2010: The Year We Make Contact:

An Adaptation of an Adaptation

For those who, like me, are longtime readers of Science Fiction, we’re very familiar that classic literature in this genre falls into a few recognizable categories. In general, either it’s concerned with plausible technology and scientifically valid hypothetical scenarios, or it describes technology and situations that are so far removed from our understanding of the universe that it tilts into Fantasy, and focuses on philosophical, sociological or even religious ideas. Both sorts of literature are valid and there have been masterpieces of both types. And of course there’s conversation between those two general sub-genres, and many stories use elements of both. But in the case of Arthur C. Clarke vs the film industry (started in 1965 and settled in 1984), that’s a useful guide to understanding the difference between 2001: A Space Odyssey and 2010: Odyssey Two.

Julian Darius has already written the definitive word on Jack Kirby’s “wildly out of sync” 2001 adaptation (available for purchase) into the comics medium. Kirby offered an interpretation of the story different again from either Clarke or his adapter and collaborator Stanley Kubrick. The story of the making of 2001 is a rather unique example of film adaptation, with the book and the film being created at more or less the same time. Clarke, in the excellent and rare volume “The Lost Worlds of 2001” describes writing scenes and then seeing them on film, and then having the film inform what he was going to write for the next sequence. This was a stimulating, but “expensive” (in his words) way to write a book. Right from the start, the novel 2001 and its film adaptation were more artistic “cousins” than ancestor and descendant. They shared DNA, but one did not necessarily sire the other.

In fact, when you read the novel 2001, it’s very much in keeping with the rest of Clarke’s formidable Science Fiction catalogue. The focus is on calm professionals going about their jobs. He has an “of course” attitude towards technology that reflects, very accurately, in my experience, the way a real scientist would react to classic “science fiction” situations. His other books, particularly Rendezvous With Rama and Songs of Distant Earth demonstrate the same tone and style. Kubrick’s film takes that material and boils it down to its absolute essence, reconstituting it with Kubrick’s usual visual poetry and that peculiar specificity that borders on generality. Where Clarke would simply describe exactly what’s happening, right from the start to the finish, Kubrick deliberately leaves a great deal of that out, making a film that is rightly considered to be almost anti-narrative. Or, as Roger Ebert pointed out, it shows “…the way beyond narrative.”

The novel 2010, written after the data from the Voyager probes reached Earth from Jupiter in 1979, was written without the involvement of a filmmaking process. Which is to say that it’s an Arthur C. Clarke novel: no more and no less. In the story, set a decade after the events of 2001, a joint US/Soviet space mission is dispatched to Jupiter to investigate what happened to the USS Discovery, which was abandoned in the orbit of that planet along with its malfunctioning computer, HAL 9000, by the only survivor of its mission, Commander David Bowman. Bowman, in that celebrated and hallucinatory sequence at the end of 2001, took a small pod to meet a giant black rectangle in space, the “monolith”, and is subsequently carried through a multidimensional and spatial corridor to be ultimately “reborn” through cosmic forces as a child of the stars. When the 2010 mission reaches the Discovery, the three Americans board and re-activate the ship, learning what happened to HAL but not to Bowman. They also explore the monolith, along with their Russian colleagues, and discover life on Jupiter’s moon Europa. The story ends with Jupiter exploding, forming a second Sun for the solar system and pointing the way forward to a future in space.

Though it was written at a tense time during the US-USSR cold war, 2010, the novel, accurately portrayed the way that the international scientific community operated despite political tension. Science is an international enterprise: it was always thus. Scientists from all cultures and nations speak a common language and a simple glance at any science faculty in a major University will confirm its international character. The way the scientists in the novel interact with each other is with humour and respect: they had all known each other for many years before collaborating on this last-minute mission.

