2001 on Screen: A History of the Future

On May 25th, 1961, President John F. Kennedy vowed that the United States would land a man on the moon before the end of the decade. By the spring of 1964, in the words of Arthur C. Clarke, "the lunar landing still seemed psychologically a dream of the far future." Nevertheless, it was this year that Stanley Kubrick, fresh from the success of his Cold War satire Dr. Strangelove, vowed to make the "proverbial really good science-fiction movie". Despite the reputation he had garnered as a artistically inclined auteur, Kubrick was not averse to box-office returns, and he envisaged his movie as one that could in some ways cash in on the prevalent 'space fever.' Nevertheless, it was clear from the outset that this project was not going to be any old film about space. "He wanted to make a movie about man's place relation to the universe," recalls Clarke. "Stanley was determined to create a work of art which would arouse the emotions of wonder, awe - even, if appropriate, terror." As Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer president Robert O'Brien promised at the start of production, "One thing is certain - it won't be a Buck Rogers kind of space epic."

It is hard to conceive of a studio these days bankrolling a project as ambitious and - in many ways - obscure as 2001. Indeed Clarke admits that Kubrick wanted to make "a project likely to give a heart attack to any studio head of the old school, or, for that matter, of the new one. It's certainly difficult to imagine it being welcomed in Hollywood today." However, in the mid-1960s conditions in Hollywood were just right. The 1950s had seen the introduction of television, the collapse of the old studio system following the 1948 Paramount anti-trust decrees, and McCarthyite blacklists sap Hollywood of many of its most creative minds and world-wide prestige. Against this backdrop, many studios began to take expensive gambles on experimental widescreen and colour technologies, as well as encouraging the more avant- garde elements within its fraternity. It was during this period, before the corporate elements began to reassert control and exalt the profit motive above other concerns, that Stanley Kubrick came to the fore.

Unfamiliar with the genre of science-fiction, Kubrick had an assistant compile a list of the best science- fiction writers, with the intention of reading one book by each of them. But as the Dr Strangelove publicist Roger Caras said, "Why waste your time reading everyone else? Why not just start with the best?" By the best he meant Arthur C. Clarke. Kubrick was at first sceptical, thinking Clarke to be "a nut who lives in a tree in India someplace", and he had already acquired the rights to a novel entitled Shadow on the Sun. Clarke's comment on this story is "I remember nothing whatsoever about it and have even forgotten the author's name." Kubrick was informed that Clarke was definitely not interested in developing other people's ideas (a sentiment he was to go back on in later life with his collaborations with Gentry Lee) and Clarke suggested that Kubrick take a look at his short story The Sentinel which had failed to win anything when entered into a BBC competition in 1948. Recalls Clarke, "Now, before you make a movie, you have to have a script, and before you have a script, you have to have a story; though some avant-garde directors have tried to dispense with the latter item, you'll find their work only at art theatres." Something of an irony, perhaps, given the 'art' reputation that 2001 has gained. But 2001 does have a coherent story, even if one has to delve to find it, and as Kubrick once commented "Ideas are no good, you've got to have a story."

Clarke brought other sources of potential inspiration to the table such as his short story Encounter in the Dawn (1953) and the brainstorming process began.

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