but still present.

“Hell is the Absence of God”
The story of angels appearing before humans on Earth to both cure and harm them as they see fit, “Hell is the Absence of God” follows three people whose lives become tangled in the wake of the visitations (and thus, the existence of direct and inarguable evidence of God’s existence). The world presented is anything but a paradise, seeing as the angels (and fallen angels) seem to wound and heal almost at random, in accordance with an unknowable will. The real selling point for a screen translation are the angel visitations—a series of terrifying and wondrous manifestations by things that don’t appear the least bit human and can unmake eyes if your gaze lingers on them too long. That, and the lack of other divine horror movies out there, which would definitely make this stand out in theaters.

A horror piece that reads like someone saw Lucy and Limitless but thought the basic premise could do with a bit less dumbing down, “Understand” is about a man who, after an attempt to restore his brain damage with an experimental drug, gains hyperintelligence. He also begins to understand patterns in everything, leading him first to try and play cat-and-mouse games with the CIA, and then toward an inevitable showdown with another similarly afflicted former patient. Along the way, he develops his own language that can only be spoken through gestures and patterns. A film of “Understand” would get trippy near the end, but there have already been a few films like it, and it’s certainly no weirder than the telepath battle at the end of Scanners. A good director would be able to make sense of it and manage the visual components. Another plus: Chiang has his pseudoscience much more together than most stories of this type.

Stories of Your Life and Others was recently rereleased in trade paperback by Vintage. The film adaptation of the title tale opens November 11.

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