2001: A Space Odyssey: The perfect collaboration between book and film

2001: A Space Odyssey by Arthur C. Clarke2001: A Space Odyssey by Arthur C. Clarke

Arthur C. Clarke actually collaborated with Stanley Kubrick to produce the novel version of 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) in order to provide the basis for brilliant Stanley Kubrick film of the same name. So although the book can be considered the original work, the filmmaker also had a role in its creation, and Clarke also rewrote parts of the book to fit the screenplay as that took shape.

Readers and viewers will forever enjoy debating whether a film or novel version is better, with no final answer. Famous examples include The Lord of the Rings, A Clockwork Orange, Dune, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep vs Blade Runner, The Princess Bride, Stardust, Harry Potter, Minority Report, Total Recall, etc. In some ways it’s not fair to compare two such completely different media. Books have the advantage of providing copious details on characters backgrounds, thoughts, and details of the world and plot that cannot possibly be given in film versions without distracting voice-overs or text comments. On the other hand, films have the overwhelming advantage of being a visual medium, depicting incredible imagery that immediately can be understood by the viewer. Some may argue that a reader’s imagination is more powerful than any special effects available to a filmmaker, but again this depends on the viewer and reader.

This all is a preface to the fact that I find it very difficult separate the book and film versions of 2001: A Space Odyssey since they were created to complement one another, filling in the gaps and creating a richer experience for those who experienced both. So it’s pointless to argue which one is better — that will probably only reveal whether you like novels or films more. In my case I liked both versions quite a bit, but for different reasons.

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Part I

The book has the edge when it comes to describing the first part, when a monolith from an unseen alien race visits the Earth 3 million years in the past and intervenes with a group of starving ape-men and pushes them to use tools to kill animals for meat, as well as using these weapons on rival ape-men tribes. We get far more details on the lives of Moon-Watcher and his tribe, and how the monoliths manipulate them to give them a better chance for survival.

The film does a good job too, if you don’t snicker at the monkey suits of the actors, but you are left mainly with the image of a black monolith suddenly appearing in their midst and then see the ape-men experimenting with animal bones to kill prey and each other. The end of the sequence does, however, create a brilliant and lasting image of the ape-man swinging an animal bone in slow motion to the swelling orchestral poem of dawning intelligence, Richard Strauss’ Also sprach Zarathustra.

Part II

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In part two we follow Dr. Heywood Floyd’s trip to Clavius Base on the Moon. This is yet another iconic scene from the movie, as he makes his way through the space station and onto the ship in very low gravity, and we are treated to slow-moving scenes in space perfectly complemented by The Blue Danube waltz by Johann Strauss. Never before had space flight been shown in such realistic terms, both with regards to the slow majestic movements and the stark blacks and whites of space. Not to mention the stewardess on the flight with her magnetic boots to keep from drifting off. Again, these images of space travel and the moon base predate the first actual landing on the moon by Apollo 11 in 1969, but there’s no question that this fired the imaginations of common people and astronauts alike.

The book takes a different approach, providing tons of realistic details on orbital mechanics, zero-gravity conditions, and space stations. Throughout these passages, Clarke’s enthusiasm for space exploration and technology are an interesting contrast to his concerns over the nuclear weapons buildup by the Americans and Russians in the Cold War. This theme is clear in the book but not so in the film. I really liked this part of the novel because the descriptions are lucid but intelligent, and unlike the endless infodumps of Neal Stephenson’s Seveneves, they don’t wear out their welcome.

Part III

Here the story shifts to astronauts David Bowman and Francis Poole, who are on the Discovery One headed to Saturn. The ship is controlled by HAL 9000, an artificial intelligence, and three other crew members are in suspended animation until the mission reaches Saturn. Unknown to the crew, HAL has been tasked with a secret second mission, to investigate signs on Iapetus, one of Saturn’s moons, of the alien intelligence that planted the first monolith on the moon. The conflict between HAL’s directive to hide this from the crew and his programming to assist them causes his judgment to be compromised, and as a result he attacks Poole and kills him outside the ship by reporting a fictitious malfunction. He then targets Bowman, who manages to escape and goes to HAL’s logic center and deactivates him, essentially killing his brain.

I thought this part of the story is equally well-executed in both novel and film. The mild manners of HAL belie his sinister behavior and confusion, and the act of deactivating him is a powerful scene, particularly in the film, as we hear his mind slowly being stripped of complexity and being reduced to singing (slurring, really) the children’s song “Daisy.” It’s a sad moment when HAL is shut down.

In the novel, Bowman then spends a long period alone on the ship as it heads to Saturn, trying to figure out what went wrong and what the real mission was. This part is essentially dropped from the film for story momentum, I suspect.

