Arthur C. Clarke’s ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’ Diary

“September 25. Visitors from NASA—Dr. George Mueller, Associate Administrator, and ‘Deke’ Slayton (Director of Flight Crew Operations). Gave them the Grand Tour—they were quite impressed. George made several useful suggestions and asked wistfully if he could have the model of the Discovery for his office when we'd finished with it. Deke was later reported to have said: ‘Stanley, I'm afraid you've been conned by a used capsule salesman.’ An improbabable story—I suspect the fine Italian hand of Roger Caras, Stanley's vice-president in charge of promotion.”

The ultimate trip began with a story called The Sentinel by Arthur C. Clarke. It took flight when Stanley Kubrick asked Clarke to write a novel of space exploration unpon which the acclaimed director would base a movie. The result was one of the most extraordinary films of all time. Now for the first time the reader is taken on every stage of this great adventure. Here is the original story. Here are the different versions of 2001 as they evolved in the interplay between two brilliantly charged imaginations. And here is Clarke’s own intimate account of the unique chemistry between author and director which created 2001: A Space OdysseyLost Worlds of 2001 consists of behind-the-scenes notes from Clarke about screenwriting and production issues. Sadly, this book is no longer in print. You can download the PDF version, courtesy of Universidad del Magdalena. The following is an excerpt from the book.


After various false starts and twelve-hour talkathons, by early May 1964 Stanley agreed that The Sentinel would provide good story material. But our first concept, and it is hard now for me to focus on such an idea, though it would have been perfectly viable—involved working up to the discovery of an extraterrestrial artifact as the climax, not the beginning, of the story. Before that, we would have a series of incidents or adventures devoted to the exploration of the Moon and Planets. For this Mark I version, our private title (never of course intended for public use) was “How the Solar System Was Won.”

So once more I went back to my stockpile of short stories, to find material which would fit into this pattern. I returned with five: “Breaking Strain” (from Expedition to Earth), “Out of the Cradle, Endlessly Orbiting…”, “Who’s There?”, “Into the Comet”, and “Before Eden” (all from Tales of Ten Worlds). On May 28, 1964, I sold the lot to Stanley and signed an agreement to work on the projected movie.

Our initial schedule was hilariously optimistic: writing script, 12 weeks; discussing it, 2 weeks; revising, 4 weeks finalizing deal, 4 weeks; visuals, art, 20 weeks; shooting, 20 weeks; cutting, editing, 20 weeks—a total of 82 weeks. Allowing another 12 weeks before release, this added up to 92, or the better part of two years. I was very depressed by this staggering period of time, since I was (as always) in a hurry to get back to Ceylon; it was just as well that neither of us could have guessed the project’s ultimate duration—four years…

The rest of 1964 was spent brainstorming. As we developed new ideas, so the original conception slowly changed. “The Sentinel” became the opening, not the finale, and one by one, the other five short stories were discarded. A year later, deciding (not necessarily in this order) that (a) it wasn’t fair to Stanley to make him pay for something he didn’t need and (b) these stories might make a pretty good movie someday, I bought them back from him…

The announced title of the project, when Stanley gave his intentions to the press, was Journey Beyond the Stars. I never liked this, because there had been far too many science-fictional journeys and voyages. (Indeed, the innerspace epic Fantastic Voyage, featuring Raquel Welch and a supporting cast of ten thousand blood corpuscles, was also going into production about this time). Other titles which we ran up and failed to salute were Universe, Tunnel to the Stars, and Planetfall. It was not until eleven months after we started—April 1965—that Stanley selected 2001: A Space Odyssey. As far as I can recall, it was entirely his idea.

Despite the unrelenting pressure of work (a mere twelve hours was practically a day off) I kept a detailed log of the whole operation. Though I do not wish to get bogged down in minutiae of interest only to fanatical Kubrickologists, perhaps these extracts may convey the flavor of those early days:

May 28, 1964.

Suggested to Stanley that “they” might be machines who regard organic life as a hideous disease. Stanley thinks this is cute and feels we’ve got something.

May 31.

One hilarious idea we won’t use. Seventeen alien, featureless black pyramids riding in open cars down Fifth Avenue, surrounded by Irish cops.

June 20.

Finished the opening chapter, “View from the Year 2000,” and started on the robot sequence.

July 1.

Last day working at Time/Life completing Man and Space. Checked into new suite, 1008, at the Hotel Chelsea.

