Twenty years in the making, Douglas Adams’ classic “Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” finally comes to the big screen after previous incarnations as a radio drama and a low-budget television series, a video game, and a variety of other media I’m not remembering right now. Questions have surrounded the production almost since before it was greenlit: how much input did Adams have? Who would be cast as Arthur? Was this going to end up a goofy, action-oriented American production or would it stay true to Adams’ anarchic sensibilities?
As we now know, Adams had a significant amount of input, including writing a new story arc (itself an expansion of the book’s gag about the Jatravartids and the Great Green Arkelseizure), though he did not, as it turns out, see any of the end product. Martin Freeman (“The Office,” Shaun of the Dead) is Arthur, and does a fine job for the most part. Sadly – and thanks to some obvious attempts to make the goings-on more palatable for newcomers – the film doesn’t do as well in retaining the spirit of the novels.
Which is not to say “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” is a failure, but in taking on the job of making a movie from a book so densely packed with tangential anecdotes and stream of consciousness jokes, Adams and director Garth Jennings were forced to cut large portions of the book. They try to make “Guide” more of a traditional story, and as a result even those unfamiliar with the novels will likely get the feeling something is missing from the finished film.
The actual story is pretty simple, Earth everyman Arthur Dent wakes up one morning to find bulldozers poised to destroy his home to make way for a bypass. In the midst of all this, his friend Ford Prefect (Mos Def) shows up to inform him 1) he’s an alien from a small planet in the vicinity of Betelgeuse, and 2) Earth is about to be destroyed. Shortly thereafter, an interstellar Vogon constructor fleet comes along and does, in fact, destroy Arthur’s planet (also to build a bypass, as it turns out). Fortunately for Arthur, Ford has managed to hitch a ride on one of the Vogon ships. Unfortunately, the Vogons hate hitchhikers, and soon chuck the two interlopers into space.
Going into detail about Arthur’s subsequent encounters with Galactic President Zaphod Beeblebrox (Sam Rockwell, channeling a stoned George W. Bush), fellow Earthling Trillian (Zooey Deschanel), and Marvin the depressed robot (Alan Rickman) would spoil much of what fun there is to be had in “Hitchhiker’s Guide.” Several of the best bits are preserved from Adams’ novel (such as the Vogon poetry reading and the improbable sperm whale, for example), and the segments devoted to the Hitchhiker’s Guide itself are outstanding. Fans of the five book “trilogy” will also recognize several in-jokes not otherwise expounded upon (the jeweled crabs of Vogsphere, for example, and a cameo by the TV version of Marvin).
There’s a new storyline involving Zaphod’s rival, a holy “man” named Humma Kavula, which serves little purpose except to put Trillian in danger and advance the romantic subplot between her and Arthur, a subplot missing from the book and distinctly out of place here. Too often, the movie follows up Adams’ chaotic humor with weak slapstick and the incongruous love story. The film works best when it integrates the Guide, and when it sticks to the book. Most fans will also be pleased with how Magrathea is represented, and Bill Nighy’s excellent Slartibartfast.
And yet…forcing the square peg of the book into the round hole of mainstream movie structure leaves both longtime fans and newcomers a little cold. Devotees of the original stories are going to be frustrated that their favorite bits have been truncated or excised outright, while newbies will likely wonder what all the fuss has been about these last few decades. I’m going to go ahead and recommend it, if only because I’m happy to finally see a big budget version of Douglas Adams’ magnum opus on the silver screen (and because what’s left in from the book is just as good as I remember it). A more faithful adaptation would’ve been nice. And while it’s hard to direct too much blame at Jennings – Adams reportedly wrote the bulk of the script himself – one can’t help but wish they’d all had a bit more confidence in the source material.
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