Space Odyssey: The Making of a Masterpiece by Michael Benson

Caution: Geniuses at Work

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the release of 2001: A Space Odyssey, the masterpiece science fiction film that grew out of a collaboration between two creative geniuses, Arthur C Clarke and Stanley Kubrick. In this book, Michael Benson tells the story of that collaboration, and of the making of the film, its release and its impact at the time and since.

A couple of years ago, I had the amazing experience of reading Clarke’s book and then immediately watching Kubrick’s film, and discovering how wonderfully they enhance each other. Until then, I hadn’t realised they arose out of a joint venture – I had assumed Clarke had written the book first and then Kubrick had decided to turn it into a film. Benson starts by telling the story of how Kubrick wanted to make the first “really good” science fiction movie and, as research, immersed himself in the SF literature of the day, including reading Clarke’s Childhood’s End. This led him to approach Clarke with a view to them working together. At that stage, the plan was to make a kind of future history of man’s experiences in space. Throughout his book, Benson shows how this initial plan grew and altered stage by stage until it became the book and film that were ultimately released, and gives a fascinating picture of two creative giants working together, mostly in harmony, each inspiring the other so that the end results were greater than either could have achieved alone.

Kubrick and Clarke on set

Benson is clearly a huge admirer of the film and of both men, but he’s not so starry-eyed as to be uncritical when it’s deserved. Clarke was struggling financially as the project began, while Kubrick was riding high on the back of the success of his previous film, Dr Strangelove. This meant Kubrick had disproportionate power in the making of the deal between them, and he wasn’t hesitant in making sure the lion’s share of all profits and credit would come his way. He also retained control over every aspect, including when Clarke would be allowed to release the book. Since the making of the film fell years behind schedule, this caused Clarke considerable financial woe. But Benson also shows that the two men managed to survive this kind of friction without it dimming their appreciation of each other’s genius. Benson’s book is a warm-hearted portrayal of both men and it seems to me he tries hard, and succeeds, in giving due credit to both.

The book is an excellently balanced mix of the technical geekery of film-making with the human creativity behind it. Not just Clarke and Kubrick, but all of the major members of the crew come to life, as Benson illustrates their personalities with well-timed and well-told anecdotes about life on the set. The quality of Benson’s writing is first-rate, and I loved that he would break up the more technical side of the story by introducing “voices” for some of the people to whom he introduces us. For example, when a young lad looking for his first break in movie-making goes off to meet Kubrick, Benson tells the story in a kind of Holden Caulfield voice, while the filming of the scene of Kubrick’s little daughter talking to her on-screen daddy is told charmingly, as if from her six-year-old perspective.

Kubrick and his daughter Vivian

Clarke fades a little from the story once his book is more or less written, although the two men continued to consult and communicate throughout the project. But once the filming gets underway, Benson concentrates more on Kubrick and his crew. He shows the innovative techniques they developed as they went along to create not only the special effects but an entire overarching style. Kubrick is shown as demanding, a perfectionist, always pushing a little further than his crew believed they could go until they discovered that they could go further after all. Although he had his faults – a willingness to risk his actors’ and crew’s safety in pursuit of his art, for example – the impression comes through strongly that the people around him admired, respected and even loved him. Benson gives generous praise to each of the other creatives who contributed to the movie, detailing each innovative technique and who was involved in achieving it. As he describes it, it felt to me like an orchestra full of individually brilliant musicians, with Kubrick as the genius conductor melding their talents into a wonderfully harmonious whole.

Kubrick setting up a shot

In the final section, Benson describes the release of the movie, initially panned by all the middle-aged men (and occasionally women) in suits in movie world, from studio chiefs to movie critics. He explains how Kubrick watched audience reaction minute by minute to see what worked and what didn’t, eventually cutting nineteen minutes from the original running time. But he and others also noticed that young people in the audience seemed to “get” it in a way that the movie professionals didn’t at first. Despite the critics, audience figures gave an indication that word of mouth was making the movie a success. Gradually, even the original critics mostly came round, and admitted that on second and third viewing they “got” it too. The film’s success was crowned with a raft of Oscar nominations, though in an extremely competitive year that included Oliver! and The Lion in Winter amongst others, eventually it took only one, rather fittingly for Best Special Visual Effects.

