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The Making of a Myth: The Story Behind Kubrick's '2001'

In 1964, Stanley Kubrick wrote to science-fiction author Arthur C. Clarke. He explained he was a “a great admirer” of his books, and that he “had always wanted to discuss with [him] the possibility of doing the proverbial really good science-fiction movie.”

Kubrick outlined his ideas:

"My main interest lies along these broad areas, naturally assuming great plot and character:
The reasons for believing in the existence of intelligent extra-terrestrial life.
The impact (and perhaps even lack of impact in some quarters) such discovery would have on Earth in the near future.
A space probe with a landing and exploration of the Moon and Mars.

The pair met, and a treatment was written, based around Clarke’s short story, “The Sentinel” (later published as “The Sentinel of Eternity” in 1953), in which a strange, tetrahedral artifact is discovered on the Moon. The story’s narrator speculates that the object has been left as a “warning beacon” for some ancient alien intelligence to signal humanity’s evolutionary advance towards space travel.

At the same time Kubrick was making 2001: A Space Odyssey, Clarke was writing his own version as a novel.

Having viewed Kubrick’s film rushes, Clarke wrote an explicit interpretation of the film, explaining many of the themes left open-ended in the movie. In particular, how the central character, David Bowman ends his days in what is described as a kind of living museum or zoo, where he is observed by alien life forms.

Kubrick was never as explicit, and refused to be fully drawn over the film’s meaning, or its many differences from Clarke’s novel, usually stating that his intention had been to make a “really good science-fiction movie.”

In an interview with Playboy in 1968, Kubrick gave an answer on the meaning and purpose of human existence, which could almost be a description of 2001:

“The very meaninglessness of life forces man to create his own meaning. Children, of course, begin life with an untarnished sense of wonder, a capacity to experience total joy at something as simple as the greenness of a leaf; but as they grow older, the awareness of death and decay begins to impinge on their consciousness and subtly erode their joie de vivre, their idealism – and their assumption of immortality. As a child matures, he sees death and pain everywhere about him, and begins to lose faith in the ultimate goodness of man. But, if he’s reasonably strong – and lucky – he can emerge from this twilight of the soul into a rebirth of life’s elan. Both because of and in spite of his awareness of the meaninglessness of life, he can forge a fresh sense of purpose and affirmation. He may not recapture the same pure sense of wonder he was born with, but he can shape something far more enduring and sustaining. The most terrifying fact about the universe is not that it is hostile but that it is indifferent; but if we can come to terms with this indifference and accept the challenges of life within the boundaries of death – however mutable man may be able to make them – our existence as a species can have genuine meaning and fulfillment. However vast the darkness, we must supply our own light.”

The documentary 2001: The Making of a Myth is introduced by James Cameron, who looks at the stories behind 2001: A Space Odyssey, examining why the film has endured and why it still generates such interest. With contributions form Arthur C. Clarke, Keir Dullea, Elvis Mitchell, and Douglas Trumbull.

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