Hitchhikers Guide to The Galaxy

A long time ago, on a largish island far, far away, a British scriptwriter set out to turn the space genre not just on its ear, but also its shoulders, knees, back, and ultimately its funny bone.
Douglas Adams’ fish-out-of-water tale of a bewildered Brit – Arthur Dent – who one day not only has to deal with the bulldozing of his house to make way for a bypass, suddenly has to contend with the fact his best friend was not an out-of-work actor from Guildford but was actually an alien from a small planet in the vicinity of Betelgeuse, and the Earth is about to be demolished by a bureaucratic and officious race of space slugs.
Dent spends the rest of The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy being shot at, blown up, insulted, and generally ill-treated in his search for the perfect cuppa– which, it should be noted, he invariably is served a liquid that is almost, but not quite, entirely unlike tea.
Along the way he is guided by a book, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, a rather apocryphal compendium of intergalactic knowledge that provides space hitchhikers with useful information such as how to get a lift from a Vogon (you don’t), and the best way to make a Pan-Galactic Gargle Blaster.
The radio series, broadcast on the BBC throughout 1978 (and also broadcast on the CBC around the same time) became an instant classic; the first of the ‘trilogy’ of books came a year later, to be followed up by what I always felt was an underrated six-episode television series (broadcast in Canada on TVO) and a text-based computer game. While the story was never consistent between all four adaptations, Adams kept, relatively, to the plot arc – much like an extremely drunk man attempting to navigate along a straight line.
The result – on radio, in print, and on TV – was witty, irreverent, satirical, and charming.
In fact, the radio series, the books, and the television production are everything the movie – now playing at Collingwood’s Cinema 4 – is not.
As in, witty, irreverent, satirical, and charming.
But such is the problem when the computer hard drives of a man who died – too young, mind you – in 2001 are mined for material. Adams had already been through a couple of rough drafts of a script, and it’s obvious that he hadn’t the chance to refine some of the concepts he was toying with for the movie (such as the character and story line of Humma Kavula, who doesn’t appear in the books or on the radio, and otherwise seems incomplete).
That’s the problem when Tinsel Town attempts to adapt a book with a rabid fan following: there are months, and even years, of heightened anticipation, followed by the horrified knowledge that some Hollywood hack has demonstrated an uncanny ability to miss the entire point and create something that should rightly be encased in a meteor and shot out into the darkest, loneliest spot in space.
Or, as the ‘Book’ would put it, the director and producers of this movie will be the first against the wall when the revolution comes…
That’s not to say everything is terrible with this movie; just most of it. The opening dolphin sequence is a slight nod to the Pythonesque humour that influenced Douglas (as well as an entire generation of British writers through the 1970s). There are mildly amusing references to the television series (see if you can pick out the original Marvin the Paranoid Android in one sequence), and Simon Jones – the original Arthur Dent – makes a cameo appearance as an automated message. The bits with the guide are also cleverly done, as is the sequence with the whale. And finally, Jim Hensen’s Creature Shop captured the essence of the Vogons, and the CGI – it’s said that Adams was always hesitant to make a movie until special effects technology reached a point where it could suitably realize his vision – is stupendous. There are a couple of nods to Adams: at the very end of the film is a split-second shot of the author’s disembodied head, and Deep Thought, the super computer responsible for the creating the blueprint for Earth, has a distinct Apple design to it, acknowledging one of Adams’ loves.
Tragically, all the good in the movie is lost amongst all the bad: poor casting decisions; a rather unfortunate attempt to create a love story between Arthur and one of the other main characters, Trillian; misinterpreting the motivations of the characters as Adams created them; and generally losing touch with the spirit of the books.
Martin Freeman is a passable Arthur Dent (how we were spoiled by Simon Jones), Mos Def is an entirely forgettable Ford Prefect, and Zooey Deschanel (who was absolutely wonderful in Eulogy) sleepwalks through the film as Trillian. Sam Rockwell plays Zaphod Beeblebrox, the two-headed president of the galaxy, with a manic zeal – which is totally inappropriate for a character who once described himself as ‘so hip I have trouble seeing over my own pelvis’.
In fact, the best characters are the automated ones: Alan Rickman’s (Professor Snape in the Harry Potter flicks) performance as Marvin the Paranoid Android is almost delightful in its depressedness, and Stephen Fry captures the feel of the Guide about as well as Peter Jones did on the original radio series.
For someone with a slight to not-at-all passing knowledge of the books, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy will prove to be a mildly amusing but otherwise forgettable lark around the universe; for those of us who are fans, however, the inclusion of Adams name as one of the writers will be seen as some cruel, posthumous joke.

Addendum: now that I’ve seen the movie on DVD, and gone through some of the extras, yet another reason to go ballastic. One of the best Guide references was on the Babel fish, and how it proved the non-existence of God. I always found it frustrating that the movie never included it; even more frustrating was that it’s included as a ‘deleted scene’. When I think of the crap they kept in the movie, why couldn’t they have made room for this. Then again, they could have made room for a lot of things, and lost a lot of what they actually did include…