The Flying Party. The Infinite Impossibility Drive. Towels. Vogon Constructor ships hanging in the air in exactly the way bricks don’t. Bistromathics. Stavromueller Beta. The trick to flying. Don’t Panic. Deep Thought. 42.
The above is just really an extraordinarily brief list of the highpoints from Douglas Adams’ five-part “Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy<" trilogy (yes, you read that right. If you’re a fan you know what I’m talking about). The series is so full of quotable lines, memorable scenarios and fascinating moments it would take a column twice this long just to list the parts I like. That list would then get debated and discussed until Bob knows when. That’s why this column will not be doing that. In fact I will most emphatically avoid doing that so if you think that’s the kind of column you’re getting, well this column is not going to go there.
Where was I? Oh, right.
It’s been a twenty year journey for “The Hitchhiker’s Guide” to get to the big screen. Adams himself says in the introduction to a collection of the first four books that he had been working on it in 1985. Just a few years ago it looked like it was going to happen with Jay Roach of Austin Powers infamy in the director’s chair. Prior to that the adaptation had gone through a number of hands, most of which were attached to filmmakers. Those filmmakers ultimately decided to do other things and the movie never, as you may have noticed, got made. Until now.
Disney (perhaps the last company I would have chosen for the adaptation of book filled with very dry and very British humor) finally got the movie made. Their first obstacle was the material itself. How does a movie studio, which not only embraces but actually runs to with open arms and heaving breast the lowest common denominator, film a book filled with very dry, very British humor? After all, their primary audience is a bunch of ape-descended primitives who still think digital watches are a pretty neat idea. And American ape-descended primitives at that. The answer to that question remains to be seen in its entirety.
The second obstacle is marketing said adaptation in such a way as to accomplish two simultaneous yet possibly mutually exclusive goals. Goal #1: Ensure fans of the book, who rival “Lord of the Rings” fanatics for the devotion to the source material, will be satisfied and therefore spend heaps of money at the theater and DVD store. Goal #2: Make sure the material is dumbed-down enough to appeal to those who aren’t familiar with the books because quite frankly those British tend to be too intelligent with their humor. These people are probably going to be happier with “xXx: State of the Union” and really should be written off. It’d be better for everyone.
So, without further ado, on with the regular column.
There’s nothing particularly wrong with the poster, which features silhouettes of Arthur Dent and Marvin the Paranoid Android standing at the end of the runway last used for Fashion Week in New York City and staring up at the gargantuan letters making up the title of the film. It’s just not very fun. The whole point of this is to market a comedy and the designers have created what may be one of the most boring posters I’ve seen.
The teaser poster wasn’t much better in that it was just a look at the Earth with a star-illuminated thumb above it. Interestingly my theory is that a thumb was involved in the design of these posters only instead of being part of the design it was stuck up someone’s… hey, look at the time!
There are three trailers that have been released. The first teaser trailer was astoundingly dull and showed the Earth while playing Louis Armstrong’s “What A Wonderful World”. (As a side note, “World” played over the end of the 1981 BBC Hitchhiker’s mini-series, though I have to wonder if this was an intentional homage or simply somebody mistakenly thinking they had an original idea.) The world was then blown up and the familiar phrase “Don’t Panic” was shown. After watching this I completely failed to take that simple piece of advice and began, for lack of anything better to do, to panic.
The first theatrical trailer took that panic and rolled it around between its palms like a piece of Play-Doh until it became fully formed dreading. Not present were any jokes, any wit, any humor. In their place were lots of laser blast, explosions, fast moving vehicles and special effects. Umm. Err. I’m sure that these would translate nicely to an amusement park ride (say, one at the theme-parks owned by a certain soulless corporation still clinging to the last tattered bits of the towel that is their wholesome image) but it certainly doesn’t look like the Guide I know and love.
The third trailer (sometimes identified as the internet trailer) works the best out of the three. The upshot is that the narrator is explaining to the audience what the Guide has to say about the creation of movie trailers. That in and of itself is pretty funny but the on-screen action is about the same as that in the previous trailer so it’s not that much of an improvement.
OK, so I was a little bummed by the trailers and the poster but when I read the official site had gone live (back in March) I felt the old wave of excitement rush back over me. The problem, I thought, was that the Guide itself was an interactive thing and the trailers and poster just couldn’t use that aspect to its fullest extent. Surely if there’s one medium, I continued to think, that would really enhance the experience it’s a website. I’m confident Disney was able to see, I hoped, the inherent potential of creating a fun site for this movie. I then thought it was time to go to lunch and forgot all about it. This last move proved to be the best one.
The site opens with the Vogon warning the Earth that it is about to be destroyed, the text “Don’t Panic” in a style that is anything but calming and the third trailer. Don’t worry, it doesn’t get any better.
I’m not going to do my usual point-by-point description of what’s on the site this time. Imagine all the potential for a website devoted to the ultimate guidebook to the universe, a book which outsells the Encyclopedia Galactica despite it being filled with much that is apocryphal. Imagine how funny the site could have been?
It’s not a good sign for the movie, especially on the heels of the lack of funny included in the trailers, that the website is a colossal waste of server space. There’s the usual list of features, including trailers, screensavers, character bios and the like but where are the best bits of the book? Where’s the entry on Eccentrica Gallumbits, the triple breasted w***e of Eroticon 6? Where’s the entry on the particularly intriguing phenomenon that has led to a drink called “gin and tonic” being developed on every inhabitable planet in the galaxy, despite some of these planets having never made contact with another civilization?
Even moving beyond cribbing the best parts of the book -where is the humor? This is supposed to be a comedy and the Disney team has successfully created a website that is almost, but not quite, completely unlike anything funny.
To be fair, there are a few spots where the site does try to be funny. Marvin the Android appears in the lower left-hand corner of the site and makes depressing comments on things. If you hit the button labeled “Improbability” you can make dolphins jump across the screen or a whale fall from the sky. The problem is Marvin only has about six phrases he repeats over and over and I’ve just named two of the four “Improbability” effects so there’s not much value to repeatedly accessing these features.
The best part of the site is the “Guide to the Guide” which does attempt to mimic the Guide itself with about a dozen entries. Most of these are character profiles or key points from the movie. It’s just good enough to wet my appetite for what I will label as “The Site That Could Have Been.”
I just don’t have a good feeling about this, which is a shame because everything else being equal I would have made this one of my must-sees this summer. Between the unfunny posters, unfunny trailers and unfunny website Disney isn’t doing a very good job of marketing this as a movie. The campaign had such potential that has been pissed away.
Early reviews have either blasted the movie for lacking the reviewers’ favorite bits from the book or have given faint praise (smile-inducing rather than laughter-provoking was one quote I read). I’m not someone who demands movies be word-for-word translations from the source material but what I do ask for is that the tone and attitude be faithful to the book. Movies are a visual medium, I get that. What I refuse to do is sit down and accept that story must be sacrificed at the altar of those visuals. We learned from Peter Jackson that you can successfully film a book widely considered unfilmable because of its reliance on visuals and not jettison the tone.
My guess is that the movie will open huge as fans will give it the benefit of the doubt. Bad word of mouth will then cause the movie to suffer Total Existence Failure and disappear completely.
As moviemaking costs increase, the pressure to successfully market those movies becomes greater. In an attempt to show how marketers are trying to put the most hinders in the theater seats, Chris Thilk breaks down why some movie campaigns work and some don’t. The posters for “The Rocketeer” and “Unforgiven” remain two of his all-time favorites. For Chris’ ongoing movie journal and other various musings, visit his Movie Marketing Madness blog.