Stanley Kubrick’s classic 2001: A Space Odyssey was not simply an adaptation of Arthur C. Clarke’s 2001: A Space Odyssey novel. Kubrick and Clarke actually produced their works in tandem and meant for each to supplement the other. It was meant to be an experiment in telling a story across different media. However, the movie so outshone the novel that most viewers never received the complete experience. That’s a shame because they work well together.
The basic plot of the novel is the same as in the film, with a few minor differences (for example, the Discovery goes to Saturn rather than Jupiter). Some of the characters get a bit more development in the novel. Dr. Heywood Floyd, the bureaucrat who inspects the monolith on the Moon, comes across as less wooden. We even see Floyd briefly addressing some of the political and social fallout of the discovery before he leaves Earth. To be sure, 2001 is no Contact, but these scenes do help with the world-building.
Unfortunately, Dave Bowman and Frank Poole remain underdeveloped as characters. We learn almost nothing about their motivations. Bowman does exhibit genuine excitement when he learns about the monoliths, but soon stifles it. One gets the sense that Kubrick and Clarke were more interested in telling a story about humanity than about humans. To some extent this works if Bowman is meant to serve as blank slates for the rest of humanity. However, it also means that we never really see how the discovery affects him as a person.
Of course, neither Clarke nor Kubrick intended 2001 to focus on the characters. They wanted to explore Big Ideas™ about humanity and the universe. Here they largely succeed. The idea of pairing a story about first contact with the evolution of intelligence in apes was particularly inspired. Unlike Clarke’s Rendezvous with Rama, 2001 does not try to predict how first contact might occur in the future, but rather how we might comprehend – or fail to comprehend – humanity’s role in the universe. I don’t think Clarke and Kubrick always succeed (more below) but their ambition is admirable.
Clarke’s novel is more literal than the movie. That is both necessary and proper. Visual media are better suited to abstract storytelling as directors can provide cues on-screen that would need to be described in a book. Even the act of describing a scene inserts the narrator’s voice. It would have been impossible for Clarke to recapture the movie’s silent ambiance.
Moreover, I’d always felt that Kubrick’s 2001 was too abstract. The ending does not resolve the narrative threads and mysteries raised during the first half of the film. I don’t mind some ambiguity in a story, but the ending is more like a Rohrbach’s test than a conclusion to a story. As noted by film critic Confused Matthew, Clarke himself said that the ending had no single proper interpretation and was deliberately left open.
That said, Clarke does manage to provide a slightly more satisfying conclusion in the novel. We learn a bit about the monoliths and their raison d’être. We even get a glimpse of the aliens who created them. Clarke’s explanation provides a thematic link to the scenes on the African savanna. Unfortunately, this explanation isn’t well integrated into the rest of the novel. It is inserted at a random point in the narrative and has no impact on the characters or the plot. I fear for many readers it will simply will undermine some of the story’s mystery.
Taken alone, both the novel and film feel incomplete. The novel cannot evoke the same sense of awe and wonder that we get from Kubrick’s visuals. At the same time, the film lacks Clarke’s tight narrative structure, which understandably left many viewers confused. When consumed together – as originally intended – they tell a thoughtful story about man’s place in the universe. I usually tend to prefer stories about Big Ideas™ that also manage to develop compelling characters, but there’s still much to admire about the 2001 experience.