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The silence of space



Sir Arthur C. Clarke with his satellite dish

One aspect of the novel The Sentinel that probably hurt the film 2001 is its silence. Right to the end, that movie stalked him. When British science-fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke died last Tuesday at the age of 90, it was the finale of a career that saw the publication of scores of entertaining books and the conception of at least one idea (communication satellites, which he thought up in 1945) that changed the course of history.

Despite all that, however, he was still probably best known for his involvement in the famed 1968 film 2001: A Space Odyssey. Indeed, Clarke died less than three weeks before the movie’s 40th anniversary, in April.

As Clarke’s days as an author concluded, so they began: one of his first efforts in the field of science fiction (SF) was the 1951 short story “The Sentinel,” which would become the kernel of 2001.

“The Sentinel” is doubly important, because it hinted at an odd side of the man - a side that continues to perplex SF commentators. As a radar specialist in the Second World War and a student of physics and mathematics at university, Clarke could have been expected to produce nuts-and-bolts tales about people in space.

By contrast, “The Sentinel” tells of the discovery of a mysterious artifact on the Moon. Only too late do the discoverers realize that the artifact is an alarm system, set in place eons before to alert its extraterrestrial creators when humans ventured forth from Earth.

The story ends with mankind anxiously awaiting whatever event has been put in motion. The unsettling premise of “The Sentinel” - that we are being watched, and that something is going to happen to us - was taken much further in Clarke’s 1953 novel Childhood’s End.

One of the all-time, celebrated works of SF, this book is profoundly disturbing. It proposes that humanity is close to a dangerous, psychic turning point experienced by many developing civilizations across the galaxy.

On cue, a titanic, collective entity, called the Overmind, sends emissaries to Earth to supervise an orderly transition to our new state - which is itself nightmarish. Every child on the planet begins to transcend time and space and convert into a component of the Overmind. The rest of us are left to die off.

In Childhood’s End, Clarke revealed himself as a fatalist and a mystic. The religious aspect of the book is emphasized by the Overmind’s emissaries, a race of subordinate aliens who look like demons.

The Overmind’s agents lecture a stunned Earth: “You might have become a telepathic cancer, a malignant mentality which in its inevitable dissolution would have poisoned other and greater minds.”

Enter film director Stanley Kubrick. By the 1960s, Kubrick already had a reputation for a black view of the world. In just two years, he had brought out Lolita (1962), an adaption of Vladimir Nabokov’s still-notorious novel, and Dr. Strangelove (1964), which turned nuclear armageddon into comedy.

According to a 1997 biography of Kubrick by John Baxter, a Hollywood publicist named Roger Caras learned in early 1964 that Kubrick wanted to tackle an SF picture. Caras suggested to the director that he contact Clarke.

Clarke and Kubrick met in New York in April, 1964, and they formally agreed to collaborate a month later. Predictably, Kubrick’s first impulse was to film Childhood’s End, but that had already been optioned (although never filmed) at the time.

Instead, “The Sentinel” became the springboard. As later recollected by Clarke, it was Kubrick who thought up the final title for the project - 2001: A Space Odyssey.

In an unusual move, Kubrick insisted that a full novel, in addition to a script, be in place before shooting started. Although Kubrick may have dominated the script (with Clarke’s input), the book was Clarke’s baby (with Kubrick’s input). Clarke thus began expanding “The Sentinel.” The book was ready to be sent to a publisher by the spring of 1966, two years before the film would be released.

The book did not see print until the summer of 1968, months after the film’s release, making the book unfairly seem like an afterthought. To this day, some film critics pay little or no attention to it, even though it is probably the most-important piece of documentation about the movie, explaining almost everything that is so arcane in the screen version.

The wild light-show near the end of the movie? Astronaut David Bowman is being taken through a trans-dimensional “star gate” to the abode of the unseen aliens. The strange room in which he finds himself when he arrives?

Just a maladroit attempt by those aliens to put him at ease before they begin the task of turning him into something more than human. And, once transformed into a “star child” at the conclusion, why is Bowman floating above the Earth? The book makes clear he now controls the planet, for better or worse.

Likewise, the iconic, black monoliths used by the aliens in the movie to guide the evolution of humanity actually come in a variety of sizes, shapes, and colours in the book. (Baxter says transparent slabs and even tetrahedrons were considered by Kubrick but abandoned for aesthetic or technical reasons.) One aspect of the novel that probably hurt the film is its silence.

Almost half the book has no dialogue and uses only descriptive passages. Although a book can get away with that, a movie cannot unless accompanied by something like a narration. Until its general release on April 6, 1968, the movie did indeed have narrated sequences.

As reconstructed in a chronology by writer Carolyn Deguld back in 1973, previews for studio executives and the media did not go well - with the long running time being a frequent complaint - and Kubrick considerably shortened the film.

The narration was among the cut material. Kubrick would later play up the wordless style of the film and not mention the missing narration - or the book.

Clarke never showed much bitterness over his treatment, likely because (as usual) he could see farther down the road. For the rest of the 1900s - which ended with his receipt of a knighthood - and a bit into the 2000s, he would be Mr. 2001.

 

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