James Batcho, PhD | 2001, the Novel
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2001, the Novel

I’ve seen many films based on novels that I’ve read. But I decided I’d take a shot at the reverse by reading Arthur C. Clarke’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. It’s not only for fun, it’s research of sorts for an essay I’m working on about non-corporeal embodiment in Kubrick’s films. But it was also to give myself a break from the heavy theory I’ve been immersed in lately.

I should say for a reader who may not know, this is an unusual pairing in that the novel and the film script/concept were written at the same time. The original thought was that the screenplay would be Kubrick/Clarke while the novel would be Clarke/Kubrick. In the end only the film got a co-credit.

Unsurprisingly, the book is different from the movie. To me, it’s not as good as the movie while also being a good book. This is surely influenced by the fact that the film is one of my favorites, and I’ve absorbed every delicious frame many times over the years. But the book opened different things for me in how I think about the film at the same time it reminded me what a novel can do that a film cannot.

Reading the book reminded me again why I love film so much, and Kubrick in particular. He’s going to affect you without explaining, leaving you to wonder what’s happening. Literature can do this too, but… well, for example, I often show the film in my classes. In particular, I use the beginning sequence of the ape-men to show the possibilities of non-spoken cinematic storytelling. It’s not just what the famous match cut accomplishes, which is masterful cinema. The cut I like to single out is the moment between the Moon-Watcher picking up the bone and smashing the other bones. In an instant between, Kubrick cuts away to Moon-Watcher’s brief recollection of the monolith. Through this juxtaposition of images—not a flashback but a leap of the past into the living present—we gather the recollection as he does. It’s an empathetic moment that cannot be achieved through explanation or description. This is just one example of how Kubrick uses visuals and montage to create thought, indeed to create philosophical thought. Another vital thing about the film that is not in the book is the voice of HAL. Hearing that voice is critical to his character’s development. This is why to me he doesn’t really read as well in the novel.

I think where the book exceeds the film in execution is in the time it takes to convey the sense of isolation that Dave experiences, and as part of that, the grandeur of the mission and the implications of it. He is confronting the most profound rupture in the concept of life in the history of humanity and he’s floating aimlessly and alone. Also, the moment between HAL’s death and Dave’s entry to the Stargate was too rushed in the film. The time between gives space for his and our contemplation. Finally, Dave’s entry into the Stargate was beautiful in the book. That’s where we get the line “Oh my God, it’s full of stars.”

But the bookended sequences that tie the film together—the apes at the beginning and the victorian arrival at the end—are over-explained in the book. Additionally, Clarke does a poor job with his description of the beginning scenes due to taking on an omniscient third-person voice when it should be a more limited observation. Moon-Watcher is written too intelligently for his capacities. He is reflective, his mind is future oriented and ranges beyond the scope of his surroundings when it should be a narrow, personal disclosure of events. In the end sequences at the “hotel,” as it’s called in the book, Clarke gives away too much about the place and its purpose. Kubrick drove people mad who chose to watch the film in an overly logical way. This is its greatness. It flew straight over the heads of reasonable people, and spoke instead to those who were open to wonder, to becoming affected.

One last thought: The whole Star Child thing is kinda messed up if you think about it. The aliens gave the new humans violence and power as a means of advancement. Who’s to say it will be any different once the Star Child returns to Earth, except on a massive scale?