Any analysis of Arthur C. Clarke’s novel 2001: A Space Odyssey cannot help but make reference to the Stanley Kubrick film made in collaboration and concert with the book. One of the conventional wisdoms of adapting novels in to film is that “the book is always better.” Jaws, Gone with the Wind and a host of other examples proves this to be less than 100% accurate. In most cases, of course, it is ridiculous to even try to draw parallels and make the comparison. A novel and film are as unalike in conception and purpose as a painting and a photograph. Still—as with Jaws, which is a very cinematic work of literature—occasions do arise which allow the perfect opportunity to make that very comparison. Perhaps none more than 2001: A Space Odyssey.
The film which bears that title is regarded as one of the greatest examples of filmmaking in the history of the medium. Kubrick’s film routinely makes it into the conversation on the best science fiction films of all time, the best films of the 1960’s and, among some, the best films ever made. The latter view is universally shared, however. In fact, a significant portion of moviegoers are not exactly accurately described as fans of the film. Why? It lacks what Hollywood has devised as the structure most ideally suited to the elements of film for telling a story: a recognizable plot, engaging characters and dialogue which enhances and expands upon those narrative components. In other words, for a great many people 2001: A Space Odyssey is a film that lacks what they desire most in a movie: a beginning, a middle and end which explains it all.
This lacking in traditional storytelling elements is what makes 2001: A Space Odyssey far more preferable in novel form. Everything that is there on the screen is there in the book. Story-wise, that is. What is also in the novel are those things that those looking for a story will not find in the film. The characters are fleshed out (though it would still be a stretch to call them three-dimensional) and, perhaps more importantly, many of the Big Questions that viewers are left to interpret for themselves are also included in the novel.
This may well be the only case in the history of film adaptations where those who love the movie should actively avoid reading the book. Part of the enjoyment of the film for a great many is the mystery of what it all means. The movie can charitably be described as “ambiguous” on a number of issues, right from the start. For instance, the book endows that ape which famously tosses the bone into the air that begins a spaceship with character. Moon-Watcher literally becomes a character whose motivations are are examined in greater detail than in the movie. The difference between the book character and the movie character is extended throughout.
Ultimately, Arthur C. Clarke has written a book for those who want answer more than they want mystery. If you desire mystery more than answers, stick with the flick.