THE HITCHHIKERS GUIDE TO THE GALAXY
Certainly, Douglas Adams one creation was frequently side-splitting the best versions of The Hitch Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy are generally regarded as being the radio series and the first two books where Adams brought the cruel and absurdist British wit as patented by The Goon Show and Monty Pythons to bear on various science-fiction clichés. The Hitch Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy was a grand science-fictional creation that sits well alongside the cruel and absurd universes that feature in the works of writers like Kurt Vonnegut Jr, John Sladek and Robert Sheckley. Adams wittily spoofed a number of science-fiction conventions artificial intelligence, the End of the World, hyperspatial travel, clichés of encounters with aliens where people invariably speak English all with an irreverent dash of Philosophy 101. Many aspects of the series have gone on to become classics the joke about the Question to the Meaning of Life; Marvin the doleful android; the Babel Fish; the Infinite Improbability Drive. Indeed, during this authors university years, it became difficult to attend certain parties without being assailed by someone who would block quote various sections of The Hitch Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy.
Douglas Adams worked on the screenplay for a film adaptation of The Hitch Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy for a number of years. The production was first announced as long ago as 1982 and it has passed through various directional hands, including those of Ivan Reitman, Spike Jonze and Jay Roach. Sadly, Douglas Adams died in 2001 before the project ever went to cameras. Though he delivered initial drafts for the film, the screenplay was rewritten by Karey Kirkpatrick. Karey Kirkpatrick has a number of genre credits to his name, ranging from the quite good James and the Giant Peach (1996) and Chicken Run (2000) to forgettable childrens fodder like The Rescuers Down Under (1990), Honey, We Shrunk Ourselves (1997), The Little Vampire (2000), Charlottes Web (2006), The Spiderwick Chronicles (2008) and The Smurfs 2 (2013), while he also directed Over the Hedge (2006) and Imagine That (2009). The director eventually assigned to the film was Garth Jennings, who had previously made MTV clips for artists like REM, Blur, Pulp and Supergrass, with The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy being his feature film debut. [Jennings subsequently went onto make Son of Rambow (2007)].
The film made a big thing out of maintaining that most of the changes had been made or approved by Douglas Adams himself. With Adams no longer being around to confirm this, these claims should be taken with a pinch of salt. You are not entirely sure if the film is being boastful in its claim to be blessed by Douglas Adams or (more likely) that Adams did make the changes but Karey Kirkpatrick went back and rewrote the material. It is certainly hard to believe that Adams directly wrote any of the fresh material that appears on screen the new patches of dialogue and Guide excerpts are singularly lacking in the dry Douglas Adams wit.
Certainly, the film touches bases with many aspects of the original there is a Hitch Hikers Guide, Babel Fish, Vogon Poetry, Slartibartfast and his Norwegian fjords, Deep Thought, the white mice, even the whale and bowl of petunias but it feels more like one is sitting through a Readers Digest Condensed Version of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. Maybe it can be best compared to trying to dance to a live band doing a cover of a favourite song where one keeps expecting the rendition to hit certain beats in the music, only to find they have been miscued slightly. There is the scene at the start where Arthur Dent lies in front of the bulldozer and Ford Prefect turns up to tells him the Earth is about to end in 12 minutes but you are left waiting for the next part of the gag where Arthur persuades Prosser to lie down in his place; there is the explanation from the Guide of how the Babel Fish is one of the most peculiar creations in the universe but what is missing from the gag is the hilarious little bit about the Babel Fishs existence causing God to disappear in a puff of logic (perhaps edited out so as not to offend the Religious Right); there is the speech about how space is really, really big but instead of going through the whole thing it fades off with Stephen Frys voice of The Book saying and so on.
In other scenes, what is going on must be confusing to any audience member not familiar with the originals there is no explanation about why it is necessary to drink so much beer before teleporting; nothing about how Marvin has been chosen with a depressed Genuine People Personality; no explanation of the necessity of towels, which must surely leave audiences wondering why Ford Prefect is maniacally waving them at the Vogons throughout. And almost certainly American audiences would not get the joke about Ford Prefects name that it is in fact the name of a small British car produced in the 1940s and 50s and the film plays it in straight-face, seemingly as though unaware of the joke.
Much of the humour is furthermore killed by director Garth Jennings. As opposed to Douglas Adamss dryly absurdist wit, Jennings more often than not pitches the show down at a slapstick level custard pie sequences with people being slapped in the face by devices on Vogsphere, fighting over who is driving the pod, using the empathy gun on each other and so on. While Douglas Adams had me laughing myself silly the first time I read the books, the film barely raises a smile. Maybe it is simply that the multiple versions of the story and endless fan quotings of sections has inured one to the newness of the jokes, but I dont think so. Certainly, the audience I saw The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy film with barely laughed throughout.