I haven’t even touched on a lot of what is included in this comprehensive book, such as how Kubrick decided on the music for the film, or how the man-apes were conceived and created. The quality of the writing and research together with Benson’s great storytelling ability make this not only informative but a real pleasure to read – as much a masterpiece of its kind as the original film and book are of theirs. Highly recommended.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Simon & Schuster.

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FictionFan Awards 2016 – Genre Fiction

Drum roll please…

…for this year’s nominees and winners of the annual FictionFan Awards of 2016.

For the benefit of new readers, and as a reminder for anyone who was around last year, here’s a quick résumé of the rules…

THE CRITERIA

All nominees must be books I’ve read and reviewed between November 2015 and October 2016 regardless of publication date, but excluding re-reads. The books must have received a 5-star rating.

THE CATEGORIES

The categories tend to change slightly each year to better reflect what I’ve been reading during the year.

There will be Honourable Mentions and a Winner in each of the following categories:

Genre Fiction

Factual

Crime Fiction/Thrillers

Literary Fiction

…and…

Book of the Year 2016

THE PRIZES

For the winners!

I guarantee to read the author’s next book even if I have to buy it myself!

(NB If an author is unlikely to publish another book due to being dead, I will read a book from his/her back catalogue…)

For the runners-up!

Nothing!

THE JUDGES

Me!

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So, without further ado, here are this year’s runners-up and winner in

GENRE FICTION

The FF definition of ‘genre fiction’ for the purpose of these awards is basically anything that doesn’t quite fit into one of the other categories. I’ve read very little genre fiction this year – in fact, my reading in general is way down due to the depressing effect of world events combined with an excess of tennis watching. Fortunately the comparatively little I have read has had plenty of good stuff in it. This year I’ve also decided to include genre films in this category, since I’ve been reviewing films on the blog a little more, and genre films are often as good or better than the books (a thing I wouldn’t generally say about adaptations of literary or crime fiction). Most of the genre fiction I’ve read have been classics with just one or two new releases.

HONOURABLE MENTIONS

fear is the riderFear is the Rider by Kenneth Cook

It’s 50 degrees centigrade outside as John Shaw is driving over one of the most dangerous roads in the Australian outback, and there isn’t a house within two hundred kilometres. A terrified girl has run out in front of his vehicle, running for her life. Now they’re racing along the track, but someone is behind them, and he’s catching up…

This thriller with a horror element is pure action from beginning to end. Cook doesn’t give us any explanations or much character development, either of which would just serve to slow the pace. Neither of the main characters is a superhero – just two ordinary people caught up in an insane terror. The pacing is great – it never lets up! It’s novella length and definitely one to be read in one sitting – no chapters, just a heart-pounding race with a new peril thrown in every few pages, leading up to a truly fab climax. A thriller that’s actually thrilling and isn’t trying to be anything else – great stuff!

Click to see the full review

Danger sign

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the machine stopsThe Machine Stops by EM Forster

At some time in EM Forster’s distant future, but not seeming quite so distant now, man has created a Machine to fulfil all his wants, and has now handed over control of life to the Machine. People sit in their individual rooms, never physically meeting other humans. But one man is convinced that the Machine is no longer the servant of the people and has become instead their master. And he prophesies that one day the Machine may stop…

What a fantastic story! The joy of it is all in the telling. The writing is wonderful, not to mention the imagination that, in 1909, envisaged a world that takes its trajectory straight through today and on to an all too believable future. A warning from the past to us in the present of where we may easily end up if we continue on the road we’re travelling. Full of some disturbing images, a little bit of horror and a tiny bit of hope, this is a masterpiece of short story writing.

