On the Value of an Editor
Most of the time it is difficult to show the value an editor can add to a work, but on rare occasion we get to see both the rough draft and the final work.
For example, HarperCollins did us a solid when they published the original draft of To Kill a Mockingbird as the "new" novel Go Set a Watchman. We got to see how an unremarkable novel could be turned into a classic through the investment of time and energy.
Similarly, 2001: a Space Odyssey shows how over riding a creator’s wishes can change the tone of a movie arguably for the better. 2001 started as a collaboration between author Arthur Clarke and film maker Stanley Kubrick. They wanted to make a movie about space, only they couldn’t quite agree on how the movie would work, how to end it, or what to include.
Last week The New Statesman explained how the original concept for the movie more closely resembled a documentary than the SF classic you and I remember. The long boring space scenes were supposed to be matched with narration which is now typically reserved for the director’s commentary:
Based primarily on his short story “The Sentinel”, together with other published fact and fiction, the film was very much a joint effort, although Arthur was overly modest about his contribution. For his part, Kubrick seemed unable to come up with an ending that suited him. When I visited the set, the film was already about two years behind schedule and well over budget. I saw several alternative finale scenes constructed that were later abandoned. In one version, the monolith turned out to be some kind of alien spaceship. I also knew something that I don’t think Arthur ever did: Kubrick was at some point dissatisfied with the collaboration, approaching other writers (including J G Ballard and myself) to work on the film. He knew neither Ballard nor me personally. We refused for several reasons. I felt it would be disloyal to accept.
I guessed the problem was a difference in personality. Arthur was a scientific educator. Explanations were his forte. He was uncomfortable with most forms of ambiguity. Kubrick, on the other hand, was an intuitive director, inclined to leave interpretation to the audience. These differences were barely acknowledged. Neither did Kubrick tell Arthur of his concerns regarding the final version. Where, thanks to Arthur, the film was heavy with voice-over explication and clarifications of scenes, Kubrick wanted the story to be told almost entirely visually.
Without consulting or confronting his co-creator, Kubrick cut a huge amount of Arthur’s voice-over explanation during the final edit. This decision probably contributed significantly to the film’s success but Arthur was unprepared for it.
As it turned out, Arthur did not get to see the completed film until the US private premiere. He was shocked by the transformation. Almost every element of explanation had been removed. Reams of voice-over narration had been cut. Far from being a pseudo-documentary, the film was now elusive, ambiguous and thoroughly unclear.
Do you know that old writing maxim "show, don’t tell"? That was the rule Kubrick applied when finishing 2001, and the movie was better for it. This let the audience fill in the blanks and decide what the movie meant.
Had the narration been left in, the audience would know exactly what was going on, and many would have left in boredom halfway through the movie.
But while the final result was better when the creator was over ruled, does anyone else wish we could get the original narration, perhaps as a commentary on the DVD?