Books vs. Film, Words vs. Images, Viewer vs. Reader, Viewer vs. Viewer
On its release, the film of 2001 confounded many. It also made many begin to recognise the potential for conveying complex ideas and concepts through cinematic image as powerfully as one could through dialogue or prose. Of course this was nothing new - painters had been doing it for millennia - but even by the Sixties cinema struggled against its second-fiddle artistic standing, and 2001 has been seen as one of the many jolts that has shunted it up towards its peers. Of course, conveying ideas in cinema was as old as cinema itself - after all, for its first two decades its words had been limited to single-sentence cue-cards interspersing silent action. Whilst conveying a narrative and conveying concepts are not necessarily the same thing, the history of cinema pre-1968, drawing on the turmoil of ideology that engulfed its century, is littered with the conceptual, the impressionistic and the abstract. As Kubrick has said, "Man in the twentieth century has been cast adrift in a rudderless boat on an uncharted sea. The very meaningless of life forces man to create his own meaning. If it can be written or thought, it can be filmed." In this respect 2001 was nothing new.
However, much of the best cinema of ideas suggests through imagery the beginnings of notions that are 'padded out' by one's own perceptions, preconceptions and thought processes. And this very ambiguity, or at least subjectivity of concept was what made people sit up and notice the centrality of complex, abstract ideas to 2001's framework. The film is two hours and twenty minutes long, but contains barely forty minutes of dialogue, and for the first twenty-three minutes not a single word is spoken. And whereas the book is full of exposition (much of which existed in early drafts of the screenplay), the film seems to pose more questions than it answers.
At the risk of a platitude, the book is about the intellectual experience of digesting the exposition, but the film is a more sensory experience. Whilst this is often true across the two media, it is particularly the case for 2001: originally presented in 70mm Cinerama, the screen would curve slightly around the audience; and the beautiful and strange images, and ambient and often disconcertingly soundtrack conveys the film's message emotionally and viscerally. As Kubrick says, "Sometimes the truth of a thing is not so much in the think of it, as in the feel of it."
Inevitably then, the film threw up as many interpretations as it had viewers. "In a film like 2001, where each viewer brings his own emotions and perceptions to bear on the subject matter, a certain degree of ambiguity is valuable, because it allows the audience to 'fill in' the visual experience themselves." Kubrick again, in a 1969 interview. Or less encouragingly, as Clarke kept telling the press at the time of the film's release (much to the chagrin of the M-G-M bosses), "If you understand 2001 on the first viewing, we will have failed." To which he expanded on later with: "because we were dealing with the mystery of the Universe, and with powers and forces greater than man's comprehension, then by definition they could not be totally understandable." As Hal would say, "It's puzzling. I don't think I've ever seen anything quite like this before." Yet, Clarke persists, "there is at least one logical structure - and sometimes more than one - behind everything that happens on the screen in 2001, and the ending does not consist of random enigmas." However, returning to the importance of the subjectivity of the experience, Clarke concludes that, "You will find my interpretation in the novel; it is not necessarily Kubrick's. Nor is his necessarily the 'right' one - whatever that means."
Ultimately, despite the protestations of many devotees of each to exalt one above the other, the book and film agree more often than they contradict, and there are, by and large, few meanings in one that cannot be inferred from the other. So, for the moment, it is convenient to take the meanings expounded explicitly in the novel as a starting point from which to analyse both book and film.
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