Click to see the full review

the machine stops art

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the children's homeThe Children’s Home by Charles Lambert

Morgan was a beautiful young man but a terrible incident has left him so horribly disfigured he can no longer face the world. So he stays holed up in the house his grandfather built while his sister runs the family business that keeps them both wealthy. The only person Morgan lets see him is his housekeeper, Engel. But one day Engel finds a baby left outside the house. The two of them agree not to tell the authorities and so the child becomes part of the household. Shortly after, another child arrives, then another, until before long there are seven of them… and more keep coming. No-one knows where they’re coming from and the children never say, but Morgan is becoming convinced that these children have the power to appear and disappear at will. And soon it seems as if they’ve come for a purpose…

The quality of imagination in this book is matched by the quality of the writing. It reads like a corrupted fairytale, reminding me of Shirley Jackson, with elements of John Wyndham thrown in to the mix. But these references don’t take away from the book’s own originality. There is an unsettling tone of horror under the seemingly bright surface, and the story gets progressively darker as it proceeds. There are parts that are truly shocking and the writing is of such quality as to create some images that stay long after the last page has been turned. Is it sci-fi? Horror? Fantasy? Lit-fic? Yes, to all of the above. It’s the first book for a long time that has had me gasping aloud in shock…

Click to see the full review

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FICTIONFAN AWARD WINNER 2016

for

BEST GENRE FICTION

2001 both1

2001: A Space Odyssey – book and film

The first ever joint winner! The book and film were created jointly and intended to complement each other, and each adds hugely to the enjoyment and understanding of the other, so they can’t be separated.

A tribe of man-apes is visited by aliens who use a strange artefact to stimulate their minds, thus setting them on a course to become fully human and develop the intelligence that will eventually allow them to dominate their world. Millennia later, mankind has reached the moon, only to find hidden another similar artefact, one that this time will send them on a journey to the furthest reaches of the solar system and perhaps beyond…

Arthur C Clarke and  Stanley Kubrick developed the basic idea together based on some earlier stories of Clarke’s, although the film does diverge somewhat from the book, especially around the mystical ending. The book, while still leaving much open to interpretation, tells the story much more clearly, while the film concentrates on visuals and effects to create a kind of mystical experience that, in Kubrick’s words, “hits the viewer at an inner level of consciousness, just as music does, or painting.”

Apparently Clarke said “I always used to tell people, ‘Read the book, see the film, and repeat the dose as often as necessary’”. I heartily concur. Reading the book first turned watching the film into an fantastic experience, and next time I read the book, I’ll have the fabulous images and music from the film running in my head. Two parts that are differently great but which, together, become something uniquely wonderful.

Click to see the book review

Click to see the film review

2001 poster

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Next week: Best Factual Award

Film of the Book: 2001: A Space Odyssey

Directed by Stanley Kubrick (1968)

2001 eye gif

From the book review:

A tribe of man-apes is visited by aliens who use a strange artefact to stimulate their minds, thus setting them on a course to become fully human and develop the intelligence that will eventually allow them to dominate their world. Millennia later, mankind has reached the moon, only to find hidden another similar artefact, one that this time will send them on a journey to the furthest reaches of the solar system and perhaps beyond…

Well, it’s easy to see why this one is considered a sci-fi great. It has everything a good cult classic should have – lots of hard science, a just about feasible premise and a completely incomprehensible ending that leaves the door open for readers to make up their own interpretation, which they have apparently been doing with varying degrees of wackiness since the book was first published in 1968.

You can read the full book review by clicking here.

Film of the Book

This is a film I’ve tried to watch a few times in the past, and on each occasion have given up halfway through in order to prevent death from boredom. So I was intrigued to see whether reading the book would change my opinion of the film.

And, boy! Yes, it does!!

