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‘2001’: The Tool Strikes Back
It may be humanity's space odyssey, but Hal steals the show ... in either medium.
I had naturally, and incorrectly, assumed that the movie 2001: A Space Odyssey was adapted from the novel 2001: A Space Odyssey. Stanley Kubrick and Arthur C. Clarke developed both concurrently, though the story draws some of its inspiration from earlier short stories that Clarke wrote.
The 1968 movie came out first, but as Clarke says in the foreword to the Millennial Edition, there was “feedback in both directions” toward the end of the writing process:
“Thus I rewrote some sections after seeing the movie rushes—a rather expensive method of literary creation, which few other authors can have enjoyed, though I am not sure if ‘enjoyed’ is the right word.”
So that’s an unconventional origin for a classic film and classic novel, neither of which qualifies as conventional either.
The book and movie are both missing a clear protagonist. A computer program receives the most character development. Even after the main conflict ends, the story keeps going and keeps getting weirder. For vast stretches of time—especially in the movie—not much happens.
There’s a ton of world-building, though, and extraordinary attention to detail. Can’t take that from either version.
Both iterations follow the same general plot and stick to the same themes, and they complement each other nicely. The novel conveys fascinating ideas, and the movie conveys memorable images.
You’re better off reading the book first. Then you’ll know exactly what’s going on with those apes in that extended opening at the dawn of humanity, for example.
It’s an interesting storytelling experiment—book and movie tell the same story about those proto-human apes, but one uses only words and the other uses only visuals. The words prove clearer. Nevertheless, the movie 2001 might just be the best visual aid a book ever had.
Evolution emerges as the dominant theme, and tools are the means by which we evolve. That long opening scene shows us a proto-human ape discovering that a thing can be used as a different thing—he can use an animal’s thick bone to kill other animals so his tribe can eat the meat. And he can use the same bone-weapon to assert dominance over another tribe.
Before this discovery, our distant ancestors were on the verge of extinction because all they could do was forage for berries and such. They were constantly hungry, and thirty years old was considered elderly. But learning how to hunt animals is a game changer. It kicks off a process that Clarke traces all the way to the space age.
Clarke writes this memorable line in the book as he describes the development of language:
“Unlike the animals, who knew only the present, Man had acquired a past; and he was beginning to grope toward the future.”
Then, after slow and detailed world-building to establish the hi-tech future that awaits us in the far-off year of 2001, the book and movie reach their most memorable scenes, which also happen to be where the story becomes its most conventional and straightforward.
As alluded to above, the spaceship’s AI computer, Hal, receives more character development than any human. The two crewmen who interact with him, David Bowman and Frank Poole, are competent, dedicated professionals, and neither Clarke nor Kubrick go much deeper than that. When Poole dies, we’re not thinking, “Oh, no! Not Poole! He was my favorite!” We’re more likely thinking, “What is Hal up to?”
Clarke does take us inside the digital head of Hal, showing us how the “fulfillment of his assigned program was more than an obsession; it was the only reason for his existence.”
Hal’s programmers require him to withhold pertinent information from Bowman and Poole so that the two men don’t need to lie to the public when they communicate with the news media. The mission planners rationalized that the computer would have a much easier time keeping a secret than two people would.
Clarke writes of Hal:
“Deliberate error was unthinkable. Even the concealment of truth filled him with a sense of imperfection, of wrongness—of what, in a human being, would have been called guilt. For like his makers, Hal had been created to be innocent; but, all too soon, a snake had entered his electronic Eden.”
This creates a “conflict that was slowly destroying his integrity—the conflict between truth, and the concealment of truth.”
And this conflict ultimately compels Hal to commit murder to ensure his own survival, and the story becomes one of man vs. machine.
Hal proves to be a chilling and formidable villain. Tension and stakes are at their highest now as one lone man fights against the culmination of countless generations of technological advancement. This is great stuff here, the pinnacle of the story in either medium.
It’s also a full-circle moment. The dark side of tools is present from the very beginning, when they’re used against another tribe of proto-humans. The real-world Cold War, and consequently the specter of possible nuclear armageddon, looms over the whole story. In 2001, a tool achieves its own evolution and becomes deadly. This could have worked as the climax.
But then, once this storyline reaches its conclusion, the book and movie both continue onward. And things get strange.
I almost wish the story had ended soon after Hal’s defeat, but I see what Clarke was going for. He needed to finish what he started back at the dawn of humanity, as well as pay off that black monolith. So the end propels us further along the evolutionary chain.
In these final scenes, the book’s ideas are interesting and the movie’s visuals are trippy, but we don’t know Bowman well enough for anything to resonate. He ends up representing all of humanity, which is too much for one thinly drawn character. We lack any sense of what these bizarre events mean to him personally.
But Hal is a marvelous character, and even though he endangers everyone, he saves the story by channeling all those interesting ideas into an interesting conflict.
The folks over at God of the Desert Books have been sharing all sorts of “controversial opinions” lately. I have my own controversial opinion … about ice cream.
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