Peter Hyams, a filmmaker with much more literalist instincts than Kubrick, upped the cold war element of his film adaptation of 2010 to the point where that tension takes absolute centre stage. The cold war theme even trumps any scientific discovery or Universal truth: the climax of the film (and book) involving turning Jupiter into a new Sun is read in strictly political terms, as the President and the Premier see the new star in the sky and pledge peace. That wasn’t Clarke’s message, which is a much more general one about the possibility of life elsewhere in the solar system and the vast, unknowable forces at work in the universe. In Clarke’s book, the scientists are even joking about the ignition of Jupiter not long after it happens, trading hugs and reminiscences of theoretical papers predicting such a thing were possible. (Clarke continued the story in 2061 and 3001, exploring further scientific ramifications of the Jupiter event and even linking it to the diamond trade.)

At the time of its release, 2010 was promoted rigorously as THE major science fiction film of the 1980s, incorporating the new computer technology with the most old-fashioned of cinematic techniques, meticulously applied to create some sequences, such as the spacewalk over IO, which even now, in 2014, retain much of their power. Subtitled “The Year We Make Contact”, the film was clearly a metaphor for the cold war, a focus that unfortunately has made it date rather poorly, especially when compared to the abstract and endlessly interpretable 2001. Peter Hyams, who adapted the novel and directed the film, had experience in primarily genre films such as 1981s Outland, a space western set on Jupiter’s moon IO or the conspiracy theory film Capricorn One. His style was, and is, thoroughly within the mainstream of American adventure/thriller cinema, as compared to Kubrick’s singular cinematic artistry. But the film was still touted as a major film with large, important themes and a serious “adult” tone.

Like many popular films of the time, from the Indiana Jones films to The Muppets Take Manhattan, 2010 got its own comic book adaptation from Marvel, first being released in a two-issue limited series and collected into a larger-format “Marvel Super Special”.

Personal note: I loved these “Super Specials” as a young teenager. Our family didn’t have a VCR until much later, so for me these comic book adaptations played the role of a video rental: they allowed me to bring the film home with me and experience it at my own pace, again and again. In retrospect, like “novelizations”, many are a poor substitute for the real thing, but they do represent a distinct and recognizable sub-genre of comic books in the 1970s and 1980s.

2010 was published in 1984 to coincide with the release of the film. It was adapted by JM DeMatteis and illustrated, with extensive use of photo and film reference, by Joe Barney, Larry Hama (yes, the creator of GI Joe) and Tom Palmer. These industry professionals brought an extremely competent look and feel to the comic, giving us serviceable renderings of Roy Scheider in the starring role, along with some European all-stars such as Helen Mirren playing the Russian crew.

Mostly, the artists duplicate scenes from the film shot-for-shot, using angles and even performance moments from the film. With the printing technology of the time, there was bound to be some loss of subtlety in the colour transfer, but the representations of Jupiter throughout the book are quite bland and inaccurate scientifically. That comes as something of a surprise when the images of the planet from the film (some of which were actual photos from the Voyager spacecraft) form so much of its visual palette. When the giant monolith appears in a handsome splash page halfway through the book, its surface is impressively black for a comic (much ink was no doubt sacrificed to the cause), and the spacecraft themselves are always impeccably rendered.

The dynamic scenes from the film are reproduced here with classic comic motion lines and splashes of yellow and orange conveying the speed and power of the scene in the familiar comic book vocabulary. It’s really in these shots, such as the famous “aerobraking” sequence when the astronauts arrive at Jupiter, that the comic displays some hint of style and energy. There’s also some creative use of colour and shading during the sequence in which the long-lost astronaut David Bowman appears to his wife, with the colourists adding back in some earth tones to Hyams’ Epcot Centre-style white plastic futurist world. Scenes featuring HAL 9000 also display some hints of visual creativity, using that familiar fish-eye distortion that conveys the same sense of voyeurism and menace that it did when Kubrick originated the design.