2001 monolith

What I never realised before is that both book and film were written simultaneously as a joint venture between Arthur C Clarke and Stanley Kubrick. The film screenplay is credited to Kubrick and Clarke, in that order, and apparently the book was originally intended to be credited to Clarke and Kubrick, in that order, to highlight the specific influence of each man on each medium. They developed the basic idea together based on some earlier stories of Clarke’s, although the film does diverge somewhat from the book, especially around that mystical ending. The book, while still leaving much open to interpretation, tells the story much more clearly, while the film concentrates on visuals and effects to create a kind of mystical experience that, in Kubrick’s words, “hits the viewer at an inner level of consciousness, just as music does, or painting.”

OK, then. That probably works for people who instinctively “understand” music and painting, but I’m strictly a words kind of gal, which is probably why the film didn’t initially work for me. But having read the book, on this viewing I wasn’t trying to work out what it all meant, or sighing with exasperation at the lack of dialogue. Instead, I was able to watch it as intended – as an amazing visual and sound experience that, once I could get into the flow, took me on a trip as acidy as anything that came out of the ’60s.

2001 man-apes

The first section, the dawn of man, works much better in the book in terms of giving a real insight into the society of the man-apes and how the alien monolith influenced their development. In the film, it’s beautifully shot with some truly glorious imagery, climaxing with the fabulous Also sprach Zarathustra music. The man-apes themselves do unfortunately look somewhat like men in ape costumes occasionally, but I suspect that’s because years of CGI have set our expectations too high. But knowing what was happening meant that it didn’t matter that the film perhaps didn’t get the full meaning across – the book was in my head almost like an explanatory (and unobtrusive) voice-over.

The section on the moon is probably the most dialogue-heavy part of the film, which helps to explain a little what’s going on. It also humanises the film a little, being almost the only place where we see people interacting with each other.

The space journey to Jupiter (unlike in the book, where Saturn is the destination) gives Kubrick the chance to play brilliantly with special effects, especially of weightlessness. The fact that these effects still work some half a century later is pretty amazing, and great to see how he interpreted Clarke’s detailed descriptions of how space flight works. Using Strauss’ Blue Danube waltz as the music during the space sequences is inspired – it works so well with the floatiness of everything that happens in and out of the ship. The film cuts a lot of the sciency stuff out, though – no sampling the crust of comets, nor sling-shotting around Mars and so on – but I did feel in the book that this section got a little bogged down in science, so the film worked well for me here in concentrating more on technical stuff and in moving the story along.

In the film, I’m not at all sure if I would have caught the reasons why HAL, the ship’s sentient computer, begins to malfunction but, again, the book explains this much more clearly, while the film makes it a rather more emotional sequence, I think. There’s very little opportunity for the actors to shine, since they don’t do much except turn switches on and off and talk to the computer, but actually I was impressed by Keir Dullea’s performance as Dave Bowman. In some scenes, the camera stares directly into his face for extended periods and, with little dialogue, he manages to get across a range of changing emotions very well.

2001 - Dave

But the star of the show (and in the past I’ve always given up before I got to this bit) is the surreal and truly psychedelic sequence in the fourth and final section. All done to some beautifully dissonant modernist music composed by Georgy Ligety, the effects are wonderful – a kaleidoscope of amazingly imaginative spacescapes, ever-changing but in a flow, creating a real feeling of infinity and the awful grandeur and possibilities of the universe. Then a totally surreal section by which, frankly, I would have been baffled if I hadn’t read the book, and finished with what seems like a fairly major variation from the book, but which, on reflection, is certainly within the same philosophical ballpark. I’m telling you, man, it totally blew my mind! Awesome!

My dear friend wikipedia (to whom thanks for all my newly acquired background knowledge) tells me that Clarke said “I always used to tell people, ‘Read the book, see the film, and repeat the dose as often as necessary’”. I heartily concur, and have an urgent desire now to read the book then see the film all over again. And next time I read the book, I’ll have the fabulous images and music from the film running in my head. Two parts that are differently great but which, together, become something uniquely wonderful.

★ ★ ★ ★★

And so, for the first and perhaps only time…

The Winner in the Book v Film Battle is…

2001 both1

BOTH TOGETHER!

