Movies: Hitchiker’s Guide To The Galaxy

Don’t panic, it’s pretty good. Or, more to the point, it’s not too bad.

“Bad” is certainly what I was anticipating from The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy movie. My low expectations were the result of two things: (a) a scathing pre-release review written by MJ Simpson, Douglas Adams’ biographer, who blasted the makers of the film for, in his word, “leaving out all the jokes”; and (2) my personal opinion that Hitchhiker’s is fundamentally unsuited for the big screen. Yes, I know it’s already been made into a radio play and few television shows and a text adventure game and, for all I know, a breakfast cereal. But of all the forms of media, film is the least kind toward absurdity, and Hitchhiker’s is a profoundly absurd work.

Both of my concerns proved to be true: The silliness in Hitchhiker’s didn’t translate well, and they took out most of the jokes. Fortunately, the second ameliorates the first, and the whole thing turns out about as good as this particular adaptation could possibly be.

Here’s an example that Simpson, in his review, cites as proof that the material was given a joke-ectomy:

Book

“I eventually had to go down to the cellar to find them.”

“That’s the Display Department.”

“With a torch.”

“The lights had probably gone.”

“So had the stairs.”

“But you found the plans, didn’t you?”

“Oh yes, they were ‘on display’ in the bottom of a locked filing cabinet stuck in a disused lavatory with a sign on the door saying ‘Beware of the leopard.’”

Movie:

“I eventually had to go down to the cellar to find them.”

“But you found the plans, didn’t you?”

I remembered reading this when the line “I eventually had to go down to the cellar to find them” cropped up in the film. But instead of thinking “They’ve ruined a classic!’ I found myself musing, “well, yeah — the other way probably would have been too long.” Blasphemy I know*.

Which isn’t to say that Hitchhiker’s trademark silliness is completely missing — it’s there, but watered down and spread out. The movie intersperses bits from the book — scenes lifted directly from the novel, guide entries, etc. — with traditional motion picture fare like action sequences and muted bits of exposition. It’s as if they decided to just split the difference between Hitchhiker’s outlandishness and Hollywood’s reluctance to think outside the proverbial box. Granted, Hollywood gets the upper hand in the end, but up until that point it works pretty well.

Martin Freeman makes for a pretty good Authur Dent; Dent isn’t the complete loser he was in the books, but he’s still pretty useless. Mos Def does an okay Ford Prefect (though his performance is so sedated that he makes Ford seems like a secondary character) and I liked Sam Rockwell’s Zaphod quite a bit. And Zooey Deschanel is very pleasant to look at, though the character of Trillian was considerably altered in the adaptation (she’s a lot nicer in the film).

Truth be told, I agree with almost everything MJ Simpson says in his review — the film isn’t terribly funny, the plot is now full of “convenience and unexplained happenings,” Marvin is all but superfluous — but I don’t agree with his conclusion that the film is “vastly, staggeringly, jaw-droppingly bad” and “the script is amazingly, mindbogglingly awful.” More to the point, I think that the movie would have been worse if they had been more faithful to the book, and I’m a bit surprised they managed to make it even halfway decent. Not exactly a rave review, but better than the one I’d expected to write.

* That said, the omission of “Mostly Harmless” is unforgivable.
* * *

18 comments.

  1. I thought it was pretty decent as well. I think anyone who hasn’t read the books would not be able to appreciate just how well Rockwell portrayed Zaphod. Without knowing the character already, it would just seem silly and over the top, but of course that’s exactly what Zaphod is supposed to be.

    And I think Mos Def was better than you’re giving him credit for.

    But I agree with you for the most part, though I might have liked it a little more than you. I’m looking forward to seeing it again actually.

  2. Mos Def was great at the start but then sort of faded away into the background. I think you’re spot on with your review. If they had been any more “faithful” all the humour would have been lost on the general public.

  3. The problem with the ‘plans’ line is that they use 4-5 lines to set up the joke, and then don’t deliver a punchline. The display department being in the cellar isn’t funny, and so the entire digression is unnecessary except to set up the fact that the Vogons have plans on display in obscure places too. And if you can’t get that right in the first five minutes, the rest of the film doesn’t stand much of a chance.

  4. but you didn’t mention the most brilliant part of the movie, which could have only been in the movie: so long and thanks for all the fish! the song was side-achingly funny, and for some reason my boyfriend and i were the only people in the theatre laughing.

  5. The part I thought was the most funny, even more than the wonderfully animated Guide entries, was the Aftermath of Deep Thought. Subtle but almost venomous. I don’t know if this was an Adams bit, but if it wasn’t I’ll probably keep saying it was.