Part IV

This is the most transcendent part of the book and film, as David Bowman encounters a much larger monolith above Iapetus, and as he approaches it he says the immortal words, “Oh my god, it’s full of stars!”

At this point in the film he is sucked into the monolith, which is more of a space portal, and rocketed on a psychedelic ride through a wormhole (there are interesting echoes of this in the recent film Interstellar), finally arriving in a stark and creepy artificial constructed room, where he sees himself growing older and finally on the point of death from decrepitude. Suddenly we are shown the image of a baby, or Star Child, hovering above the Earth. This ambiguous image is generally interpreted as Dave’s spirit being reborn into a much more advanced body and mental state, who may bring the wisdom of this mysterious alien race to the rest of humanity. But the lack of exposition has certainly divided opinions: some viewers essentially said “WTF!” while others appreciated the open-ended ending that leaves room for any number of interpretations.

This is the part that most needs the explanatory benefits of the novel. We get more details on the places and visions that the monolith shows Bowman as he travels through space, and understand more clearly that the aliens have carefully planted these monoliths for humans to find when they had reached a certain level of technological expertise. They are an early-warning system and a gateway to other races and galaxies. The Star Child returns to Earth and detonates an orbiting warhead, implying that he will defuse the Cold War and bring peace to mankind. However, the ultimate intentions of the alien race, and any details about them, remain a mystery.

In conclusion, 2001: A Space Odyssey requires that you experience both the book and film to fully grasp the intent of Clarke and Kubrick, and it is well worth the time. The ideas it explores are huge: space exploration, alien contact, past and future evolution, the purpose of intelligent life, and the destiny of mankind. It will remain a fixture in the SF genre for generations to come.

~Stuart Starosta


2001: A Space Odyssey by Arthur C. Clarke“The thing’s hollow — it goes on forever — and — oh my God — it’s full of stars!”

2001: A Space Odyssey is the novel that Arthur C. Clarke wrote so that Stanley Kubrick could develop it into the now-famous movie. It’s partly based on two of Clarke’s short stories: “Encounter in the Dawn” (1953) and “The Sentinel” (1948). The first story tells of a technologically advanced race that visited Earth millions of years ago, discovered early humans, and gave them some technological jumpstarts (and “one small step toward humanity.”) In the second story, humans have finally reached the moon. Much to their excitement and consternation, they discover an ancient alien artifact that may be an alarm to alert aliens when humans manage to get themselves off their little planet.

If you’ve seen the movie, you know that we see these plotlines unfold and connect in 2001: A Space Odyssey. A related plot involves a spaceship traveling to Saturn that’s controlled by a new self-conscious computer named HAL 9000. Perhaps the most famous scenes in the movie (and I think these are some of the best scenes in the book, too) occur when HAL decides to override the astronauts’ commands because of his own interpretation of his original instructions (this reason is not explained in the movie). These scenes are probably even more frightening today than they were back in 1968. Clarke perfectly captures our fear that the artificial intelligences we create may become smarter than we are and, therefore, out of our control.

I can’t resist Arthur C. Clarke’s visions and I have enjoyed everything I’ve read by him. It’s exciting and awe-inspiring to read his speculations about creation, the mysteries of space and time, extraterrestrials, artificial intelligence, the freeing of the spirit from the body, the existence and nature of God, and what’s “behind the back of space.” I also enjoy his theoretical arguments about the speed of light, physics, relativity, wormholes, etc. Clarke’s awe of space and his expectation that humans will conquer it is infectious and thrilling. At the same time, the possibility that we, who thought we were alone, may not be, is both exciting and disturbing. Clarke writes beautifully of both the potential glories and horrors of space.

I listened to Dick Hill narrate Brilliance Audio’s version of 2001: A Space Odyssey. Dick Hill narrates a lot of old science fiction and here he is as wonderful as he always is. His voice for HAL was so creepy it gave me chills (“Hey, Dave… what are you doing?”). The audiobook begins with an interesting talk by Arthur C. Clarke in which he gives us some context and background for the story, talks a bit about his writing process and collaboration with Stanley Kubrick, and mentions some of the pop culture that the book and movie have spawned. Three sequels to 2001: A Space Odyssey continue the story and address some of the questions that Clarke leaves us with.

~Kat Hooper

2001: A Space Odyssey by Arthur C. ClarkeArthur C. Clarke’s 2001: A Space Odyssey is an epoch-spanning imagining of humankind’s first contact with alien life. Most people know the core story from Stanley Kubrick’s film of the same title. What’s less known is that the book and screenplay were produced in parallel; Clarke and Kubrick working closely together on both.

This edition of the book includes a foreword by Clarke, which provides insights into the story’s production. He describes an early conversation with the great director, where Kubrick tells him, “What I want is a theme of mythic grandeur.” Clarke certainly delivered.