 

2001: A Space Odyssey by Arthur C Clarke

Far out, man!

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

2001 a space odysseyA tribe of man-apes is visited by aliens who use a strange artefact to stimulate their minds, thus setting them on a course to become fully human and develop the intelligence that will eventually allow them to dominate their world. Millennia later, mankind has reached the moon, only to find hidden another similar artefact, one that this time will send them on a journey to the furthest reaches of the solar system and perhaps beyond…

Well, it’s easy to see why this one is considered a sci-fi great. It has everything a good cult classic should have – lots of hard science, a just about feasible premise and a completely incomprehensible ending that leaves the door open for readers to make up their own interpretation, which they have apparently been doing with varying degrees of wackiness since the book was first published in 1968.

The first section about the man-apes is brilliant. Their lives are precarious – foragers living with the constant threat of starvation in a world full of predators. We must surely all have wondered at some time what inspired man to tame fire, create the first tools, decide to do that really strange thing of cooking dead animals for food. Clarke gives us an answer and makes it believable within the context of the book. The aliens don’t directly interfere in the man-apes’ existence, merely give a subtle nudge to the thought processes of the most intelligent, but this is enough to change the future development of the species. We see them develop the first beginnings of tribal society, the team work and innovation that will in time lead mankind to wish to understand the workings of their universe. It’s written incredibly well, with a very clear feel for the man-apes being delicately balanced between extinction or survival.

From the Kubrick film
From the Kubrick film

We then jump to the near future (at the time of writing) – 2001. The first colonists on the moon have discovered an ancient monolith and one of Earth’s greatest scientists has been sent to investigate. Again, Clarke is excellent on the imaginative details of how a lunar colony would work. Obviously some of the future details have turned out to be wrong – not least that mankind still hasn’t managed to colonise the moon, much to my regret. But mostly the scientific aspects feel very sound to my non-scientist mind.

A mission is sent off to Saturn. Like the crew, the reader doesn’t exactly know why, though we’re one step ahead in that we assume it’s something to do with the monolith, about which the crew know nothing. Three of the crew are in stasis for the journey, while the ship is being run by Poole and Bowman with the crucial assistance of their advanced computer HAL – an artificial intelligence, and the only one who knows the true nature of the mission. Unfortunately (and haven’t we all had this problem?) the computer starts to malfunction and the mission begins to go seriously wrong. This section is chock full of the then known science of the planets and space travel, and occasionally begins to read just a little too much like a text book for my liking. However, it’s intriguing to compare Clarke’s projections with what we now know and to see that some of the experiments he had his characters carry out have since happened in real life – sampling the crust of a comet for instance.

2001 moon monolith

The final section is where it all goes a bit woo-woo (I think that’s the technical term). It all gets terribly mystical or even spiritual if you’re that way inclined. Clarke said…

“…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. Yet 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, some critics to the contrary.”

He is talking of the movie here, but much the same could probably be said of the book. (I wasn’t aware that the book and the movie were produced as a kind of joint venture, although apparently they ended up with differences in emphasis and interpretation – I’m intrigued now to see the movie and make the comparison for myself.)

Arthur C Clarke
Arthur C Clarke

As far as my own interpretation of the ending goes, hmm… well, my first reaction was to find it deeply disappointing and a bit silly. But it’s one of those that left me pondering – on what makes humanity human, on what makes God God, on the creational relationship between man and God – so I guess you can tell I’m going with the spiritual explanation. In fact, while I wouldn’t go so far as to say it puts forward a credible scientific explanation of God, I do think it’s philosophically quite intriguing and thought-provoking. Though if I was an eighteen-year-old smoking a spliff in my student digs with a bunch of other students, I’m pretty sure I’d be summing it all up as “Woo! Far out, man!” Assuming this was still the ’60s, of course.

Film of the Book comparison coming soon… should be groovy!

Psychedelic, man!
Psychedelic, man!

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