July 2-8.

Averaging one or two thousand words a day. Stanley reads first five chapters and says “We’ve got a best-seller here.”

July 9.

Spent much of afternoon teaching Stanley how to use the slide rule—he’s fascinated.

July 11.

Joined Stanley to discuss plot development, but spent almost all the time arguing about Cantor’s Theory of Transfinite Groups. Stanley tries to refute the “part equals the whole” paradox by arguing that a perfect square is not necessarily identical with the integer of the same value. I decide that he is a latent mathematical genius.

July 12.

Now have everything—except the plot.

July 13.

Got to work again on the novel and made good progress despite the distraction of the Republican Convention.

July 26.

Stanley’s birthday. Went to the Village and found a card showing the Earth coming apart at the seams and bearing the inscription: “How can you have a Happy Birthday when the whole world may blow up any minute?”

July 28.

Stanley: “What we want is a smashing theme of mythic grandeur.”

August 1.

Ranger VII impacts on moon. Stay up late to watch the first TV close-ups. Stanley starts to worry about the forthcoming Mars probes. Suppose they show something that shoots down our story line? [Later he approached Lloyd’s of London to see if he could insure himself against this eventuality].

August 6.

Stanley suggests that we make the computer female and call her Athena.

August 17.

We’ve also got the name of our hero at last—Alex Bowman. Hurrah!

August 19.

Writing all day. Two thousand words exploring Jupiter’s satellites. Dull work.

September 7.

Stanley quite happy: “We’re in fantastic shape.” He has made up a 100 item questionnaire about our astronauts, e.g. do they sleep in their pajamas, what do they eat for breakfast, etc.

September 8.

Upset stomach last night. Dreamed I was a robot, being rebuilt. In a great burst of enorgy managed to redo two chapters. Took them to Stanley, who was very pleased and cooked me a fine steak, remarking: “Joe Levine doesn’t do this for his writers.”

September 26.

Stanley gave me Joseph Campbell’s analysis of myth The Hero with a Thousand Faces to study. Very stimulating.

September 29.

Dreamed that shooting had started. Lots of actors standing around, but I still didn’t know the story line.

October 2.

Finished reading Robert Ardrey’s African Genesis. Came across a striking paragraph which might even provide a title for the movie: “Why did not the human line become extinct in the depths of the Pliocene? We know that but for a gift from the stars, but for the accidental collision of ray and gene, intelligence would have perished on some forgotten African field.” True, Ardrey is talking about cosmic-ray mutations, but the phrase “A gift from the stars” is strikingly applicable to our present plot line.

October 6.

Have got an idea which I think is crucial. The people we meet on the other star system are humans who were collected from Earth a hundred thousand years ago, and hence are virtually identical with us.

October 8.

Thinking of plot all morning, but after a long walk in the sun we ended up on the East River watching the boats. We dumped all our far-fetched ideas now we’re settling for a Galactic Peace Corps and no blood and thunder.

October 17.

Stanley has invented the wild idea of slightly fag robots who create a Victonan environment to put our heroes at their ease.

November 20.

Went to Natural History Museum to see Dr. Harry Shapiro, head of Anthropology, who took a poor view of Ardrey. Then had a session with Stan, arguing about early man’s vegetarian versus carnivorous tendencies. Stan wants our visitors to turn Man into a carnivore; I argued that he always was. Back at the Chelsea, phoned Ike Asimov to discuss the biochemistry of turning vegetarians into carnivores.

November 21.

Read Leakey’s Adam’s Ancestors. Getting rather desperate now, but after six hours’ discussion Stan had a rather amusing idea. Our E.T.’s arrive on Earth and teach commando tactics to our pacifistic ancestors so that they can survive and flourish. We had an entertaining time knocking this one around, but I don’t think it’s viable.

November 22.

Called Stan and said I didn’t think any of our flashback ideas were any good. He slowly talked me out of this mood, and I was feeling more cheerful when I suddenly said: “What if our E.T.’s are stranded on Earth and need the ape-men to help them?” This idea (probably not original, but what the hell) opened up whole new areas of plot which we are both explorng.

November 23.

Stanley distracted by numerous consultations with his broker, and wants my advice on buying COMSAT.

December 10.

Stanley calls after screening H. G. Wells’ Things to Come, and says he’ll never see another movie I recommend.

December 21.

