When Arthur C. Clarke first penned the seminal 2001: A Space Odyssey, who’d have thought the film to go alongside it would overpower the written word and craft something ground-breaking and astonishing. Stanley Kubrick had a way with intense, interesting films for much of his career, but it is his adaptation of Clarke’s piece that gives him his first and best shot. It is not, as Clarke put it, “…art for art’s sake” but “art for the sake of sanity”. It is one of the many great lines he would place in the sci-fi novel that seems to have faded somewhat into the shadows now that Kubrick and his legacy have deeply cemented themselves in our popular culture. Decades after his passing, and the ripples of his attractive direction and stylish flair are still noted and appreciated with awe and inspiration.
It is the strangely subtle differences between book and film that are of interest here. Where Clarke considered the primitive aspects of human nature and how lucky we are that evolution took us to this way of life is lost somewhat in the opening components of Kubrick’s work. 2001: A Space Odyssey still represents that, with primates screeching and starving alongside and against one another, but much of the subtext is lost. That is not, however, something Kubrick should be chastised for. He and Clarke are following the same path, their interpretations are surely meant to differ. In fact, it is better that they do. Sometimes, it is interesting to see how similar scenarios and settings can lead to vastly different ways of thinking.
Take HAL 9000 (Douglas Rain) and what this represents. While the dawn of artificial intelligence was a swift and frequent theme for sci-fi of the era, it is Kubrick who edges his way forth with a more poignant and relevant message. Clarke accepts that we should be wary of the world and the animatronics we look to create and guide, but Kubrick pushes it as far as it can go. Where much of the pretext to the journey into the vast beyond of space and the implications of humanity are either missing or changed, there is still much to muse on. What would happen not only if we were to form a bond between man and machine, but were to betray that also? Clarke’s work understands this to some degree, but it is brash and unfocused, offering less than Kubrick does, both in pacing and dialogue. It does, however, offer set-up, which Kubrick glosses over from time to time. He excels in the final third but is finding his footing in the first act.
Visuals are unmatched by the book too. One benefit of reading is the ability to let the imagination run wild, to create a plain of existence that these characters can survive in. Clarke offers a science fiction ahead of its time, but it is Kubrick who shines through. Not just because he set the benchmark which many filmmakers would copy and follow, but because his designs and way of showing the story is effective and uses the technical merits that are available to him. It is the style of Kubrick and his technical merits that make this so engaging and effective. Astronauts’ discoveries in the book are listed with sudden ferocity, whereas in the film they linger as monumental occasions that display the seduction of talent and the progress of mankind.
All of this, the effective storyline and its various differences between book and film are tertiary when contemplating the craftsmanship of the film. Rain is unsettling as the voice of HAL, and the relationship between him and David Bowman (Keir Dullea) is fascinating. Most of these moments are down to the creativity behind the camera, as well as in front of it. The concerned look of shock on the face of Bowman as he realises HAL is capable of human error would be a memorable, delightful scene if it weren’t for the technical mastery on display elsewhere. 2001: A Space Odyssey is mesmerising and so truly engaging with its camera angles and its style, that it is hard to peer into how great the panic and terror is between these spacemen, trapped on a shuttle with a robot learning to live.
Its contemporary praise is not unfounded, and it is a remarkable piece for Kubrick to hang his hat on. A stellar piece of creativity, one of those rare pieces where the special effects and practical display is as clever and defining as it must have been upon its initial release. I went into my second encounter with 2001: A Space Odyssey expecting a charming and interesting film, but I did not expect it to be this exciting and clever. It exceeds the qualities of the book and that is not because the story differs but the outlook of life each creative offers are so distant from one another. It allows for a second perspective and a necessary change to the written word. A defining achievement, one that shoots for the stars and just keeps travelling from strength to strength.