With Touchstone (Disney) as its distributor, this is also a The Hitch Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy that has been retooled for the American market. The essential Britishness of the original has been watered down the roles of Zaphod Beeblebrox, Ford Prefect and most noticeably Trillian have all been cast with American actors. Moreover, many elements have been amplified to make the film a much easier sell with the Mid-American box-office demographic an unrequited romance between Arthur and Trillian has been invented specifically for the film; the Vogons have had their presence in the story amplified so that they can become the heavies; and there is a sentimentalism that underlies it all Arthur just wants to find true love with Trillian and, like Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz (1939), to go back home again. The problem with the books and radio and tv series is that Douglas Adams never seemed that interested in plot, more in writing gags and sardonic asides. This can clearly be evidenced in the way that with the various incarnations of The Hitch Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy Adams was able to shuffle aspects of the story around in a different order without it seeming to make much overall difference. His other works most notably the Dirk Gently books often seemed like first drafts of ideas that needed someone to come and work them into a unifying or even coherent plot. The film is stuck with the ungainly task of having to take a series of extended gags and weave the formula of an A-budget movie around them. Thus we get extended pieces of additional plotting for the purpose of giving the film some drive the visit to Vogsphere in order to rescue Trillian from the Ravenous Bugblatter Beast, the encounter with John Malkovichs Humma Kavula in order to provide the story with something vaguely like a villain.
The film has made a virtue of trying to quote and pay tribute to the source the Marvin from the BBC series turns up in several shots in the background of the Vogon bureaucratic office; Simon Jones, the original Arthur Dent, has a cameo as the recorded Magrathean hologram greeting; while Douglas Adamss nose was apparently made into a model for one of the planets in the background of the Magrathean workshop floor; and a reworked version of The Eagles Flight of the Sorcerer, the theme music from the tv series, appears part way into the film. However, the question that nobody seemed to have asked is who the filmmakers were selling the film to. It is difficult to believe that many new fans will convert to the books/series etc because of the film there are so few times that the screen lights up with any of the absurdist wit that flows through the other incarnations of The Hitch Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy so that leaves hardcore Douglas Adams fans, who can only come out of the film disappointed.
Martin Freeman makes a merely adequate Arthur Dent. As Trillian tells him at one point: Arthur, get a backbone. This unwittingly does put a finger on the pulse of Martin Freemans performance certainly, he pales in comparison to the blithe twittishness of Simon Joness performance in the tv series. Sam Rockwell plays over-the-top when the second head appears, he for all the world seems to be channelling Robin Williams but at least this is exactly what the character of Zaphod Beeblebrox is meant to be. The casting of Mos Def, a Black hip-hop artist, as Ford Prefect was a controversial decision with fans certainly, Mos Def never embarrasses himself but then Ford has become a relatively minor background character in the film. The best performances in the film are in fact the voice actors where Alan Rickman and Stephen Fry do a spot-on job of recapturing the tones of Stephen Moore and the late Peter Jones who voiced respectively Marvin and The Book in the original radio and tv series.
The tv series certainly felt like it was faithful to Douglas Adams a whole lot more than this film, even if it was beset by cheap BBC production values. The one thing that the film has going for it is an A-budget and some fine sets and effects. The film takes full opportunity to visually approximate Adams with some impressive spaceships, Vogon nasties, journeys through the Magrathean workshop floor and the reconstruction of Earth and so forth. The two improvements the film makes over the series is a much better designed Marvin and actually allowing Zaphod Beeblebrox to have two heads (although like the tv series, it cheats in its own way and only occasionally has Zaphods other head and arm pop up from in hiding). Ultimately, there is the feeling that Douglas Adamss wit never needed these things. Impressive and all as the production values of the film are, one wishes the creativity would have gone in the other direction like hiring a director with a better feel for the material or simply adhering to the source with greater finesse.
The only other Douglas Adams adaptations we have had to date has been the short-lived tv series based on his holistic detective Dirk Gently (2010-2), although only five episodes were ever made of this, although the subsequent tv series Dirk Gentlys Holistic Detective Ageny (2016-7) was a far more successful endeavour. Adams also worked as script editor for one season of the original Doctor Who (1963-89) and wrote two of its stories.
Garth Jennings subsequently went on to make the comedy Son of Rambow (2007) and the animated Sing (2016).
(Nominee for Best Production Design at this sites Best of 2005 Awards).