Effabling the Ineffable in 2001: A Space Odyssey

The most memorable moments of the film version of 2001: A Space Odyssey are the opening, with the rendition of Strauss’ “Thus Spake Zarathustra” and the monkeys wielding lethal porcine femurs, followed by the exchanges between the self-aware robot HAL 9000 and the crew of the spaceship Discovery

What makes these moments so familiar is the  film’s brilliant way of expressing emotions and ideas without words. In that first scene, there are no words and everything we understand about the humanoid apes is from expression and action. In the scenes with HAL and the astronaut David Bowman, the two sides are a perfect demonstration of a two-faced relationship where what is said and what is felt are completely at odds. Bowman and HAL are nothing but polite to one another. But there’s no hiding the domestic conflict they find themselves in. Even though it is between a man and a computer, it is far more evocative than similar clashes in films like Single White Female or Sleeping with the Enemy. They are friendly and engaging, but the audience sees the unstated and parallel machinations of mistrust. 

The  film 2001 is so successful at not using words to convey plot and emotion that the concurrently-written novel suffers in comparison. Arthur C. Clarke’s HAL is less demonic than the film version simply because more is told about him. Any kid can tell you the most frightening thing in the world is the unknown. Explaining the unknown steals its thunder, and that is what happens in the final third of Clarke’s novel. 

In the novel, we learn more about why HAL kills the crew. And though this information is more satisfying logically, it is not as successful artistically since there is less room to interpret that great mystery: why does this robot try to kill its makers?

I also felt the HAL plot in the novel is given short shrift. It is only a few dozen pages and was speedily delivered, with more attention given to the crew’s mission and their travels around Jupiter and Saturn than to the mounting tension of HAL’s malfunction. The clash between HAL and the astronauts comes about suddenly and is quickly resolved, though in a far different way than in the film version. (The finale of Alien owes A.C.C. a royalty check.) The pacing issue also confuses what is really happening. In the film, the methodical, plodding pace of HAL’s intent to kill the astronauts shows more clearly that he is going mad. The novel portrays HAL making sudden, inexplicable errors, making him seem just erratic and reactionary, not malevolent.  

But in all fairness, there is one aspect of the novel HAL that is more fascinating than the film counterpart, and that is the idea that he was created organically. In trying to create a computer that learns and functions the same as a human, Clarke imagines HAL’s creators relying on algorithms they can employ to create vast intelligence, but even they do not fully understand how he works. This makes HAL seem more human, like a bioengineered entity that has grown out of control. A scary thought, indeed.

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