Two Views of 2001

Nigel Watson

Talking Pictures alias






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In April 1964 film director Stanley Kubrick and science fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke joined forces to write a science fiction novel that would become the basis for a film-script. After several weeks of discussion they decided that Clarke’s short story The Sentinel would make a good starting point for their project. Despite having this foundation Kubrick said: 
We spent the better part of a year on the novel. We'd each do  chapters and kick them back and forth. It seemed to me a better kind  of attack. It you do a screenplay from an original story idea you tend to  leave out the ideas you can't find a ready way of dramatising. But by  doing it as a novel first you have a chance to really think everything  out, after which you can figure out ways of dramatising what you now  know are valuable points of the story. 
('Two For The Sci-Fi' by David Robinson, Sight and Sound, Spring I966, pp. 57-6I.) 

Even when the film was being produced, Clarke noted that; 

toward the end, both novel and screenplay were being written simultaneously, with feedback in both directions. (Clarke, 1972, p.   31.) 
The products of their joint labours became 2001: A Space Odyssey, which was released as a film and a novel in 1968. Yet, despite the close collaboration between the two, both have significant differences. Indeed, we can regard the novel (Clarke, 1972, p.37) as mainly the product of Clarke's work and the film as Kubrick's. (1) 

With regard to the film Kubrick claimed: 

 I tried to create a visual experience, one that bypasses verbalised  pigeonholing and directly penetrates the subconscious with an  emotional and philosophical content. 
 (Agel, 1970, p. 328.) 
He used several techniques to achieve this aim. First of all he concentrated on realism. The verisimilitude of the scenes in outer space and the distant past was essential for the audience to take the film seriously. He rejected the science fiction film tradition of using rocket ships suspended by string and poorly disguised men as aliens. From the very beginning a mysterious black monolith is shown to have some importance in the evolution of man, and this enigma takes us to the very end of the film. 

Hardly any of the dialogue helps to explain what the viewer sees and hears, and (s)he is left to formulate his or her own opinions on the matter even after the end of the film.

Unlike many science fiction films a friendly scientist does not explain in monotonous detail how the spacecraft works, why they are going on the mission or where they are going. Instead, through editing, camera movement, special effects, etc., the viewer is given a sense of what it is like to travel in space and an idea of the beauty of space. The linking of vision to music is a particularly powerful method used by Kubrick to evoke such feelings. 

The use of realism, enigma, skilful use of exposition, and control of vision and sound, to tell the story of 2001 on film will be compared with how the novel tackles the same task. 

When reading the text of a novel the reader has to re-construct in his/her mind’s eye the impressions the author seeks to convey. This is usually a more active process than watching a film, indeed;

theorists have observed that visual images are necessarily more specific. In contrast,   oral and written language tends to be   more abstract.
(Marcus, I977, p. I30) 
For example in the novel the astronauts travel past Jupiter and go into orbit around Saturn. The difficulty for the film-makers was the creation of a believable reproduction of Saturn and the rings of debris orbiting it. After several months of work they did not resolve this problem so the spacecraft went only as far as Jupiter in the film. Whereas Clarke could describe the interior of a spaceship in a few words Kubrick had to employ 40 technical advisors and the aid of leading academic, research and industrial organisations to help construct his spaceship sets. He even employed On the way to stardom.Hardy Amies to design the clothes for 2001. 

Building a structure that would represent the work of an alien intelligence was a big problem for Kubrick. Clarke had imagined a black tetrahedron, but when the art department built models of this shape and placed them in their planned settings they did not look right. They reminded people too much of pyramids. Next, Kubrick thought a transparent cube would work better, but it was not possible to build one large enough. A 3-ton rectangular block of lucite was cast, but this did not look right either. From there the art department built the black rectangular slab that was seen in the film. Even after this was ready there were problems with birds soiling the construct, and with finger- prints showing-up on the slab in close up shots. 

The novel notes that when the black monolith appears on Earth during the dawn of human existence it probes the minds of the man-apes and subtly conditions their behaviour. We are also told that many other monoliths are carrying out similar operations elsewhere on Earth. Interestingly the monolith in the novel radiates 'spinning wheels of light' and a drumming sound (Clarke, I968, pp. 20-2I) which Kubrick could have featured in the film. Perhaps such effects were considered superfluous or too confusing? 

Certainly Kubrick could have sign-posted the importance of these events in a more straightforward manner. For instance, when the action flashes forward to I999 he could have shown them in the context of a documentary on man's origins watched by the astronauts. He did make a 10-minute prologue, which gave some background to scientific theories of evolution, biology, astronomy, etc., but this was dropped after one screening (Agel, I970, p. 27). Frederick Ordway III, a scientific and technical consultant to Kubrick complained that the beginning sequences should have retained the narration that Clarke had written for them, so the audience would know clearly what was going on (Agel, I970, pp. I94-98). 

