Updated: Jan 26
Contact is often used as an example of a movie better than the book, and I’m here to fix this injustice.
This is the Science of Fiction.
Carl Sagan’s sci-fi novel Contact tells the story of a radio astronomer struggling to keep alive her passion project: the search for extraterrestrial life. That is, until she finds one. And when she does, another person steps in for the credit. The book was first released in 1985. Inevitably, the 1997 movie hides many of the best characteristics of the novel. I still love the movie, tho. It is a beautiful story, with excellent performances by Jodie Foster and Matthew McConaughey and fantastic direction by Robert Zemeckis. But the book is a favorite of mine. Let’s discuss it.
But first, here is my warning: SPOILER ALERT!
Much more than aliens
Yes, Contact is a first-contact-with-aliens story, as the name suggests. Sagan was passionate about the subject, after all, so of course he would write a first-contact sci-fi book. The catch is that he was not a sci-fi writer. He was a prolific and outstanding scientist and science writer. Yet, Sagan ventured into fiction, and the result is as beautiful as his scientific prose.
As it happens with many first-contact stories, this book is not about aliens; it is about humans and our way of doing science. Moreover, it is an early example of a science fiction story in which the main character is a woman. Eleanor “Ellie” Arroway is a flawed character and does not know how to handle her private life. She does not try too hard, tho. Her focus is solely on her career and the pursuit of knowledge. The first two chapters offer a beautiful montage of her motivations, passion for science, and life challenges, including the sexism faced by a woman working in a male-dominated world. This issue is a ghost haunting the whole narrative, something Ellie has to deal with constantly, but not the defining trait of her character.
The other themes are science and spirituality. Ellie perfectly represents the skeptic scientist, borderline disrespectful to anyone who brings any type of immaterial belief into the science table. And yet, Ellie herself has her share of otherworldly beliefs—she is searching for extraterrestrial intelligent beings, after all. And this seemingly hypocrisy plays a huge role in Ellie’s arc, who comes to accept that she has beliefs that she can not justify.
What does the novel tell us?
The characters are well-developed, and the themes, explored through the lenses of a first-contact story, are super interesting. So why do many people think the movie is better than the book?
The reason is the writing.
There is a writing tip pretty practical to grab the reader's attention and immerse them in the story. It is called 'show, don't tell.' The author Anton Chekhov captured the soul of this concept in a quote, "Don't tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass."
Sagan, being a science writer, had a different way of showing. Or, better yet, he wanted to show something different. His prose in Contact has the same eloquence and awe about science that his non-fiction books have, but it is a style not usual in the sci-fi genre. For the reader accustomed to the expected character-focused showing in narratives instead of theme-focused showing, the telling about Ellie's thoughts and emotions probably distanced them from her and spoiled their fun.
I want to say that this is a valid reason not to like the book. I get you. For me—who loves Sagan's prose, his passion for science, his respect for different views, and his way of thinking—this book was not only an excellent story but also a way to better understand his real-life stances. His fiction is a thought experiment on his beliefs about science and humanity, and the result is beautiful.
What does the book have that the movie lacks?
Here we will get into deeper, specific SPOILERS. Be warned.
The first difference I want to address is the one that bothers me the most in the movie. No, it’s not the romance (as many point to as the worst change, but we’ll get to that in a bit). The movie’s solution to find the key to translate the alien message is ridiculous! Three-dimensional thinking? Really? Really? Do you think scientists are that stupid? Really?
Breath deeply. Three, two, one... Ok, I’ve calmed down now. Now, to the romance.
The lovey-dovey stuff did not bother me, to be honest. I thought it was well done. Romance is definitely not a big part of the book, but it is present. Ellie does have a long-term, on-again-off-again relationship in the book. It shows how much she sucks at personal relationships. The movie merges two characters into one and uses this romance to tackle two important aspects of the novel: Ellie’s issues with private matters and her long journey with faith. It was really well done, considering the time constraint of the movie format.
Contact being a Hollywood, mid-1990s movie, of course they would make it about the US. But the depiction of science in the book is way more realistic because it involves a global effort and a lot of politics attached. One example, Ellie does not travel alone in the alien machine. There are five crew members in total from very different parts of the World: Ellie, a Soviet physicist, a Chinese archaeologist, a Nigerian physicist (who discovered the theory of everything in the novel), and an Indian doctor (another woman to board the machine). Also, the president of the US at the turn of the millennium was a woman. All of that was scrapped for the Hollywood adaptation.
Ellie’s sole trip in the movie does change the original ending. The conspiracy to hide the mission’s success is more evident in the novel since Ellie has more evidence that it happened. Ellie’s struggle with faith is resolved in a different way. In addition, another of Ellie’s arcs cut from the movie about her family has a pretty surprising end. But I won’t spoil it any further. I think I said too much already.
Have you read Contact? What do you think of it? Let me know in the comments.
See you next post,
Carla Ra is a scientist by day, sci-fi writer by night.
You can check out her anthology ARTIFICIAL REBELLION here.