Much of afternoon spent by Stanley planning his Academy Award campaign for Dr. Strangelove. I get back to the Chelsea to find a note from Allen Ginsberg asking me to join him and William Burroughs at the bar downstairs. Do so thankfully in search of inspiration.

December 24.

Slowly tinkered with the final pages, so I can have them as a Christmas present for Stanley.

December 25.

Stanley delighted with the last chapters, and convinced that we’ve extended the range of science fiction. He’s astonished and delighted because Bosley Crowther of the New York Times has placed Dr. S on the “Ten Best Films” list, after attacking it ferociously all year. I christen Bosley “The Critic Who Came In from the Cold.”

From these notes, it would appear that by Christmas 1964, the novel was essentially complete, and that thereafter it would be a fairly straightforward matter to develop the screenplay. We were, indeed, under that delusion—at least, I was. In reality, all that we had was merely a rough draft of the first two-thirds of the book, stopping at the most exciting point. We had managed to get Bowman into the Star Gate, but didn’t know what would happen next, except in the most general way. Nevertheless, the existing manuscript, together with his own salesmanship, allowed Stanley to set up the deal with MGM and Cinerama, and Journey Beyond the Stars was announced with a flourish of trumpets.

Through the spring of 1965, we continued to revise and extend the novel, and threw away—again and yet again—whole sections which we had once imagined to be final and complete. All this time, Stanley was also hiring staff, checking designs, negotiating with actors and technicians, and coping with the millions of other prob1ems which arise in the production of even the most straightforward movie. The rush of events became far too hectic to enter more than a small fraction of them in my log, and few of them (luckily) concerned me directly. My primary job was still polishing the novel, though I was constantly involved in technical discussions with the artists and production staff. (Sometimes with disastrous results; see entry for November l0, below.)

February 9, 1965.

Caught Dali on TV, painting in a Fifth Avenue store window to promote Fantastic Voyage. Reported this to Stanley, who replied: “Don’t worry—we’ve already reserved a window for you.”

March 8.

Fighting hard to stop Stan from bringing Dr. Poole back from the dead. I’m afraid his obsession with immortality has overcome his artistic instincts.

April 6.

To COMSAT Headquarters, Washington, for launch of first commercial communications satellite, “Early Bird.” Introduced to Vice-President Humphrey, who is also Chairman of the Space Council, and told him we were spending ten million dollars to publicize space. Added that one character in the movie would be the Chairman of the Space Council… thirty years from now. “Oh,” said H.H.H. at once, “I still intend to be chairman then.”

April 12.

Much excitement when Stanley phones to say that the Russians claim to have detected radio signals from space. Rang Walter Sullivan at the New York Times and got the real story—merely fluctuations in Quasar CTA 102.

April 14.

Reception at Harcourt, Brace and World. Those present included Bill Jovanovich (president), Jeremy Bernstein (New Yorker Magazine), Dennis Flanagan (Scientific American), Dr. Robert Jastrow (Goddard Space Center), Stanley and Christiane Kubrick, Al Rosenfeld (Science Editor, Life), Sylvester (Pat) Weaver, Scott Meredith, and many other friends. There was a general belief that the party was to celebrate Harcourt’s publication of Journey Beyond the Stars, but I explained that this was not definite, and depended upon the size of the mortgage they could raise on the building.

April 19.

Went up to the office with about three thousand words Stanley hasn’t read. The place is really humming now—about ten people working there, including two production staff from England. The walls are getting covered with impressive pictures and I already feel quite a minor cog in the works. Some psychotic who insists that Stanley must hire him has been sitting on a park bench outside the office for a couple of weeks, and occasionally comes to the building. In self-defense, Stan has secreted a large hunting knife in his briefcase.

May 1.

Found that a fire had broken out on the third floor of the Chelsea. Waited anxiously in the lobby while the firemen dealt with it… visions of the only complete copy of the MS going up in smoke….

May 2.

Completed the “Universe” chapter—will soon have all Part Three ready for typing, hurrah… Stan phoned to say he liked the “Floating Island” sequence. Strange and encouraging how much of the material I thought I’d abandoned fits in perfectly after all.

May 3.

Finished first draft of the runaway antenna soquence.

May 25.

Now Stanley wants to incorporate the Devil theme from Childhood’s End...

June 7.

Bad book review in the Tribune says I should stick to science exposition and am an amateur at fiction.

Late June.

