A few fun (little-known) facts & stories about the “the proverbial ‘really good’ science-fiction movie” (2001: A Space Odyssey of course!)

Gautham Shenoy April 7, 2018 10 min

Fifty years ago, this week, one of the finest films of all time – science fiction or otherwise – was released. Since then, it has only grown in stature with each passing year. Almost everyone who likes watching movies has watched it at least once. Anything written about the film usually abounds in superlatives and hyperbole, all deserved, and it’s one of the few films with which the word ‘revered’ goes quite well.

And as with many classics, so it is with 2001: A Space Odyssey, that the behind-the-scenes stories are equally fascinating. More so in this case because you had two people, each considered a ‘great’ in their respective fields – Stanley Kubrick and Arthur C. Clarke – almost in a Lennon-McCartney-esque creative relationship, coming together to work on a project, with the greatest respect and mutual admiration for each other, but not without their disagreements and many moments of friction.

The result of this collaboration – and its legacy and influence – is there for all to see. So, without further ado, here are a few stories about Clarke and Kubrick during their journey to make a movie and a book called 2001: A Space Odyssey.

“Isn’t he a nut who lives in a tree in India someplace?”

Back in 1964, Stanley Kubrick who’d recently developed an interest in extra-terrestrial life was looking to collaborate with someone from the field of sci-fi. When the name of Arthur C. Clarke – then living in Ceylon, now Sri Lanka – name was suggested to him, Kubrick is said to have remarked, “Isn’t he a recluse, a nut who lives in a tree in India or someplace?” as per his biographer Vincent LoBrutto. Nonetheless, Kubrick would get over his reservations and write to Clarke to discuss the possibility of making the proverbial ‘really good’ science-fiction film. Clarke would reply writing about how he admired Kubrick’s movies, no doubt chuffed about getting a chance to work in Hollywood. They would soon meet and promptly have their first disagreement when Clarke found out Kubrick already had a plot in mind that also involved an alien virus that increased people’s libido.

An excerpt from the letter that Stanley Kubrick wrote to Arthur C. Clarke that started the journey of 2001: A Space Odyssey. Read the letter in full here.

From Shadow on the Sun, to The Sentinel

Clarke would write about it in his introduction to the 1991 edition of his “2001” novel, “… had also acquired rights to a property with the intriguing title ‘Shadow on the Sun’; I remember nothing whatsoever about it and have even forgotten the author’s name, so presumably, he was not one of the s.f. regulars. Whoever he was, I hope he never knows that I sabotaged his career, because Kubrick was promptly informed that Clarke was *not* interested in developing other people’s ideas.”

The property in question was a BBC radio play called Shadow on the Sun written by Gavin Blackeney, about a meteorite that blocks all of Earth’s light, making everyone incredibly cold, but the alien virus in the meteorite infects people with the result being that they are able to deal with the cold, and with vastly increased libido. Clarke was no prude, but he was more interested in developing his own ideas for a film, or even better, create a whole new story in collaboration with Kubrick. That’s is what ultimately happened.

Clarke gave Kubrick a few of his stories that he thought had potential, including ‘Encounter in the Dawn’ (aka ‘Expedition to Earth’) and one he’d written in 1948 for a BBC writing competition (in which it didn’t even place, leave alone win), called The Sentinel, about the discovery of an ancient alien artefact on the Moon. It was the latter that Kubrick chose and became the seed for the story of the film, and the novel, or rather – as it was originally planned and agreed upon by both men – the novel, and then the screenplay. More on this in a bit.

The Sentinel’s claim to fame is that it is the short story on which 2001: A Space Odyssey (the movie, and the book) are based. It was a description however that irritated Clarke. As he wrote in a 1984 issue of Heavy Metal Magazine, “I am continually annoyed by careless references to “The Sentinel” as “the story on which 2001 is based”; it bears about as much relation to the movie as an acorn to the resultant full-grown oak. (Considerably less, in fact, because ideas from several other stories were also incorporated.) Even the elements that Stanley Kubrick and I did actually use were considerably modified.”

Kubrick and Clarke at the former’s apartment-office in New York

Screenplay by Stanley Kubrick and Arthur C. Clarke, based on a novel by Arthur C. Clarke and Stanley Kubrick

The original plan was to write the novel first together and then develop the screenplay based on the book. The writing credits were to be shared thusly, ‘Screenplay by Stanley Kubrick and Arthur C. Clarke, based on a novel by Arthur C. Clarke and Stanley Kubrick’, with the order in each medium reflecting each person’s pre-eminence in that particular medium. However, in reality, both were developed simultaneously with the screenplay reflecting Kubrick’s style and approach to cinema, and the book bringing to the fore exposition and details that were Clarke’s forte and missing in the film.

In fact, Kubrick had promised Clarke that ‘their’ novel would be published before the release of the film, as each of the creators kept bringing in new ideas, the screenplay and the book kept feeding off each other. Many of them were only added on late into production even,  the famous ending of the film. Another reason that Kubrick refused to sign off on the publication of the novel was that he didn’t want people to know the story before the movie came out. Clarke feared that if the book came after the film, people would think it’s merely a novelisation and not an original work. Clarke considered suing Kubrick, because he was losing a lot of money by not being able to accept other work; money that Clarke needed to pay off the accruing debts.