Instead, Kubrick showed how after the man-apes had encountered the black monolith they were able to fight off their enemies and survive in their hostile environment. To bridge the 4 million year gap between then and I999, Kubrick shows a bone (which is revealed as the first tool and instrument of death) thrown into the air by a jubilant man-ape. Then a cut is made to a bone-like spacecraft orbiting the Earth (this must be one of the most important and memorable edits in the history of cinema). Without words he was able to convey the thought that the use of tools had by now lead man into space, and that we are still attached to instruments of death. 

The novel makes the same transition in a less exciting but more explanatory fashion. Without weapons; 

Man would never have conquered his world...they had served him well. 

But now, as long as they existed, he was living on borrowed time. (Clarke, 1968, p. 40) 

This exposition is quite economical, but to enhance the sense of reality Clarke makes reference to, and sometimes details, various scientific theories about everything from evolution, computers and hibernation techniques to astronomy. He even quotes from a Special Study of the Surface of the Moon dated 1961 (Clarke, I968, pp. 79-80) which is probably a factual document not invented by his imagination. As already noted the task of the film-maker to portray a sense of reality is far more difficult, especially in a science fiction film. 

Kubrick could have chosen his version of the dawn of man sequence to heighten the sense of reality. He might have thought that a narrator or a flashback technique might have destroyed this impression. In addition, the viewer is forced to make up his/her own mind, and is consequently made to feel as puzzled about the monolith as the characters in the film. The dissonance caused by this mystery forces the viewer to seek the solution and resolution of this problem. In most films and books, which feature a mystery, all the answers are usually supplied in the last chapter. But in 2001 the mystery of the monolith and man's relation to it is left unanswered. Many people have felt cheated by this but it is hardly fair to expect Kubrick or Clarke to explain the ultimate secrets of human existence (if there are any at all that we can comprehend). In anticipation of this reaction the book does help to explain many of the events in the film. 

Due to the specificity of the film image, Kubrick chose to use a more obscure and abstract method of unveiling the narrative. The book reduced the amount of specific description and concentrated on a clear exposition of the narrative. This is unusual because the reader can at least read at his/her own pace and can assimilate more complex material than the viewer who is confronted with assaults on eye and ear at the film-makers' set speed. 

To compensate for the lack of verbal exposition, Kubrick's film moves at a very leisurely pace (even after I9 minutes of it was cut from the original print - Agel, 1970, pp. I69-70). As in reality we are not given great chunks of verbal information, which tell us immediately what is going on in the environment. Instead, the viewer is supplied with odd bits of information during short exchanges of usually very mundane dialogue. Quite often information is exchanged between characters via video links and monitors (Agel, I970, p. 296, lists at least 10 film inserts of this type) Information comes from a variety of sources and via different sensory modalities. Only things seem to know what really is going on. They are Hal the computer and the black monoliths. 

The film does not tell us why Hal kills one astronaut. Nonetheless Hal is subsequently disconnected (electronically killed) by the remaining astronaut who hurtles towards his rendezvous with the monolith near Jupiter. This makes for greater tension and identification with the astronaut who has to fight these problems, in the loneliness and immensity of space. Yet, the viewer is distanced from the human characters throughout the film. They act like emotionless robots whilst Hal reveals all too many human traits. This is shown to good effect in a scene in which the two astronauts goFacing the future.
into a soundproof pod to discuss Hal on their own. We are given Hal's point of view of the two men, and via the soundtrack given a distorted but understandable reproduction of their dialogue, that reveals Hal can read their lips. Control of sight and sound are used to chilling effect in this scene that is not featured at all in the novel. The ambiguity of Hal's motives for wanting to kill them makes the show-down between man and machine all the more sinister. But we only identify with the astronauts' plight because they are representatives of our species and not because they are presented as worthy individuals. 

Clarke's book attempts to explain everything in almost a textbook fashion. This is in sharp contrast with modern writers (and authors like Henry James) that try to create; 

a story in which the reader sees everything, is told nothing, and in which one cannot detect the presence of the author at all. (Richardson, I969, p. I9)

Clarke tries to present everything in an objective and logical fashion for maximum understanding of his intentions. The ambiguities and obscurities of the film are stripped of their enigmatic eloquence. 

Indeed, Mel McKee notes (in '200I Out of the Silent Planet', Sight and Sound, Vol. 38, No. 4, Autumn I969) that much of the film's imagery compares with that in C.S. Lewis' The Ransom Trilogy novels. These similarities are the breaking of silence between Earth and other life forms in the universe, the restriction of man's travel into space, the use of unusual celestial conjunctions, lights and colours, description of a house at the end of a hole in space, and the concluding transformation of man into a disembodied spirit. Lewis’ point was to highlight man's alienation from God and the possible purification of his soul. Clarke is more concerned with how science can help man over-come the limitations of his physical body and irrational, immature modes of thinking. Such ideas are paraded by Clarke in his novel Childhood’s End and compared with Shaw’s Back to Methuselah by Daniel J. Leary (in 'The Ends of Childhood: Eschatology in Shaw and Clarke', The Shaw Review, Vol. I6, No 2, May 1973, pp. 67-78). 

