Helen Keller Vs. The Aliens: How Two Very Different Films Tell A Similar Story

It’s a good idea to be diverse in our entertainment choices. People who reject a story based on its aesthetic, or its genre, or its age, run the risk of missing out on something brilliant. They may even be missing out on a learning opportunity.

Today’s post is about something delightful I learned while watching some movies recently. Sometimes, two things that on the surface would seem to be completely and unequivocally dissimilar can actually have a lot in common. It’s true of people, and it’s true of motion pictures, as well. See, I love old classics. I like compelling, well-acted, non-depressing biopics. I also like a good alien movie. These aren’t interests one would generally expect to collide. But that’s where the delight comes in.

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Allow me to present Exhibit A. The Miracle Worker (1962) is a biographical snapshot of the early life of Helen Keller, and her relationship with her teacher Annie Sullivan. Anne Bancroft (as the former) and Patty Duke (as Helen) each took home well-deserved Academy Awards for their performances. My immediate impression upon the film’s conclusion was that these two actresses had delivered two of the best performances I’d even seen in my life.

It is a remarkably good film, almost exhausting to watch, but the labors of Annie to teach her pupil, and of Helen to grasp the lessons, is well worth the journey. When the light finally catches in The Miracle Worker’s final act, the result is pure and ecstatic joy. One wants almost to exhale in relief while blinking away tears simultaneously. We finally see the fruit of Annie’s arduous efforts, and Helen has been given a voice. She has discovered the power of language, as well as the ability to communicate it. Her life, we see, will never be the same again.

This is the best kind of ending, in that it is really a beginning.

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(I was tempted to post the video clip of this whole beautiful scene, but no one deserves to see it without having first experienced all that leads up to it.)

Which brings us to Exhibit B. Arrival (2016) is an alien movie. The heart of the story, however, are not its extraterrestrial visitors, who have showed up on earth in twelve pod-like vessels at different and seemingly random locations. The heart of Arrival is Louise (played by Amy Adams), the expert linguist who has been recruited to attempt communication with them.

What follows is a visually arresting journey towards understanding with these alien beings (dubbed heptapods). Amid pressures to find out who the heptapods are, and whether their purpose on earth is for good or ill, Louise embraces the challenge of interpreting— and eventually absorbing— the heptapod language. To delve much deeper into the themes of the film would be impossible without spoiling its surprises for those who have yet to see it. Suffice to say, much centers on language, communication, and the ways we as mortal beings perceive what those things even are.

The light catches for Louise, as it did for Helen. And it kind of catches for the viewer, too.

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I first viewed Arrival at the beginning of 2019, even offering a bite-sized review here at the blog. I knew then that it had been an exceptional film, but that it hadn’t quite sunk in. Confronted with everything the opposite of the stereotypical alien invasion flick, I was taken off guard. Instead of action and suspense, Arrival is all subtlety and patience. Where most movies of its genre appeal with special effects and high stakes, Arrival impresses with its strong narrative and thoughtfulness. Here, I knew, was a film that demands a repeat viewing.

As luck would have it, I picked Arrival up at the library for a second time just days after having experienced The Miracle Worker.

A long time ago, I was watching The Devil Wears Prada with my brother. Halfway through its run-time, he remarked, “This movie is exactly like Rookie of the Year”. It was an odd, though not inaccurate, observation. I laughed at it. And as I sat contemplating Arrival for the second time, I couldn’t help noticing… “Hey, this is just like The Miracle Worker!” Even with such obvious external differences, the similarities between the two movies were impossible to miss.

The revelation was stimulating. Unlike in my brother’s case way back when, the similarities here were not drawn from over-used Hollywood plot-lines. No, in the case of Arrival and The Miracle Worker, I found instead a shared reverence for patience and perseverance…. two fascinating examinations of language, and the way we understand it.

I leave you with these two snippets that reveal a lot about the journey without spoiling the destination. Helen Keller and the heptapods have a lot to teach us. Viewers who share my affinity for quality film-making and such rich themes will be as happy as I was to learn.

2 thoughts on “Helen Keller Vs. The Aliens: How Two Very Different Films Tell A Similar Story

  1. lorarey14 says:

    That was fun to read! I prefer well-thought-out movies that develop rather than blast through their intended story. Well, I also enjoy some explosions and wise cracks sometimes, too.
    I’ve enjoyed Keller’s autobiography and I’ll have to go look for the 1962 film version of her life. Have you seen the more recent version, perhaps 1990s? I was impressed by that one as well.
    As for the treatment of language, character development, and other comparisons between the Keller movie and Arrival, you made great points. The way minds opened and perceptions changed…both stories handled that with grace and expected a certain amount from viewers rather than just relying on tropes.
    I have to ask you a question about Arrival: have you noticed it has muted colors and a kind of subdued mood to it? I hadn’t noticed until we watched Hidden Figures a week after watching Arrival. Hidden Figures had bright lighting and crisp colors and a sense of hope to it. My two grown daughters right then and there loved Hidden Figures and rejected Arrival. They argued that the mood and so on was a bit depressing in Arrival. I’ve been asking people who like Arrival if they have noticed the same thing? What do you think about this? Why was it used? I’m going to go watch it again just to see for myself again.

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    • Elizabeth says:

      I do remember seeing a more recent Helen Keller bio-film, but it was quite a while ago. I might have to revisit it to find out how it compares to the excellent original!
      That’s a great question. Lately, I’ve found myself growing more interested in the art of film, and thinking about aspects such as color, lighting, camera angles, etc., Unfortunately, I haven’t delved into actually learning about them yet, so I don’t have a brilliant analysis on Arrival’s color schemes at the ready. And I hadn’t given them much consideration before today.
      The palettes definitely are muted throughout most of the film. My first thought was that this was a natural choice for the filmmakers, given that Arrival is a more understated kind of film. I can’t really picture what it would look like if it had been made with more bright and vibrant colors. Sometimes, color can even distract the viewer from the story. I can’t for the life of me remember what it was now, but I saw a movie very recently that had this effect on me. It’d been given that over-saturated look, and it ruined me for whatever else was going on.
      The other thing that occurred to me was that (if memory isn’t playing me false), there are a very few scenes in Arrival that contrast with its colorless majority. These are scenes in which we are diverted from the main timeline. There are one or two showing Louise and her daughter, which I feel like were more colorful. I also want to say that the scene where she meets the Chinese general, later in the movie, was given warmer tones. This makes for an interesting contrast.
      I suppose the colors do give off a sort of depressing vibe, but for some reason, nothing about Arrival was depressing to me. I just found it fascinating! When I need a bit of color, I can always go to Wes Anderson, or Pixar. 🙂
      I don’t really know what any of it means, but it’s been quite interesting to think about (and I expect the thoughts will continue). So thanks again for asking!

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