In terms of narrative, once again this is a very plodding and uncreative adaptation, the main omission from the film being the de-emphasis of the Russian characters. This continues a trend from the novel, in which the Russians are given as much character and individuality as the three Americans, to the film, in which they are cartoonish but still identifiable character types, to the comic in which they are essential ciphers. Only the main character, Dr Heywood Floyd, is given anything like a true emotional journey, as well as the bulk of the dialogue. A great example is the famous “spacewalk” sequence in which engineer Walter Curnow (played by John Lithgow in the film) and a Russian cosmonaut, Maxim Brailovsky, move from the Russian spacecraft to the Discovery over the volcanic moon IO. In the novel, the scene is a true meeting of equals, in which Max’s emotions are just as important as Walter’s, and their sharing of the experience is the key to their bonding as people. (It’s even implied that, later, the two men become lovers.) In the film, Walter is a neophyte and Max is a slightly condescending stranger, but an expert spacewalker who essentially leads the expedition. But in the comic, Max’s role is essentially cut entirely. All the dialogue is between Floyd, safe on the mothership, the Leonov, and Curnow. Max is there on the mission, but a silent, stoic piece of technological contrivance. He expresses no emotion or even has any ideas, observations or reflections on what he and his colleagues are experiencing. This can be explained as character and storytelling economy, which would have been important for the running time of a typical comic book, but it drains much of the flavour from the story, and continues the process of “cold war”-izing the book in a heavily exaggerated and dated way. (Even the most minor of American characters get dialogue.)

Only the final splash page, showing the ignition of Jupiter as almost a giant eye in space, is deeply evocative of the kind of mystery and adventure that was all throughout Kirby’s 2001. Much of this is because this comic is, in fact, an adaptation of an adaptation. Any spin put on the story here is a descendant of Peter Hyams’ 2010, not Arthur C. Clarke’s. This raises the interesting possibility of a better or at least more creative adaptation of the original novel sometime in the future, along the lines of Dark Horse’s The Star Wars. A direct adaptation of the 2010 novel to the comic book medium could be a revelation to science fiction fans the world over. It’s certainly a thought.

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Independent scholar Ian Dawe has been writing for Sequart since November 2013. Before that, he had a mixed background, initially in science (Molecular Biology and Biochemistry), where he earned an MSc from Simon Fraser University and then an MA in Film from the University of Exeter in the UK. He spent a decade teaching at the college level, delivering courses in Genetics, Biochemistry, Cell Biology, Biological Anthropology and Film History. His academic work includes peer-reviewed papers on the work of Alan Moore, Harvey Pekar for Studies in Comics and a dissertation on Terry Gilliam for the University of Exeter. He has presented papers at several major academic conferences including Slayage 2014, Magus: Transdisciplinary Approaches to the Work of Alan Moore in 2010 (in the wizard's hometown of Northampton), Comics Rock and the International Conference of the Humanities in 2012, and at the Southwest Popular Culture Association Conference in Albuquerque, New Mexico in 2014 and 2015. He has contributed to several books, including a chapter about the TV show Archer in "James Bond and Popular Culture" and two chapters on Breaking Bad for "Breaking Bad and Masculinity", both now available from McFarland. At Sequart, he has authored a chapter for New Life and New Civiliations: Exploring Star Trek Comics, A Long Time Ago and two more upcoming books on Star Wars comics. He has also contributed to books on Alan Moore and 1970s Horror Comics. He is currently planning a full-length book on Better Call Saul. Ian currently lives in Vancouver, BC.

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Also by Ian Dawe:

The Cyberpunk Nexus: Exploring the Blade Runner Universe


A More Civilized Age: Exploring the Star Wars Expanded Universe


A Galaxy Far, Far Away: Exploring Star Wars Comics


A Long Time Ago: Exploring the Star Wars Cinematic Universe


New Life and New Civilizations: Exploring Star Trek Comics


1 Comment

  1. Awesome read. I’ve read the 2010 adaptation, and it has its moments, but you’re right that it’s mostly plodding stuff. I do think it’s a fascinating look into a period when Marvel was doing these adaptations, which look in some ways very forward of them and in other ways very unimaginative or even misguided. But they’re awesome to see, and it’s pretty cool this stuff exists! Thanks for the post!

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