Kubrick’s vision of the next evolutionary step is one without words. At the beginning of the film we see the wild eyes of a leopard that dominates his surroundings. With the help of the monolith the man-apes use their new perception to fend for themselves. The use of words and logic ultimately lead to space-travel and Hal who is totally dependent on words. The film underlines the banality of the astronauts' dialogue and technical jargon that alienates them from their own feelings. Only by abandoning his technology and his words is he able to perceive the world anew. For these reasons W. R. Robinson and Mary McDermott (The Georgia Review Vol. 26, Spring 1972, pp. 21-37) call Clarke's book; 

a pale imitation of the movie.
To convey his ideas Kubrick does not follow all the rules of cinematography. One, according to Richardson (1969, p. 53) is that: 
Great spectacle requires human emotions and actions that are powerful to the point of the spectacle. To give us only the architecture, the scenery, and the costumes, without the great people, is to degrade spectacle into a mere sideshow. 

However, in Kubrick's film man as a physical entity is deliberately made to look puny to emphasise the power and enormity of space, and the God-like intelligences that control our destiny. To compensate, the artefacts of man created by science (e.g. spacecraft) and by the arts (music, cinematography) are celebrated. He shows spacecraft whirling gracefully to the music of Strauss' The Blue Danube but during the transformation of man wild discordant electronic music indicates that we are far from the realms of human experience and knowledge. At each stage of change Strauss' Thus Spake Zarathustra is used with its connotations of Nietzsche's concept of the New Superman and the elimination of the old Gods. 

Sounds can be used in literature to good effect. Clarke is able to supply the sense of the strangeness of the monolith's arrival when he states that for the first time on Earth a new sound was made: 

It was the clank of metal upon stone. (Clarke,1968, p. 18) 
Only in one part of the book does he mention music. The lone astronaut on his trip to Saturn goes through a selection of tapes until he finally seeks peace in the; 'abstract architecture of Bach occasionally ornamented with Mozart.' (Clarke, 1968, p. 203.) 

This assumes that the reader has knowledge of Mozart's or Bach's music. The film can actually reproduce them. Film's advantage is that the sensory modalities of sight and sound can be stimulated simultaneously, and the same visual/auditory information can be repeated without too much tedium (e.g. the Zarathustra is used three times in 2001).

More important than the different forms of medium employed by the two men, are their attitudes to our relation to the Universe. Kubrick highlights the non-verbal and mystical elements of the God-like powers of the monoliths, whilst Clarke emphasises the notion that science and logic can reach supremacy through them.

In Clarke's book the Star-Child returns to Earth and destroys a nuclear bombardment launched by one of the super-powers. Through scientific progress the dangers of scientific progress (created by politicians and political structures - who are pointedly criticised in 2010: Odyssey Two; p. 21 for example) are eliminated. As Clive James notes in his article '2001: Kubrick vs. Clarke' (Cinema, No 2, March 1969, pp. 18-21) Clarke believes that only some men rise above the common masses. Usually they are scientists, though not always. In 2010: Odyssey Two a Russian astronaut is described as; 

naive and unsophisticated - one of those people who are pleasant to talk to, but not for too long. (Clarke, 1982, p. 86) 
The theme and hope of several of Clarke's stories is that mankind will evolve into something more superior than his present state. In contrast, Kubrick does not show the Star-Child do anything other than float in space. We are left to believe that the astronaut has become reborn and that: 
The film's odyssey is essentially voyage to insight, rather than to power. (James, ibid.) 

Films have been criticised because they are expensive to produce and therefore have to cater for a mass audience.  Also, because of the team-work required they become part of an industrial process (Bluestone, 1957, p. 64). In the case of 2001 Kubrick had to make several concessions (e.g. 19 minutes were cut from the original film) but he did maintain a high degree of creative control over its contents, more so than Clarke who had to follow his lead. Film and literature have their own different forms of limitations. One form is not better than another, ultimately; 

the quality and validity of a particular writer's or film-maker's thoughts and ideas must take precedence over his particular mode of expression. (Winston, 1973, p. 23) 
Allowing for variations in critical opinion, social, economic, and technological pressures either medium is only as good as its creators. 


1. Kubrick either used or rejected Clarke’s text. When writing the novel Clarke had to virtually guess what the final film would be like. 

In A Space Odyssey In Minehead I look at the birthplace of Arthur C. Clarke.


Agel, Jerome ed. (1970) The Making of Kubrick's 2001, New York, Signet.

Bluestone, George. (1957, sixth printing 1973) Novels Into Film, Berkeley and London, University of California Press. 

Clarke, Arthur. (1968) 2001: A Space Odyssey, London, Arrow Books. 

Clarke, Arthur. (1972, reprinted 1973) The Lost Worlds of 2001, London, Sidgwick & Jackson. 

Clarke, Arthur. (1982, reprinted 1985) 2010: Odyssey Two, London, Granada Publishing Ltd.

Marcus, Fred H. (1977) Short Story/Short Film, Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey, Prentice-Hall. 

Richardson, Robert. (1969) Literature and Film,  Bloomington and London, Indiana University Press. 

Winston, Douglas Garrett. (1973) The Screenplay As Literature, London, The Tantivy Press.
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Material Copyright © 2001 Nigel Watson