What’s the Difference Between Stanley Kubrick’s & Arthur C. Clarke’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (A Side-by-Side Comparison)

In 1964, Stanley Kubrick was riding high from the success of his Cold War black comedy Dr. Strangelove. For his next film, Kubrick wanted to make something different. He wanted to make a science fiction epic at a time when sci-fi was a byword for cheap and cheesy. And so, the director reached out to writer Arthur C. Clarke, after reading his short story "The Sentinel." In a letter dated March 31, 1964, Kubrick wrote:

I had been a great admirer of your books for quite a time and had always wanted to discuss with you the possibility of doing the proverbial "really good" science-fiction movie.

My main interest lies along these broad areas, naturally assuming great plot and character:
1. The reasons for believing in the existence of intelligent extra-terrestrial life.
2. The impact (and perhaps even lack of impact in some quarters) such discovery would have on Earth in the near future.
3. A space probe with a landing and exploration of the Moon and Mars.

The two soon met at Trader Vic’s in New York and started hashing out a story that became 2001: A Space Odyssey. Over the course of the next four years, Kubrick and Clarke talked and corresponded frequently. The original plan was for both to develop the novel first and then adapt the resulting work into a screenplay. In practice, the script developed in parallel to the book. Kubrick demanded rewrite after rewrite from an increasingly impatient Clarke as the movie went into production. The book ultimately came out a couple months after the movie’s April 1968 premiere. Ever the master manipulator, Kubrick, in all likelihood, did this on purpose so that Clarke’s efforts wouldn’t overshadow the film.

The folks over at Cinefix put together a video on the differences between the book and the movie. If you can get past the bro-tastic voice-over, the piece offers a pretty thorough accounting. You can watch part one and part two above.

One of the biggest differences is that in the book, HAL, Dave Bowman and company are off to Saturn. But Kubrick’s special effects guru Douglas Trumbull couldn’t get the ringed planet to look right, so the director simply changed the mission’s destination.

Most of the other differences boil down to a difference in the medium. Clarke explains everything in the story in great detail – from the man-apes' evolution to the real reason HAL9000 went on his killing spree. Kubrick, in contrast, explained almost nothing.

In a 1970 interview, Kubrick talked more about the difference between the two works.

It's a totally different kind of experience, of course, and there are a number of differences between the book and the movie. The novel, for example, attempts to explain things much more explicitly than the film does, which is inevitable in a verbal medium. […]

[The movie], on the other hand, is basically a visual, nonverbal experience. It avoids intellectual verbalization and reaches the viewer's subconscious in a way that is essentially poetic and philosophic. The film thus becomes a subjective experience, which hits the viewer at an inner level of consciousness, just as music does, or painting.

Actually, film operates on a level much closer to music and to painting than to the printed word, and, of course, movies present the opportunity to convey complex concepts and abstractions without the traditional reliance on words. I think that 2001, like music, succeeds in short-circuiting the rigid surface cultural blocks that shackle our consciousness to narrowly limited areas of experience and is able to cut directly through to areas of emotional comprehension.

So you are someone who finds the movie to be frustratingly oblique, the book will give you answers. But it probably won’t blow your mind.

Related Content:

Signature Shots from the Films of Stanley Kubrick: One-Point Perspective

The Shining and Other Complex Stanley Kubrick Films Recut as Simple Hollywood Movies

Lost Kubrick: A Short Documentary on Stanley Kubrick’s Unfinished Films

Napoleon: The Greatest Movie Stanley Kubrick Never Made

Explore the Massive Stanley Kubrick Exhibit at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art

Jonathan Crow is a Los Angeles-based writer and filmmaker whose work has appeared in Yahoo!, The Hollywood Reporter, and other publications. You can follow him at @jonccrow. And check out his blog Veeptopus, featuring lots of pictures of vice presidents with octopuses on their heads.  The Veeptopus store is here.


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  • Fred says:

    When the movie came out everyone wondered what it all meant. I haven’t read the book but now that you tell me it tells all, I’m not sure I want to know.

  • Kresling says:

    I couldn’t get past the bro-tastic voice-over.

  • icewater says:

    > I couldn’t get past the bro-tastic voice-over.

    Yes, pretty awful. I shut it down after a couple of minutes.

    Did they think that would appeal to people who like the film or book?

  • Salvador says:

    The book is amazing! Don’t miss the opportunity to read it. The “Oddysey Project” tries to reach to the very core of the human existance, ironically, looking for it out in the space, in the stars. Nor the words or films can fully explain this, because you just can try to make it sensible. The book and the movie full fill this task pretty well… but you can always say, wich you like it better

  • BartholomewB says:

    It was the dullest movie I ever sat through in a theater. The book is a bit better. The Hal episode is surprisingly short in the book, and is very well written indeed — the suspense is superbly done. But everything that comes after that is a bit of a letdown.

  • Doug says:

    I had read the novel back around 1974 when I was in high school, ten years before I finally got to see the movie. So I already knew a lot of the background, what was “really going on”. Ironically, it really doesn’t make much difference except in the opening prehistoric sequence where you see Moonwatcher’s “thoughts” and understand that he is a creature who is beginning to think at a rudimentary level even before the monolith. Then you understand that the monolith is enhancing the intelligence or the potential intelligence of these australopithecines, bringing them closer to their potential so they can survive and become more. It’s my favorite part of the book because it sets the stage and Clarke devotes 5-6 chapters to it. The movie is a more visual and subconscious experience but I think the novel by Clarke and the movie by Kubrick enhance each other. They are both among the most profound of their mediums. But I understand a lot of people will prefer whichever version they experienced first. In fact, Clarke even wrote a book where he gave alternate versions of the story that he had considered before deciding on the final version. As great as the film was, it is ultimately Clarke’s story told visually.

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