By Trevor Busch
Although it comes as one of the bibliophile’s more rank violations of literary principle to peruse the offerings of the silver screen before immersing one’s self in the dog-eared pages of the book from which this director or that eventually executed their own screen vision, when it comes to Arthur C. Clarke’s science- fiction classic 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), most modern readers can probably be forgiven for having tasted visionary director Stanley Kubrick’s sci-fi smorgasbord before delving into the pages of Clarke’s offering.
It’s an allegation that this humble reviewer must accept with equanimity, but one suspects some of the authors of the novels, stories and novellas that Kubrick based many of his justifiably famous films may have experienced a degree of frustration about their own success in the wake of many of Kubrick’s box office smashes. While Clarke’s novel is probably only slightly less famous than the film that bears its same name, others in the Kubrick lexicon were not so lucky.
1964’s black comedy Dr. Strangelove, Or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb, for instance, was loosely based on Peter George’s thriller Red Alert (1958), but who remembers Peter George? Similarly, although not one of Kubrick’s more remembered films,1999’s Eyes Wide Shut was based on Arthur Schnitzler’s 1926 novella Traumnovelle — and Schnitzler is not exactly regarded as a towering giant in literary circles. 1987’s Full Metal Jacket was based on Gustav Hasford’s novel The Short- Timers (1979). Like the others, Hasford hasn’t gone down in the annals of writing as a star unlike any other. That being said, there are some exceptions. Stephen King’s 1977 novel The Shining comes to mind (film 1980), as does Vladimir Nabokov’s disturbing 1955 novel Lolita (film 1964).
One of the more famous examples of an author’s work eclipsed by Kubrick’s art, however, is that of Anthony Burgess, who penned the novella A Clockwork Orange in 1962. Kubrick’s 1971 adaptation was a hugely controversial but successful outing, and it shined more light on Burgess’ novella which had been only a modest success at the time of its publication.
Burgess, on the other hand, complained bitterly that Kubrick had axed the final chapter from the film, which in the novel suggests that main character Alex may be finally coming to terms with the violence of his past, instead of embracing it.
Burgess’ novella is actually a watershed polemic about the importance of freedom of choice, and written in a slang-like language created by Burgess himself — well worth a second look for any reader who hasn’t sampled any of his brilliant offerings.
Stephen King was also disappointed in Kubrick’s adaptation of The Shining, but most awe-struck viewers weren’t complaining.
Clarke, on the other hand, enjoyed a strong following in science-fiction circles as one of the prophets of “hard” science fiction long before Kubrick approached him with the idea for 2001: A Space Odyssey. For the few uninitiated with either the book or the film, 2001 follows the mysterious discovery of an alien monolith on the moon, and the ensuing space voyage to Saturn (apparently changed to Jupiter in the film for some bizarre reason) to investigate a baffling radio transmission of immense intensity that occurred when the monolith was first exposed to sunlight. From there the novel travels into the bizarre and the unexplained, with a growing sense of malevolence.
Kubrick fans are legion, and having traversed the film multiple times, it is hard to delineate from the novel. Kubrick’s revolutionary camera work, where he literally created a zero-g environment using clever lens trickery, angles and set design — is still a hallmark achievement in film making even as we close in on 50 years since it graced the screen.
The novel, on the other hand, is a masterful work by Clarke, but in the end the more disturbing plot developments and the descent of the ship’s artificial intelligence into madness and murder were probably better handled by Kubrick — as sacrilegious as that statement might seem for the professed bibliophile. Still, there are elements that Kubrick always loved to leave up the viewer’s imagination that are more fully explored in the novel, such as the travel through the Star Gate. In the film, this is portrayed as a psychedelic acid-journey into the unknown, while Clarke — always true to his hard science fiction roots — tempts the reader with more detail about the mysterious alien builders.
The opening scenes of the film, which take the viewer back to the world of primitive man — which seemed hugely incongruous at first for a science fiction audience, until the viewer learns more about the plot — here the novel also offers up more in the way of explanation, leaving no question the weird alien visitors were actually interfering in the evolution of the species, which is a less pronounced conclusion in the film.
Still an outstanding science-fiction novel in its own right while standing now in the light of the 21st century — some 16 years after its actual setting — 2001: A Space Odyssey would probably be best read before someone takes on the iconic film — but in a world of pop-culture instantly at our fingertips, this is a less and less likely possibility for a modern readership.