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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Comments (7)
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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.

  • Henry says:

    I think the movie is the great­est audio­vi­su­al treat ever in movie his­to­ry, because it has a deep mean­ing, as Sir Clarke says well, every­one absorbs and under­stands it in his or her own way, right. But it is not this over-com­pli­cat­ed meant-to-be-incom­pre­hen­si­ble movie like many, many mod­ern movies are, they are unbe­liev­ably dull, no, this movie has a clear mes­sage, both in terms of tech­nol­o­gy advance and beyond this world and life. I can rec­om­mend the book, Arthur writes very well and it’s very inter­est­ing to read if you liked the movie.

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