Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey is, like all of his major works, an adaptation, yet it is an adaptation of a different kind. This is in a large part to do the collaborative nature of its inception. While 2001 was neither the first nor the only time that Kubrick adapted the work of a living author, it is the only time that he worked in close collaboration with the author whose work he was adapting. Curiously, 2001 was born when Kubrick, interested in making what he called the “proverbial good science fiction movie,” was recommended to write to Clarke. Clarke, interested in the project, provided Kubrick with six of his stories as potential source material. Kubrick chose to adapt “The Sentinel,” the story of a scientist who finds a large, complex pyramid on the Moon.
What is peculiar is the progression of adaptations that “The Sentinel” went through before becoming 2001. Kubrick notes that he and Clarke first expanded the story into a “130-page prose treatment” (working title: How the Solar System Was Won). Following this, the two men worked collaboratively on the screenplay (for which they are both credited) as Clarke simultaneously adapted the prose treatment into a novel.
The collaborative nature of this adaptation — which was actually a double adaptation — makes it difficult to identify what aspects of the adaptation were the work of Kubrick and which were that of Clarke. The simultaneous development of the film and the novel would suggest that each adaptation is, in some way, the work of both men.
Pointing out differences between Kubrick’s film and Clarke’s short story, however, is less complicated. “The Sentinel” has a more concentrated, clearer narrative: the narrator, a scientist on the moon, investigates a strange gleaming that he notices in the distance while cooking his breakfast sausage (really) and discovers that its source is a large, glittering pyramid. The intricacy of the design — which includes a forcefield — and the foreignness of the materials leads the narrator to conclude that the pyramid is not, as he originally thought, evidence of ancient life on the moon, but rather evidence of an ancient and superior alien race. He posits that the pyramid was placed on the moon as a sentinel to witness Earth’s development.
The theme here — that man’s outstanding technological developments grant him the knowledge of his own insignificance — transfers to 2001 intact. The figure of the alien sentinel also reemerges in Kubrick’s film, through in the form of a large black monolith. This monolith appears in the film four times: to prehistoric man, on the moon, in the orbit of Jupiter, and at the foot of Dr. David Bowman’s bed. In the first two cases, the monolith instills an initial horror in those that view it. In the last two cases, the monolith appears to first transfer Dr. Bowman to another dimension (one full of light beams and decorated with Louis XVI-style furniture) then to turn him into the Star Child, a space fetus that gazes at Earth in the film’s final shot.
The above description indicates one of the primary characteristics of Kubrick’s adaptation: narrative ambiguity. While Clarke’s “The Sentinel” is carefully narrated and fixed within a time and place, Kubrick tells a story that is predominantly imagistic. It is unclear what the relationship between the monoliths is or what happens to Bowman, or anyone else, upon encountering them. Whereas Clarke’s narrator articulates with fear that he expects the builders of the pyramid to head to Earth, Kubrick establishes this horror through images, sound, and mood. While Clarke’s version theorizes the origin and meaning of the pyramid (“They left a sentinel, one of millions they scattered through the Universe, watching over all worlds with the promise of life”), Kubrick’s film leaves these questions ambiguous. Rather than use language, the province of the writer, Kubrick uses a series of arresting visuals and triumphs of special effects to convey the power that comes with the monolith and the terror man should feel towards it.
This is a typically Kubrickian transposition: while turning a novel or story into a film, Kubrick emphasizes the tools of his medium. He also isn’t partial to clearly defined endings (see: Dr. Strangelove walking, Alex’s naked snowfight fantasy, Jack Torrence in the old picture at the Overlook Hotel, among others). Yet it’s likely that Kubrick’s tendency to emphasize what can be told visually in a story may explain why his films are so often parodied — another way of saying that they have become iconic.
I’d like to leave you with links to a couple examples. In the first, an episode from The Simpsons titled “Deep Space Homer,” Homer floats in space munching on potato chips to the tune of Strauss’s Blue Danube Waltz, which had previously provided a memorable backdrop to Kubrick’s 2001. This is just one of a series of 2001 references to be found in “Deep Space Homer,” to say nothing of The Simpsons as a whole. The second link, from a Futurama episode titled “The Sting,” features one of its main characters, Turanga Leela, being transported through Star Gate, a parody of the final section of 2001 (N.B.: See another episode, “Love and Rocket,” for a more sustained parody of Kubrick’s film). While these parodies could be set aside as trifling, I think they speak to an adaptability within Kubrick’s work, likely due to its memorable use of sound and images.
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qnPGDWD_oLE (from The Simpsons, “Deep Space Homer”)
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LjyH-lmuuJw (from Futurama, “The Sting”)