The Origins of 2001
2001: A Space Odyssey, released in 1968, that is, almost fifty years ago, remains one of the best (maybe the very best) science fiction film of all time. Even with the huge tecnological development that transformed the world and cinema during this half century, Stanley Kubrick’s film, produced before the arrival of man on the moon, continues to impress viewers with the quality of its special effects and also with its visionary aspect when it comes to scientific research. The origins of the human race, the boundaries of the universe, artificial intelligence, extraterrestrial beings: the themes explored throughout more than two hours length are diverse and complex. The biggest merit of the production is managing to approach this multiplicity of subjects in a profound and balanced way. Without a shadow of a doubt, this success is due to Kubrick himself and acclaimed author Arthur C. Clarke.
It’s a renowned fact that almost every one of Kubrick films are based on books – except his first two films, Fear and Desire (1953) and Killer’s Kiss (1955). However, 2001 stands out in the director’s filmography and also in cinema history. Arthur C. Clarke has a novel called 2001: A Space Odyssey, but it wasn’t the origin of the film, neither it was a “novelization” made after it: both film and novel were created simultaneously.
Right after finishing Dr. Strangelove (1964), Kubrick decided that his next project should be a film that would approach the place of men faced with the infinity of the universe. After reading countless sci-fi books, the director contacted Arthur C. Clarke, who was already a preeminent author back then and proposed a writing collaboration between them. Kubrick’s first idea was to start from the obscure novel Shadow of the Sun, which he had already aquired the legal rights to. Upon the refusal of the author to work with someone else’s piece, they decided to start from scratch.
The embryonic concepts started from two short stories shown by Clarke to Kubrick: “The Sentinel” and “Encounter in the Dawn”. The first is about the appearance of an object on the moon and the latter about an encounter between the first human beings and extraterrestrial beings. Nevertheless, they were only vague premises that would need much more work in order to become a broader text, which led Kubrick to suggest to Clarke the creation of a romance, side by side with the script, where they would be able to explore concepts and ideas that would later compose the film.
Kubrick collaborated so actively in the romance, suggesting ideas, reading and giving his opinion about Clarke’s text, that the writer suggested the inclusion of Kubrick’s name in the cover of the book, an idea immediately discarded by the director. According to Clarke, if the film has the authorship of Stanley Kubrick/Arthur C. Clarke, the book should be credited to Arthur C. Clarke/Stanley Kubrick. Still, the fact is that book and film have essential differences among them.
- Novel vs Film
First and foremost, cinema and literature are different mediums. Telling a story through imagery isn’t the same as doing it through words. Both of them have their limits and possibilities. By constructing a scene in a film, the filmmaker has the availability of the visual element to his behalf, the image is “given”, with no need of the viewer's imagination to bring it to life. In literature, the image is composed through the reader’s imagination, leaving the author responsible for building that imagination through his linguistic constructs. On the other hand, the literary medium has the possibility of exploring the subjective aspect of the characters, showing their feelings and thoughts, something that is not possible in cinema if not by the use of a literary device: the narration. In the 2001 book, there is a bigger amount of information transferred to the reader about the plot, resulting from the necessity of a more detailed exposure of characters and events in the literary text.
There are also some details that differ from one another due to plot choices. The Monolith, to exemplify, isn’t black in the literary text: it’s transparent and reflects images in its body; the final journey doesn’t start in Jupiter’s orbit, but in Saturn; the attack perpetrated by HAL 9000 against the astronauts is a result from a different chain of events. Those changes are mostly motivated by technical issues rather than narrative strength. To illustrate better, Kubrick only kept Saturn out of the film because of the impossibility of portraying its rings using the special effects of the time, which would be easy to achieve today, as seen in Interstellar. Those changes are not enough to make book and film too distant though. What highlights the difference the most are not these referred situations, resulted from particular choices of content, but the beginning and ending passages, which might have the same essence, but differ in the narrative style.
In the beginning of 2001, “The Dawn of Man”, the literary narrative seems to surpass the cinematic one. Clark gives a name for every single ape-man and thoroughly builds the social structure of the primitive men, besides introducing us to the subjectivity of those characters, leading us to a deeper knowledge of their limitations and suffering, conditions necessary to the reveal of the Monolith and subsequently, to the development of the species.
The final sequence is the most different though. The conclusion of Kubrick’s film is gifted with rare and beautiful aesthetics, based on powerful and psychedelic imagery whose outcome is a polysemic final act capable of impacting the viewer due to the profoundness of the questions raised. Clarke’s book doesn’t convey the same impression. In spite of the surrealism of his descriptions being able to narrate the literarily complicated final journey, the same doesn’t happen in his depiction of the mysterious “room”. The amount of information given about the nature of the strange place seems to dilute the phantasmagoric aspect of it, which demonstrates that Clarke apparently chose explanation over visual construction.
Ultimately, 2001: A Space Odyssey is a powerful and intriguing story, in both literary and cinematic versions, but it’s difficult to surpass the quality of Kubrick’s film, one of the few filmmakers capable of not only good quality adaptations but sometimes overshadowing the original piece. That’s what happened with A Clockwork Orange and The Shining, even though the same can’t be said about Lolita, for example. Just as a curious fact, Clarke’s book had three sequels: 2010, 2061 and 3001; the first has also been adapted to the silver screen by the hands of Peter Hyams, but the result never lived up to the expectations when compared with the classic from 68.
What do you prefer, Novel or Film?
Once more, I would like to thank my dear consultant Bruno Alvarenga for the help!