    In a way, I thought the movie was too faithful to the book. That is, I thought the happenings were too disjointed. Every new iteration of things Adams wrote seemed to bring him closer to a single, over-arching plot. That the movie didn’t have one, but could have, was disappointing to me as a Hitchhiker’s fan. Strange, I know.

  6. Hitchhiker’s Guide started life as a radio play and then became a serialised TV show before it became a book. The vioce of the book was the same for radio, Tv and the movie the only character to do so i think.

    When I think of what Hollywood could have to it, the movie was pretty good.

  7. Yeah, if you can get hold of the radio series or the TV series, I’d recommend it. Incidentally, I think that they’ve now adapted all the follow-up books to radio series.

  8. I agree. the movie was decent if you disconect yourself from the book. Also, readin this reminded me of somethign a girl I met once said that rings true everywhere:

    “A DORK is someone who knows that a towle is the most insanely usefull thing in the universe.

    A NERD is someone who actually brings the towel.”

    I’m proud to be simply the dork.

  9. Having spent — excuse me, pissed away — my $6 at a matinee for “Sith” (My feelings exactly the same as yours posted below), I’m not sure I’m going to risk H2G2. I think I’ll go see Kung Fu Hustle first.

  10. I quite enjoyed the film – more than I’d expected to – then read MJ Simpson’s review and found myself agreeing with that. (Like the rabbi dealing with the arguing couple who tells the husband “You’re right” and tells the wife “You’re right”. Then a bystander says “Hang on, they can’t BOTH be right”. The rabbi thinks for a moment and says “You’re right”.)

    I think the main criticism that Simpson makes that holds up is that Zaphod just isn’t cool enough. Dumb enough, sure. Self-obsessed enough, check. But not cool enough for the guy whose left cranium was declared the hippest place in the galaxy.

    Bill Nighy is a terrific Slartibartfast, and Alan Rickman just right as Marvin.

    And to anyone who disagrees: “You’re right”.

    Rob

  11. I saw the movie, opening night, with a bunch of friends who were familiar and unfamiliar to the story. We all borught towels, and we all loved the movie.

    Upon seeing it again, and re-listening / watching the BBC radio / television series I realize that the movie might have been better if they had put some of the stuff in that those series included. But I loved the style of the film, and felt that the cast fit perfectly in every aspect.

    Some combination of the two would probably be ideal, but I’m not in hollywood making movies, so you gotta take what you can get.

  12. I was less generous: the best we’re going to get, but less than it could have been. I too am finding myself agreeing more and more with the detail in Simpson’s review: for example, they cut the original jokes to put in the shovel-in-the-face slapstick?

    And as for Zaphod: I hated this version. In the books, radio etc he’s a raving egotist; in the movie, he’s /nasty/ with it. Not funny: just cruel.

    I’m sure my perception is heavily skewed by being very familiar with the books and, particularly, the radio series: those voices are very distinctive. (And no, Huw, sorry: the Book was Peter Jones in radio and TV, Stephen Fry in the movie. Similar, but not identical, voices.) How did it play to those unfamiliar with the previous versions?

  13. I went into the movie theatre having only seen the trailer for it, and nothing else, and I loved it. Next day I bought the books.

    Personally, the movie is much more enjoyable, if you haven’t read the books first. That way, you can watch Hitchhiker’s, enjoy it, and then read the book and enjoy it even more. :)

  14. Sorry James Kew

    I don’t know what made me think that

  15. I was disappointed not because it wasn’t totally faithful to the book, but because they added stupid movie comic-device stuff. Rockewell did a good Zaphod but it was a little too self-consciously George W. for my tastes. Also, dumb implementation of the second head.

    Re: the opening song…it just wasn’t that funny. A couple of people laughed uproariously but I thought it was trying too hard for a laugh, personally – exactly what the books don’t do.

  16. It was mostly disappointing. And I don’t think we should be apologists for a Hollywood that guts the source material while trying to make a quick buck.
    The Vogons, however, were perfect. The filmmakers gave their bureaucraticism a Gilliamesque treatment that, I think, played very well.
    The constant shots of the TV Marvin in the queue on Vogsphere were a slap in the face. Do yourself a favor and rent the DVD of the BBC television series from the early eighties. Or find the original radio dramatization. This stuff is best done serialized.

  17. I’m surprised no one has commented on how godawful Zooey Deschanel (Trillian) was. I’m sure she did the best with what she had, but the whole love story was crap.

  18. In re Wedge’s post:

    That’s funny, to me “nerd” and “dork” have the exact opposite meanings: a nerd knows the answer is 42, a dork feels compelled to explain it to people while they’re waiting to buy tickets.