A few years ago, I watched the Stanley Kubrick movie 2001: A Space Odyssey from the comfort of my living room. And I’ll admit that I did not understand much of it. Frustratingly little. And then I didn’t think about it much more. When I heard that a local art museum would be showing it in the original 70mm film, I realized that the only bits I remembered were the guy jogging around the space ship, the red eye of Hal, and something about a space baby. So I committed to reading the novel version before I re-watched the movie, hoping that would give me some better background.
And it did! As Arthur C. Clarke explains in the 1999 Introduction, he wrote this novel based on one or two short stories that Kubrick liked, and he gave the manuscript in sections to Kubrick for notes. Even though each piece can stand alone, in a unique relationship like this, I think each is stronger when paired with the other. Kubrick’s film provides some incredible visuals that are more breathtaking than the words in Clarke’s novel; Clarke’s novel provides essential narration and internal monologue that is necessary to understand Kubrick’s movie.
I’m no great student of film, but I know how foolish it would be to critique Kubrick’s choices of what to include in this movie. The things I would have done differently probably would have hurt the movie in other ways. But I did miss the hypnotic visuals that the monolith displays to distract its experimental subjects while probing their minds. With those, I think, I would have understood a little better that the monolith was interacting with its environment and influencing the creatures around it. I also loved Clarke’s description of traveling through the Star Gate; Kubrick made different choices that probably helped that scene feel more terrifyingly oppressive. Clarke was able to get that impression across with words, but Kubrick had to rely on the visuals alone (also, how did he even create those effects in 1968?). And I would have loved to see Saturn’s rings the way Clarke describes them.
The novel itself is a good read. The bite-sized chapters help it feel like a short book even though some chapters don’t contain any dialogue at all. The tension builds gradually throughout, and the plot ticks along. Like all sci fi, it’s fascinating to see how close the author got to some technological innovations and how far off on others (I liked the tablet computer that plugs into the commuter spaceship and downloads every newspaper in the world once an hour--and nothing else).
The characters are a little two-dimensional, but that actually didn’t bother me as much in this story as it has in others. At least here, the reader gets their motivations explained, even if they don’t emerge much beyond their functions. And Clarke includes enough small, humanizing details for the reader to remember that they are more than their positions--Dr. Floyd hoping that his face can be seen in the photograph in front of the monolith, and Bowman feeling dread when he sees the hotel room and determines that he must be mad, for example.
The novel is not a masterpiece of its medium the way the film is (at least visually). But it has an important role to play. The film is simply not able to provide us with all the information necessary to understand and appreciate everything that’s happening in the story. The novel fills in those gaps and then some. The film leaves us with something to puzzle out, but the novel leaves us with something to contemplate.
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