Read Victor Lyndon’s production notes, they left me completely overwhelmed. Glad that’s not my job. One scene calls for four trained warthogs.

On that note, more or less, I returned to Ceylon after an absence of over a year, and subsequently rejoined Stanley at the MGM studios at Boreham Wood, fifteen miles north of London, in August. His empire had now expanded vastly, the art department was in full swing, and impressive sets were being constructed. My time was now equally divided between the apparently never-ending chore of developing ideas with Stanley, polishing the novel, and almost daily consultations at the studio.

August 25.

Suddenly realized how the novel should end, with Bowman standing beside the alien ship.

September 25.

Visitors from NASA—Dr. George Mueller, Associate Administrator, and “Deke” Slayton (Director of Flight Crew Operations). Gave them the Grand Tour—they were quite impressed. George made several useful suggestions and asked wistfully if he could have the model of the Discovery for his office when we’d finished with it. Deke was later reported to have said: “Stanley, I’m afraid you’ve been conned by a used capsule salesman.” An improbabable story—I suspect the fine Italian hand of Roger Caras, Stanley’s vice-president in charge of promotion.

October 1.

Stanley phoned with another ending. I find I left his treatment at his house last night—unconscious rejection?

October 3.

Stanley on phone, worried about ending… gave him my latest ideas, and one of them suddenly clicked—Bowman will regress to infancy, and we’ll see him at the end as a baby in orbit. Stanley called again later, still very enthusiastic. Hope this isn’t a false optimism: I feel cautiously encouraged myself.

October 5.

Back to brood over the novel. Suddenly (I think) found a logical reason why Bowman should appear at the end as a baby. It’s his image of himself at this stage of his development. And perhaps the Cosmic Consciousness has a sense of humor. Phoned these ideas to Stan, who wasn’t too impressed, but I’m happy now.

October 15.

Stan has decided to kill off all the crew of Discovery and leave Bowman only. Drastic, but it seems right. After all, Odysseus was the sole survivor…

October 17.

For the first time, saw Stan reduced to helpless hysterics as we developed comic ideas. There will be no one in the hibernacula: all the trainees chickened out, but the mission had to go ahead regardless.

October 19.

Collected by studio car, and spent all day working (or trying to work) with Stan. Despite usual crowds of people getting at him, long phone calls to Hollywood, and a “work-to-rule” the unions called, got a lot done and solved (again!) our main plot problems.

October 26.

Had a discussion with Stanley over his latest idea—that Discovery should be nuclear-pulse driven. Read a resently declassified report on this and was quite impressed—but the design staff rather upset.

November 10.

Accompanied Stan and the design staff into the Earth-orbit ship and happened to remark that the cockpit looked like a Chinese restaurant. Stan said that killed it instantly for him and called for revisions. Must keep away from the Art Department for a few days.

November 16.

Long session with Stanley discussing script. Several good ideas, but I rather wish we didn’t have any more.

November 18.

Peeling rather stale—went into London and saw Carol Reed’s film about Michelangelo, The Agony and the Ecstasy. One line particularly struck me—the use of the phrase “God made Man in His own image.” This, after all, is the theme of our movie.

November 30.

To the Oxford and Cambridge Club with Roger Caras and Pred Ordway (Technical Adviser) to meet Dr. Louis Leakey and his son Richard. Dr. Leakey is just as I imagined him—full of enthusiasm and ideas. He thinks that Man now goes back at least four to five million years. He also confided to me that he’d written a play—a fantasy about primitive man which he thought would make a fine movie. It’s about a group of anthropologists who are sent back into the past by a witch doctor. I said (breaking all my rules) that I’d be glad to see the manuscript—which is true.

December 16.

My 48th birthday—and Somerset Maugham dies. Trying to make something of this (last of the competition?)

December 25.

Christmas Day, ha-ha! Hacked my way to Jupiter—slow but steady going.

December 26.

Working all day. Stan phoned to thank me for the presents and sent a driver to collect what I’d written. He called later to say that he didn’t think much of the dialogue. I agreed.

That Christmas of 1965 we were really under the gun, and no one had a holiday. Stanley was up against a unbreakable deadline. The enormous set of the TMA-1 excavation, containing the monolith found on the Moon, had been constructed at the Shepperton Studios, in South West London—and it had to be torn down by the first week of the New Year, so that another production could move in. Stanley had only a week to do all his shooting, for the second crucial encounter between Man and Monolith…


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