As it ultimately turned out, the novel would be published only after the movie came out – bearing only Arthur C. Clarke’s name – and become a classic in its own right. It diverged in many details from the movie, not least because the book is based on early drafts of the story Kubrick and Clarke developed, from which the film of course deviated as production went on. If you like the movie, the book is a must-read for all the details it brings to the story (not least the one where it’s confirmed that HAL stands for ‘Heuristically programmed ALgorithmic’ computer. And no, the name HAL was not a crack at IBM; the one-letter shift was just a coincidence). As Clarke’s friend and fellow SF author, Michael Moorcock would write, “If Arthur was disappointed by Kubrick’s decision to cut his dialogue and narrative to the bone, he was eventually reconciled by being able to put everything left out of the film into the novel, meaning that each man was able to produce his own preferred version”.

Speaking of Moorcock, Kubrick would approach Moorcock to collaborate with him on the movie. Because if Clarke was disappointed with Kubrick’s inability to commit to the novel, Kubrick was at one point, equally frustrated and dissatisfied with the collaboration. Moorcock was not the only the sci-fi writer that Kubrick approached. JG Ballard was also sounded out on working with Kubrick on the screenplay. Both refused, for several reasons, Moorcock also because he didn’t want to be disloyal to his friend, ‘Ego’ the nickname by which Clarke was known amongst friends.

Left: Stanley Kubrick and Arthur C. Clarke on the sets of 2001: A Space Odyssey. Right: Clarke & Kubrick with consulting NASA officials during the production of the film.

Get rid of Carl Sagan….I don’t want to see him again.

Right at the beginning of the project, Clarke and Kubrick grappled with the issue of depicting extra-terrestrial beings. They decided to consult the astronomer and cosmologist Carl Sagan and invited him over for dinner. Sagan would later take credit for the decision to only hint at extra-terrestrial superintelligence, and not to actually show or describe any aliens. But at the dinner itself, Kubrick found the young astrophysicist patronising and decided this would be the first and last time Sagan would be in any way be involved with the project. After the dinner, Kubrick would telephone Clarke, and tell him to ‘Get rid of Sagan. Make any excuse, take him anywhere you like. I don’t want to see him again’.

A film called Journey Beyond the Stars (or How the Solar System was Won)

Perhaps not as much as they struggled with the film’s ending, Clarke and Kubrick did struggle with a name for it. Many other names were considered, including Universe, Tunnel to the Stars, Planetfall, Gift from the Stars, Earth Escape, The Star Gate, Jupiter Window and Farewell to Earth. The working title for it was ‘Journey Beyond the Stars’, a name that Kubrick even announced to the public in a 1965 press conference as the film’s title. Privately, they called it ‘How the Solar System Was Won’, a reference to 1962’s How the West Was Won. Finally, almost a year into the project, having finally rejecting even Journey Beyond the Stars (because it sounded like the name of a Roger Corman B-movie), Kubrick decided to call it 2001: A Space Odyssey, inspired by Homer; an idea that Clarke said later was completely Kubrick’s idea.

Close to tears, Arthur left at the intermission…

During post-production, and even after the rough cut that Clarke saw, Kubrick kept changing the movie, primarily by removing as much of exposition and voice-over narration as possible, to make the film as minimalist and non-verbal, so that it would communicate to the viewer visually at an intuitive level. The approach was completely at odds with the exposition-loving, uncomfortable-with-ambiguity science educator Arthur C. Clarke, who was in the dark about most of these developments and would only see the film at a private premiere.

As Moorcock recalls, “…Arthur did not get to see the completed film until the US private premiere. He was shocked by the transformation. Almost every element of explanation had been removed. Reams of voice-over narration had been cut. Far from being a pseudo-documentary, the film was now elusive, ambiguous and thoroughly unclear. Close to tears, he left at the intermission, having watched an 11-minute sequence in which an astronaut did nothing but jog around the centrifuge in a scene intended to show the boredom of space travel.’

The scene in question was heavily trimmed before the general release, and in hindsight, all the things that left Clarke close to tears were what made 2001: A Space Odyssey the cinematic masterpiece that it is. What this also did was contribute in no small part to the success of Clarke’s preferred version of 2001: A Space Odyssey, which would go on to become a bestseller as viewers of the movie turned into readers of the book seeking answers to questions that the movie raised, and to fill the gaps. So successful was the book that Arthur C. Clarke would go on to write not one, but three sequels. Well, all’s well that ends well.

And that brings us to the end of this edition of New Worlds Weekly. I hope to see you next weekend as we continue exploring this many-splendoured thing we call sci-fi.

Live Long and Prosper!

Sources aka recommended reading: ‘Outer Limits: The Filmgoers’ Guide to the Great Science-fiction Films’ By Howard Hughes; ‘Space Odyssey: Stanley Kubrick, Arthur C. Clarke, and the Making of a Masterpiece’ by Michael Benson; The Lost Worlds of 2001 by Arthur C. Clarke.


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