The story revolves around a monolithic stone-like entity that simply appears on earth 3 million years before modern times. The obelisk explores the mental and physical “skills” of individual man-apes, identifying which have the capacity to carry forth their subtly enhanced genetics. And while the movie is known for its groundbreaking cinematography and special effects, in equal parts with its story-telling vagaries, Clarke’s exposition-strong style draws a clear picture of how this alien-borne object was built to experiment, prod and alter the life forms it finds.

Not wholly through the serendipity of natural selection, but through delicate alien modifications, do these man-apes take the first tentative steps down their evolutionary paths. The alien interference is subtle; it provides sort of an evolutionary jump-start and then disappears as suddenly as it appeared. Clarke writes, “…the man-apes had been given their first chance. There would be no second one; the future was, very literally, in their own hands.”

One of the first gifts of enlightenment explored by the man-apes is the use of tools, and the actualization that they can be used to defend… and kill.

A clear theme throughout, Clarke writes on the impact of the human propensity towards violence. Using the monolith’s suggestion for the man-ape’s adoption of tools as the starting point, Clarke writes that the physical and mental abilities to lay waste to nature and man, up close and at a distance, has defined human evolution — from the first Promethean spark of consciousness through his fictional 2001 and beyond.

The novel jumps to the late 20th century. Man has uncovered a monolith buried deep below the surface of the moon. Once the 3 million year old object absorbs the first rays of the sun, a burst of energy explodes towards space. After millions of years of solitude, humankind inadvertently pulls the trigger on its next major evolutionary leap. The burst of energy blows through the solar system targeted at a small moon orbiting Saturn.

Contextually, this story was written during the dawn of the space age. Russian satellites had orbited the earth and Kennedy had rallied America behind its own goals to put a man on the moon. Science and technology were at the forefront of culture. Consideration of the possibility of alien life was a natural outcome of this collective thought.

Clarke explores one of the most common themes in science fiction, that of ‘First Contact’: “The political and social implications were immense; every person of real intelligence — everyone who looked an inch beyond his nose — would find his life, his values, his philosophy, subtly changed. Even if nothing whatsoever was discovered about (the monolith), and it remained an eternal mystery, Man would know that he was not unique in the universe. All futures must now contain this possibility.”

The final third of the story follows astronaut David Bowman aboard a spaceship powering towards the destination of the moon-monolith’s energy burst. The memorable HAL-9000 accompanies Bowman on his journey and despite the supercomputer-character’s renown, fills only a relatively brief portion of the book. HAL represents a step on the continuum of humankind’s evolutionary ascent. It represents the convergence of man and machine. As man developed machines to enhance his existence, he took a step further by transferring human consciousness to machine, which, to dire results, includes all of man’s neuroses and psychoses.

I thoroughly enjoyed the slow build to human-like sentience of HAL. Following its very purposeful deceptions and murder, HAL says to Bowman rather innocently, “is your confidence in me fully restored? You know that I have the greatest possible enthusiasm for this mission.”

Clarke’s novel evokes the very familiar pacing and mood of Kubrick’s film. The details are rich, the exposition extensive and all encompassing.

2001: A Space Odyssey finishes with a much more satisfying conclusion than the movie. Clarke actually provides an explanation for the sequences of Bowman’s final interactions with the alien intelligence, and his own fate. His conclusion satisfies years of frustrated confusion with Kubrick’s final scenes.

~Jason Golomb

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STUART STAROSTA, on our staff since March 2015, is a lifelong SFF reader who makes his living reviewing English translations of Japanese equity research. Despite growing up in beautiful Hawaii, he spent most of his time reading as many SFF books as possible. After getting an MA in Japanese-English translation in Monterey, CA, he has lived in Tokyo, Japan for the last 10 years with his wife, daughter, and dog named Lani. Stuart's reading goal is to fill in all the gaps in his reading of classic SF novels and Hugo/Nebula winners, as well as David Pringle's 100 Best SF and Fantasy Novels, before moving back to reading newer books. His favorite authors include Philip K Dick, China Mieville, Iain M. Banks, J.G. Ballard, Neal Stephenson, Kurt Vonnegut, George R.R. Martin, Robert Silverberg, Roger Zelazny, Ursula K. LeGuin, Guy Gavriel Kay, Walter Jon Williams, Arthur C. Clarke, H.G. Wells, Olaf Stapledon, J.R.R. Tolkien, Mervyn Peake, etc.

View all posts by Stuart Starosta


  1. I also loved Clarke’s visions of space and his inventiveness.

  2. For as weird and psychedelic as the movie gets near the end, it’s still one of my favorites. And I love the book, but I wish the subsequent novels had been as good.

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