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Kubrick, Clarke and 2001: How Space Odyssey came together

Review: Michael Benson's sprawling new book on Stanley Kubrick's masterpiece marks the classic's 50th anniversary with gripping behind-the-scenes insights.

Director Stanley Kubrick couldn't stand astronomer Carl Sagan.

To discuss the depiction of extraterrestrials in his upcoming film adaptation of an Arthur C. Clarke short story, Kubrick hosted a dinner party with the sci-fi writer and Sagan. And the director found the young astronomer supercilious and patronizing -- at least according to the sprawling new book Space Odyssey: Stanley Kubrick, Arthur C. Clarke, and the Making of a Masterpiece.

Michael Benson's 500-page book explores, in remarkable detail, the conception, creation and aftermath of 2001: A Space Odyssey as the iconic space epic turns 50. (Disclosure: The book is published by Simon & Schuster, which is also owned by CNET parent company CBS.) 

After Kubrick saw his dinner guests to the door at the end of the evening, he rang Clarke an hour later, instructing the writer to "Get rid of [Sagan]. Make any excuse, take him anywhere you like. I don't want to see him again."

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Space Odyssey by Michael Benson

Simon & Schuster

And that's just one of the fascinating insights I got from reading Benson's vivid, authoritative tome, which is packed with stranger-than-fiction anecdotes that make for a narrative as gripping and exciting as a novel.

Benson, a Munich-born American writer, filmmaker and artist, approaches his subject with a passion and interest that started in childhood. 

"My mom took me to see the film when it came out in 1968. I was 6 [and] I was amazed. Ever since, I've thought 'I really should find a way to engage meaningfully with that film. Someday.'" (Read my full interview with Benson here.)

Benson's style is precise and detailed, yet he never veers into obfuscating or alienating the reader. Instead, he reveals his knowledge slowly and carefully, making for an accessible and exciting account of a movie that's notoriously obscure.

Throughout, we're introduced to a host of often curious and eccentric characters, crucial to the success of the movie. These include Kubrick's "intellectual sparring partner" Clarke -- who wrote a tie-in novel with the director, published shortly after the movie -- and the many special effects supervisors responsible for bringing Kubrick's ideas to life.

The movie opened on April 3, 1968, to mixed reviews, with some critics accusing Kubrick's sci-fi of being "dull" and "unimaginative." However, opinions soon changed and 2001: A Space Odyssey eventually came to be considered one of the greatest science fiction movies of all time.  

The movie is now believed by many to be Kubrick's magnum opus.

For those who haven't seen it, 2001: A Space Odyssey chronicles a secretive expedition to Jupiter aboard the US spacecraft Discovery One, after an inexplicable black monolith is found buried on the moon, firing signals toward the gas giant.

But when the ship's sentient computer (known as HAL) begins to malfunction, killing those onboard, the last surviving crew member (played by Keir Dullea) realises he must destroy HAL and complete the mission alone.

In one chapter of Benson's book, we're granted a look at Kubrick's 1965 production notes, which begin to flesh out the many technological advances of Discovery One, such as the internet, tablet computers, video calls and video streaming. All commonplace in society today, but little more than exciting kernels of thought in the 1960s.

We also learn the first working title for the movie was How the Solar System Was Won. Kubrick and Clarke mulled other titles, as well, including Journey Beyond the Stars, Gift from the Stars, Earth Escape, The Star Gate, Jupiter Window and Farewell to Earth.

What's more, Kubrick and Clarke struggled to find a satisfying ending for the film as much as they struggled to find the right name, Benson reveals.

One proposed finale saw Bowman, alone, on the surface of an alien planet walking toward a soft, warm spacecraft. On his approach, the spacecraft rises a few inches before Bowman voluptuously strokes the hull. The ship was meant to represent man's new tool and now Bowman "was the master of the world." Clarke, who came up with the idea, said the ending would "push all sorts of subconscious and even Freudian buttons." Kubrick told Clarke to save it for the book.

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HAL didn't want to open the pod bay doors in 2001: A Space Odyssey, but Google Allo is much more accommodating.

Corbis/Getty Images

Telling his story largely through the relationship between Kubrick and Clarke, Benson suggests their collaboration was often as strenuous and complicated as the movie itself, despite both individuals having great respect and admiration for each other.

One touching anecdote sees Kubrick frying steaks for Clarke, with the director commenting "Joe Levine [a famous director at the time] doesn't do this for his writers." Yet years later, Clarke would consider suing Kubrick for delaying the publication of the tie-in book.

While Benson never spoke to Kubrick directly, he did come to know Clarke toward the end of his life, before he died in 2008. Consequently, the book offers a much clearer view of Clarke's thoughts on the movie and corresponding novel than it does Kubrick's. Clarke, for instance, always struggled to be at peace with the final cut of the movie, which removed his voice-over narration. But he was able to use his novel, and subsequent sequels, to write the story he perhaps wished the film could have been.  

Despite having had no immediate access to Kubrick, Benson strips away the typical image of a mysterious, aloof and almost mythical director to unearth a highly intelligent but sensitive auteur harbouring a perfectionism that seems driven, in part, by self-doubt.

The resulting image this paints of Kubrick remains that of a genius, but one who is perhaps far more fragile and unsure of his own abilities than we may have previously known.

Space Odyssey: Stanley Kubrick, Arthur C. Clarke, and the Making of a Masterpiece comes out from Simon & Schuster on April 3 and is available online or in stores for $30/£20.

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