Arthur C. Clarke’s The Sentinel and Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey


I confess…I am not a Kubrick fan.  His stuff frankly weirds me out.  That’s my bias, and I’m sticking to it.

I was first introduced to 2001: A Space Odyssey in the Science-Fiction in Film and Television course that I took three years ago.  This film was always mentioned in my undergrad music classes as a prime example of a film using source music, that is, music used in a film that was not expressly written for it.   When I sat down to watch the film, I reacted with a fairly continuous sense of “WTF?” over the 2.5 hours that it lasted.  During our class discussion, we mainly focused on the Jupiter portion featuring the computer HAL and how it reflected late 60s/early 70s anxieties over computer technology becoming smarter than humans.  No clarity came concerning the (lack of) overarching narrative.

I was quite surprised when flipping through Harrison’s book that 2001 was adapted from a short story.  (Is the connection mentioned in the credits?  I’m not the most proficient credit-reader, and I’ve had to return the film to the library in order to avoid massive fines.)  I endeavored to watch Kubrick’s film again and read the short story, hoping that Clarke’s story would provide some sort of illumination.  And it did, kind of.

Quick summaries:

The Sentinel (written 1948, pub 1951) – The story takes place in the far off future of 1996.  The narrator is part of a lunar exploration team.  An object close to the horizon catches his eye, and he and a fellow astronaut mount an expedition to see what it is.  Upon approaching the object, which is tetrahedrally-shaped, the narrator is rendered speechless.  He gathers from the dust buildup around the object that it has been there for millions of years.  He hypothesizes that the object has been sending signals to its home world for years, perhaps warning of dangerous developments in human evolution (such as the colonization the moon).

2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) – This film has four distinct chapters: the Dawn of Man, an untitled sequence set in the future in which a “Tycho Magnetic Anomaly” has been found on the moon, the Jupiter Mission, and the Beyond the Infinite sequence.  The first chapter follows a group of proto-humans.  Their discovery of a strange black monolith appears to prompt their appropriation of bones as weapons and transformation from herbivores into omnivores.  The second chapter deals with the discovery of a mysterious object near the futuristic moon base Clavius.  Its discovery is hushed up by a cover story of an epidemic, which keeps Russian scientists at bay (Yay, Cold War anxieties!).   The object turns out to be another monolith, which when touched, emits a high pitched frequency (perhaps a signal?).  The third chapter takes place aboard an American ship bound for Jupiter.  Here we have the creepy sentient computer HAL seemingly sabotage the mission, but the handsome Dave Bowman saves the day by outsmarting and shutting down HAL.  However, it’s revealed at HAL’s shutdown that only HAL knew of the mission’s purpose: to find where the receptor of the signal sent by the TMA on the moon.  The final chapter follows Dave as he takes a pod to explore a third monolith in Jupiter’s orbit.  The pod is pulled into a psychedelic wormhole.  Dave is deposited into a French Baroque bedroom where he watches himself age.  At the point of death, a fourth monolith appears in the bedroom and transforms him into a large fetus-like creature.  He then floats through space, and the film ends with him staring placidly at the Earth.

Things of Interest:

After reading The Sentinel, I think that the connection between the two is not immediately graspable.  If anything, the second part of the film is the closest to the short story.  The film is an expansive and liberal adaptation of the short story.  Interestingly, the film retains a certain authorial authenticity in that Arthur C. Clarke co-wrote the script with Kubrick.  In addition, Clarke wrote the official “novelization” of the film, although I think Kubrick disliked that the novel seemed to officiate one particular reading of the film.

After reading The Sentinel and re-watching 2001, it became clearer to me that the obelisk served as both an instigator of human evolution (Chapters 1 and 4) and a beacon signaling evolutionary stages (Chapter 2 for sure, arguably Chapter 3 too).  In both the short story and the film, we never discover to whom the tetrahedron/obelisk is signaling.  The last chapter of the film is still super trippy and I hope to goodness that we all don’t evolve into floating fetuses in space.

The theme of speechlessness when faced with an alien object is present in both the short story and the film.

One thing that interested me in my second go round music wise was the association of Ligeti’s Lux aeterna with the obelisk.  For an alien object, it was interesting to me that Kubrick chose a modernist piece consisting entirely of human voices.  LA features a 16 vocal soloists and a choir; the text comes from the Latin Requiem Mass though its not meant to be set in an intelligble fashion.  The piece features no technological distortion or augmentation.  The voices simply move in intervals smaller than a semitone, creating minute dissonances and consonances in what Ligeti labeled as a “micropolyphonic” texture.  This piece is often featured in music textbooks for its unique texture created without technological support and its unusual graphic notation.


1) I read on the entirely reliable Wikipedia that Clarke often seemed to dislike his short story being known as the one “on which 2001 is based.”  Burgess too seemed annoyed at the success of Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange over his novella.  Is annoyance with Kubrick a common theme amongst authors whose work is adapted by Kubrick?

2) Sam made quite an interesting thesis on his Clockwork Orange presentation.  Correct me if I’m wrong, but I think he said that Kubrick chooses to adapt works that “need” to be adapted.  In relation to our hierarchies discussion, it certainly seems that Kubrick’s works have experienced more success than the authors whose work he adapts.  However, does anything actually “need” to be adapted?  Is my slight offense at this thesis simply a reflection of my own Romantic tendencies that the original is (and ought to be) the greatest?

3) What other readings of 2001 exist?  I was really only able to find the one pushed by Clarke in his novelization.

That’s all I got in me.  I bit the bullet and went first for these Harrison-related blog posts.  If you’re a Kubrick fan, please forgive me and/or feel free to dismiss me as a “mundane.”

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