Study Guide

2001: A Space Odyssey Screenwriter

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Stanley Kubrick and Arthur C. Clarke

One day Stanley Kubrick rang up Arthur C. Clarke and said, "Hey, you want to make a movie?" And Arthur C. Clarke said, "Yeah sure." We're definitely abridging that story a bit, but the history of 2001: A Space Odyssey begins when these two join forces with the goal of writing a science fiction movie.

Ultimately, the movie's story is based on "The Sentinel," "Encounter in the Dawn," and four of Clarke's other stories, in addition to loads of original ideas conceived by him and Kubrick during the writing process (Source).

The film's script takes many motifs and themes from Clarke's stories. For example, 2001 features technology so advanced that it has a mystic, almost magical quality to it. There's also contact with an alien species that leads humanity on an evolutionary road trip. Finally, we have an amazing attention to detail regarding the science-y part of the science fiction. Check out Shmoop's analysis of Clarke's novel Childhood's End, and you'll see all of these motifs in spades.

Originally, Clarke was going to write the novel for Kubrick to base his film on, but as the project grew, the two works began to be developed together. To give you a sense of how the workload was divided, "originally, the film's screenplay was going to be credited to "Stanley Kubrick & Arthur C. Clarke," while the novel would list "Arthur C. Clarke & Stanley Kubrick" as its authors." (Source)

Ultimately the film's screenplay is credited to both artists while the novel is billed solely as a work by Clarke. We bring this up not to suggest that Kubrick was snubbed in the book's publication—probably it's just the way things were hashed out in the legalese of the publishing world.

Instead, it shows how the two works diverged from one another over time. Kubrick gets top billing in the film's credits because he put his unique stamp on it; Clarke got top billing on the novel for the same reason. But both deserve credit for their own unique contributions to the story itself.

He Said, He Said

There are several differences between the novel and the film. Some of these are superficial changes—for example, the final monolith is located on one of Saturn's moons in the novel rather than orbiting Jupiter. Other changes run a bit deeper, down to the genetics of each work resulting in arguably different species of stories. Some of the more significant changes include:

  • The novel's Dawn of Man chapters are told from the perspective of a single early hominid named Moon-Watcher. This part of the story delves much deeper into how the monolith works and how it altered our early ancestors. It also features a brawl with a leopard. We won't say who won.
  • The novel presents space travel from Dr. Floyd's perspective, so we understand what he thinks and feels about his situation more intuitively.
  • HAL kills the three hibernating scientists while Bowman is aboard Discovery. It does so by drawing the oxygen out of the ship, and this almost kills Bowman, who barely reaches an emergency room to put on a spacesuit.
  • HAL's reasons for killing the crew are spelled out in the novel, while the film leaves the question open.
  • At the novel's conclusion, the Star Child detonates a nuclear warhead upon his return to Earth, signaling the end of the nuclear era.

And, of course, Kubrick's visual tour-de-force, the Star Gate sequence, is an entirely different beast in the novel. Clarke's take on traveling through space-time is more of a guided tour of the unseen reaches of the universe. (And if you look to your left, you'll see the ancient civilizations of a binary star system.)

Super Story Bros.

Most people watch a novel-based film as a workaround to actually reading the book, but 2001 might get the distinction of being the only novel that people read so they don't have to deal with the complexities of the film.

OTOH, some people claim the novel explains too much, axing the film's mystery and the audience's sense of discovery. Clarke's retort is that "the printed text has to give much more detail than can be shown on screen" (Source).

There's truth to both sides of the argument. It's best to think of each as a companion piece to the other, rather than as two ways to tell the same story. Reading the novel can heighten your appreciation of the film and give you guidance for those "Whaaa?" moments. Having said that, it diverges too much from the film to be viewed as a cheat sheet. Reading the novel for that purpose is likely to get you a "See Me After Class" in big red letters at the top of your paper.

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