Meanings: The Search for Meaning in 2001

Authorship of 2001

 The question of the authorship of 2001 is one that would come to dominate discussion of the film in later years.  Depending on whether or not one accepted Kubrick or Clarke as his or her source, the answers one found to the film’s profound questions could be quite different.  Most Kubrick fans tended to play up the story’s dark and satirical elements, while Clarke’s followers felt that it was more optimistic, particularly in its use of technology.  

Most critics and film scholars saw the film as belonging almost exclusively to Stanley Kubrick.  Considered by many to be the embodiment of the American auteur director, Kubrick maintained tight control over the production and presentation of his films.  As one of the early commentators on 2001’s technical merits wrote, “In its larger dimension, the production may be regarded as a prime example of the auteur approach to filmmaking…In this case, there is not the slightest doubt that Stanley Kubrick is that author.  It is his film.  On every 70mm frame, his imagination, his technical skill, his taste, and his creative artistry are evident.”[53]

Because Clarke had little involvement in the further development of the story after Kubrick began production on the film, his novel differed from the cinematic version in several significant ways.  In Clarke’s story, the astronauts travel to Saturn, not Jupiter, and the ending scenes are somewhat different from the way in which they appeared in the film.  Clarke’s novel provided far more exposition, and explained the backgrounds of Heywood Floyd, Dave Bowman, and Frank Poole.  He added a Cold War subplot about an orbital nuclear weapons platform, and explained HAL’s malfunction as a result of human error, something that he felt the film needed.[54]  Science fiction critic John Hollow compared the cinematic and literary versions of HAL, concluding, “The Hal in the book is betrayed by his human partners.  He is given two messages by Mission Control and at the same time has never been programmed to lie.  The resulting conflict, a sort of giant short circuit, drivses him crazy.”  Many saw the 2001 novel as far more optimistic than the film, including Hollow, who wrote, “2001 the novel….is not about the revolt of the machines, but about the two things Clarke seems to think we mortals would most like to know in a universe in which we can only hope that the odds are in favor of the race’s survival: that we are not alone and that we have not lived in vain.”[55

Clarke did get to see some footage from the film that was shot in 1966, although his book was finished before the end of the film’s production.  Kubrick’s delay in approving the novel for publication had caused Clarke great consternation.  Still, the two displayed a united front in promoting the film’s release.  Clarke gave almost all of the credit for the story to his collaborator, saying that, “2001 reflects about ninety percent on the imagination of Kubrick, about five percent on the genius of the special effects people, and perhaps five percent on my contribution.”[56]  In 1972, he characterized his novel in the same terms as a review of the film, saying “You will find my interpretation in the novel; it is not necessarily Kubrick’s.  Nor is his necessarily the “right” one – whatever that means.”[57

Clarke’s Book

People who found Kubrick’s movie confusing purchased Clarke’s book in the hope that it would illuminate them to the real meaning of the film.  Physicist Freeman Dyson, who was filmed for an unused “documentary-style” prologue to the film, wrote that he found the book “gripping and intellectually satisfying, full of the tension and clarity which the movie lacks.  All the parts of the movie that are vague and unintelligible, especially the beginning and the end, become clear and convincing in the book.”[58

Others have pointed out that although the novel and film may share the same story, the “spirit” of the film had nothing to do with Clarke and everything to do with Kubrick.  One reviewer noted that the novel restored this Clarkean spirit “with such a rush that it read like a parody of his themes and confirmed my suspicion that in the film Kubrick had, to a certain extent, frozen him out.”[59]  One writer noted, “Obviously, the novel differs from the film radically in emphasis and even basic conception, but at times Clarke’s explanations throw light upon the film, if only through contrast.”[60]  Another found a more convoluted answer, “As far as 2001 is literature, as far as it could exist, as it does, in the form of the novel, even if there were no film, it is Clarke’s work.  As far is it is film, and could exist, even if there were no book, it is Kubrick’s.”[61]

Many noted that the problem may lie in the fact that the novel relied on words to transmit its message, while the film relied on the futility of language.  Kubrick shares this view, pointing out one striking example:

At one point in the film, Dr. Floyd is asked where he’s going.  And he says, ‘I’m going to Clavius’, which is a lunar crater.  Then there are about fifteen shots of the moon following this statement, and we see Floyd going to the moon.  But one critic was confused because he thought Floyd was going to some planet named Clavius.  I’ve asked a lot of kids, ‘Do you know where this man went?’  And they all replied: ‘He went to the moon.’  And when I asked, ‘How did you know that?’  They all said: ‘Because we saw it.’ [62]

Kubrick suggests that as a visual experience, 2001 is intensely subjective and cannot be objectively explained, much like one cannot “explain” a Beethoven symphony.[63] In a 1969 interview, he said, “…in a film like 2001, where each viewer brings his own emotions and perceptions to bear on the subject matter, a certain degree of ambiguity is valuable, because it allows the audience to ‘fill in’ the visual experience themselves.”[64] Drawing comparisons to Marshall McLuhan, the director contended that “in 2001, the message is the medium” rather than words.[65]    

As people who make their living through the usage of words, the reaction of many science fiction writers to the cinematic 2001 was not surprisingly rather hostile.  Ray Bradbury harshly criticized Kubrick’s treatment of the story at the same time that he praised Arthur C. Clarke.  “Clarke, a voyager to the stars, is forced to carry the now inexplicably dull director Kubrick the albatross on his shoulders through an interminable journey of almost thee hours.”[66]   Many who had gotten their start in the “Golden Age” of science fiction under the tutelage of esteemed editor and author John W. Campbell, were dismayed by the sharp turn that the genre took in the 1960s.  Instead of focusing on the possibilities of science and technology, many “New Wave” writers increasingly focused on issues like religion and spirituality. Many older writers did not see this as science fiction at all, but as fantasy.  They saw Kubrick’s film as taking Clarke’s hard science fiction masterpiece and turning it into another New Wave spiritual tale.  Like many of the critics, their expectations did not meet the final result.  Campbell claimed that “2001 departed from Clarke’s original ending – an encounter with a truly superior race – to wander in an LSD trip of fantasies.” Lester del Rey wrote, “This isn’t a normal science-fiction movie at all, you see.  It’s the first of the New Wave-Thing movies, with the usual empty symbolism.  The New Thing advocates were exulting over it as a mind-blowing experience.  It takes very little to blow some minds.  But for the rest of us, it’s a disaster.”[67] Robert Heinlein, however, who was one of the first “Golden Age” science fiction writers to include New Wave themes in his writings, did list 2001, along with Things to Come and The Time Machine among his list of science fiction films that he particularly admired.[68]

Next: Books on 2001, Influence on Other Films, 2001 on Video

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