The monolith in 2001: A Space Odyssey is one of the most important characters throughout the narrative. While it never speaks it does appear at the most significant moments throughout the plot and has the enormous task of signifying a vast array of ideas. As Garry Leonard states, “the monolith is always proximate to discovery and development, but it always precedes it, exceeds it, and is never surpassed by it” (45).
There are many interpretations of the monolith. Many think of it in a religious sense as a god. Others, such as Leonard, think of it as the ground that permits the larger myth of origin within the story. However, one of the most prominent idea that the monolith signifies is evolution. Evolution not just of organic material, such as the man-apes to human, but also the evolution of technology, such as tools to space travel. Yet the way that it is portrayed, specifically within its encounter with the man-apes at the beginning of the novel and film, are distinctly different.
The film has to approach the monolith in a visual way while the novel gets to describe it for the reader to visualize. Both monoliths have clear similarities, though the differences between them are far more interesting. In the film Kubrick shows us a tall rectangular monolith with a thin width to it. This monolith is black in color and seems to absorb light instead of reflecting it. It is clearly an “artificial and exactingly constructed monolith, with it’s ninety degree angles, straight lines, and perfect symmetry stands in stark contrast to the natural landscape” (Fuller 59). While the novels monolith is “a rectangle slab, three times [Moon-Watcher the man-ape] height but narrow enough to span with his arms, and it was made of some completely transparent material; indeed, it was not easy to see except when the rising sun glinted its edges” (Clark 19).
Besides the difference in appearance there is also a clear difference in how the monolith communicates with the man-apes. Within the novel it is clear that the monolith is testing them and educating them, though the man-apes “could never guess that their minds were being probed, their bodies mapped, their reactions studied, their potentials evaluated” (Clark 21). The man-apes are not fast learners as they continue to follow their normal routine day after day, often forgetting the monolith until they are right in front of it again, but the monolith clearly had a purpose behind the tasks that it set for all of them. These tasks act as scientific tests and “some of the man-apes [the monolith] ignored completely, as if it was concentrating on the most promising subjects” (Clark 24). This shows that the monolith has intelligence. It has the ability to think for itself and act within a logical structure while the man-apes are only primal animals without the developed ability to think past the current moment, at least at first. This solidifies the monolith as a character right at the start of the narrative. The reader now knows to expect certain behaviours from the monolith.
In contrast the reaction to the monolith by the man-apes in the movie is much more primal and immediate. The monolith appears right outside their sleeping cave forcing them to interact with it at the very start of their day, immediately disrupting their normal patterns of behaviour. The tribe of man-apes respond by “encircl[ing] the monolith, babbling loudly and waving their arms and legs in a wild, ecstatic manner. The tribe seems to be both welcoming the monolith by compulsively assembling round it and also threatening the monolith by shaking their limbs at it in terror. Their behavior, simultaneously spontaneous and ritualistic” (Fuller 59). The monolith clearly terrifies the man-apes while also inspiring them. It “demands an evolution in their way of thinking” (Saunders Calvert, 2012). It forces them to look at things in a new light and spurs their evolution. Even with this reaction, and shown correlation between the monolith and the man-apes use of tools, the monolith is not solidified fully as a character until it shows up again later in the film. In this moment it seems more like an origin point as Leonard talked about it than a full character the way it appears within the novel.
No matter how the monolith appears or how the man-apes react to it, it is alway pushing forward evolution. It is the driving force behind each step in the man-ape to human story. It is in many ways the origin point that “sets in motion a progress forward that is itself marked by further and more sophisticated discoveries” (Leonard 46). The man-apes learn to use tools so that they can survive on more substantial food sources. The humans invent space travel to get to the moon and then create such impressive technology in order to get to Jupiter to discover even more. The monolith represents and sparks evolution but it also “represents that which we do not understand, that which we do not know and have not been able to find adequate meaning for” (Saunders Calvert, 2012) and yet we keep trying. People keep exploring and reaching and, in turn, evolving.
Leonard, Garry. “Technically Human: Kubrick’s Monolith and Heidegger’s Propriative Event.” Film Criticism 36.1 (2011): 44-67. ProQuest. Web. 8 Mar. 2016.
Fuller, Jason D. “Dreaded Monoliths: Rudolf Otto’s Das Heilige And 2001: A Space Odyssey.” Teaching Theology And Religion 1 (2009): 58. Academic OneFile. Web. 8 Mar. 2016.
Saunders Calvert, Leon. “2001: A Space Odyssey Uncovering the Intelligence from What May Appear to Be an Unintelligible Text.” Off|Screen. Mar. 2012. Web. 08 Mar. 2016. <http://offscreen.com/view/2001_uncovering_intelligence>.
2001, A Space Odyssey. Dir. Stanley Kubrick. Prod. Stanley Kubrick. By Stanley Kubrick, Arthur C. Clarke, Geoffrey Unsworth, and Ray Lovejoy. Perf. Keir Dullea, Gary Lockwood, and William Sylvester. Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, 1968.
Clarke, Arthur C., and Stanley Kubrick. 2001; A Space Odyssey. New York: New American Library, 1968. Print.