The Letter Between Stanley Kubrick & Arthur C. Clarke That Sparked the Greatest SciFi Film Ever Made (1964)

Clarke and Kubrick

Image cour­tesy of 2001Italia

Ori­gin sto­ries are all the rage these days giv­en the ubiq­ui­ty of super­hero films and tele­vi­sion series. But for all their smash-em-up spec­ta­cle and break­neck pac­ing, they gen­er­al­ly feel over­stuffed and dis­pos­able. As with the Age of Ultron, there is an age, every sum­mer, of some Mar­vel or DC hero or oth­er. Or all of them at once, at this point, in a per­pet­u­al onslaught. On the oth­er hand, we still have the qui­et­ly omi­nous, thought­ful sci­ence fic­tion film, the off­spring of Nico­las Roeg and Andrei Tarkovsky, in movies like Ex Machi­na. These come and go, some bet­ter than oth­ers, but also always with us. Dif­fer­ent as these two types of films can be, in style and tone, nei­ther would like­ly look and feel the way they do with­out Stan­ley Kubrick’s intense­ly intro­spec­tive and pro­found­ly epic 2001: A Space Odyssey.

The ori­gin sto­ry of this incred­i­ble 1968 film begins on March 31, 1964 when Kubrick wrote the let­ter below to Arthur C. Clarke, propos­ing that the two col­lab­o­rate on “the prover­bial ‘real­ly good’ sci­ence fic­tion film.” “I had been a great admir­er of your books for quite a time,” writes Kubrick, and gives Clarke three “broad areas” of inter­est, “nat­u­ral­ly assum­ing great plot and char­ac­ter.” Nat­u­ral­ly.

“Clarke’s response,” writes BFI, “was imme­di­ate­ly enthu­si­as­tic, express­ing a mutu­al admi­ra­tion.” Kubrick, Clarke told their mutu­al friend Roger Caras, “is obvi­ous­ly an aston­ish­ing man.” In his response to the direc­tor him­self, Clarke wrote on April 8, ““For my part, I am absolute­ly dying to see Dr. Strangelove; Loli­ta is one of the few films I have seen twice – the first time to enjoy it, the sec­ond time to see how it was done.” The two met in New York and talked for hours, and from Clarke’s short sto­ry “The Sen­tinel of Eter­ni­ty” was born per­haps the best “real­ly good” sci­ence fic­tion film ever made.


Clarke would com­pare the dif­fer­ences between the sto­ry and the film to those between an acorn and an oak tree, accord­ing to Ital­ian Kubrick site 2001Italia. After that meet­ing, the two would spend almost four years writ­ing the screen­play togeth­er and envi­sion­ing the har­row­ing voy­age to Jupiter that ends so tragically—and strangely—for the two astro­nauts left to expe­ri­ence it. It’s a col­lab­o­ra­tive suc­cess Kubrick clear­ly fore­saw when he approached Clarke, but in his let­ter, above, with tran­script below—cour­tesy of Let­ters of Note—he plays it cool, using the pre­text of a tele­scope Clarke owned to slip in dis­cus­sion about the film project. We are almost led to believe,” writes 2001Italia, “that the movie was an excuse” to dis­cuss the gad­get. But of course we know bet­ter.

Dear Mr Clarke:

It’s a very inter­est­ing coin­ci­dence that our mutu­al friend Caras men­tioned you in a con­ver­sa­tion we were hav­ing about a Ques­tar tele­scope. 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.

Roger [Caras ]tells me you are plan­ning to come to New York this sum­mer. Do you have an inflex­i­ble sched­ule? If not, would you con­sid­er com­ing soon­er with a view to a meet­ing, the pur­pose of which would be to deter­mine whether an idea might exist or arise which could suf­fi­cient­ly inter­est both of us enough to want to col­lab­o­rate on a screen­play?

Inci­den­tal­ly, “Sky & Tele­scope” adver­tise a num­ber of scopes. If one has the room for a medi­um size scope on a pedestal, say the size of a cam­era tri­pod, is there any par­tic­u­lar mod­el in a class by itself, as the Ques­tar is for small portable scopes?

Best regards,

Kubrick pur­sued his projects very delib­er­ate­ly and pas­sion­ate­ly, moti­vat­ed by great per­son­al inter­est. Though his films can feel detached and cold, and he him­self seems like a very aloof char­ac­ter, the oppo­site was true, accord­ing to those who knew him best. Below, see a short video from The Uni­ver­si­ty of the Arts London’s Stan­ley Kubrick Archive pro­fil­ing the way Kubrick went about choos­ing his films, best summed up by Jan Har­lon, Kubrick’s broth­er-in-law and pro­duc­er: “No love, no qual­i­ty, and in Stanley’s case, no love, no film.”

via BFI

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Stan­ley Kubrick’s Anno­tat­ed Copy of Stephen King’s The Shin­ing

Stan­ley Kubrick’s Rare 1965 Inter­view with The New York­er

Arthur C. Clarke Pre­dicts the Future in 1964 … And Kind of Nails It

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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Comments (3)
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  • Žygis says:

    It is inter­est­ing to see that accord­ing to the let­ter his ‘main inter­ests’ were actu­al­ly so unin­spir­ing. Well, at least ini­tial­ly. Maybe he changed his mind lat­er? Arguably, what makes the Odyssey great is its undoubt­ed­ly Niet­zschean frame­work. Basi­cal­ly, the movie is a rip-off – or more like­ly a homage – to “Also sprach Zarathus­tra”, cov­er to cov­er. Niet­zsche wrote his books at the time when the dis­cov­ery of the dis­cov­ery of the vast­ness of out­er space was very acute­ly felt in the cul­ture — that one has to keep in mind while read­ing him. The remain­der of the Odyssey, the gener­ic sci-fi bits, that is, is more of a filler for the sci-fi audi­ence in the cin­e­mas than the real con­tent. Or so it seems to me. You are free to dis­agree, how­ev­er.

  • Dex Weis says:

    I don’t get it. How did this pave the way for Bladerun­ner?

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