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The Answer Is Not "42"

May 3rd, 2005

On Saturday, Vic and I went to see the film adaptation of the sci-fi comedy classic The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. The flick had been stuck in Development Hell for at least a decade, and I strongly suspect that the only reason it was ever completed was that Hitchhiker’s author Douglas Adams–a chronic procrastinator–died a few years ago. (I believe that this also accounts for the recent production of BBC radio series based on the third and fourth books in the series.)

The reviews for the film have given it guarded recommendations at best, and I think that’s fair. Vic enjoyed it more than I did, perhaps because she’s less familiar with the source material. (She also really, really loved the dolphin song-and-dance number that opens the film: an insanely catchy ditty entitled, “So Long, And Thanks For All The Fish.” She’s been singing it for the last several days.)

Some of the reviews from the die-hard Hitchhiker’s fans would have one believe that it’s some sort of affront to Adams’ work, but that’s hardly the case. I found it to be generally quite faithful, to the point that I knew exactly what the characters would say before they said it. I found myself grateful for the odd bit of unfamiliar dialogue. Clearly, the film was intended to be an affectionate tribute, not a Hollywoodized travesty, and it largely succeeds.

That said, I found myself vaguely unamused by the proceedings. The jokes were there, but the delivery–particularly by Mos Def as Ford Prefect–seemed flat. In addition, Martin Freeman’s take on earthman Arthur Dent lacked the expected level of exasperation. It’s hard for me to tell how much this is really the fault of the performers, and how much owes to my familiarity with previous Hitchhiker’s dramatizations.

I did quite like Steven Fry’s pitch-perfect recitation as The Book, as well as Bill Nighy as Slartibartfast. Nighy has been mooted for the role of Doctor Who over the years, and I can now see why.

The design and effects work are superlative, and–in the case of the Magrathean “factory floor” sequence–wonderful in the precise sense of the word. A lot of thought went into getting the bureaucratic Vogons and their squared-off world just right.

There are some odd diversions from the original plot, and I’m not sure how much they added. First, and least necessary, is a sidetrip to the planet Viltvodle VI to meet a religious leader played by John Malkovich. His character–though created by Adams during the earlier drafts of the screenplay–seems rather sinister for the lighthearted Guide. Furthermore, while it seems as if he’s being built up to be the villain of the piece, he winds up doing little more than writing out Zaphod Beeblebrox’s second head and introducing a literal plot device that comes into play at the film’s end.

Second is the trip to the Vogon homeworld Vogsphere, which at least ties into the aliens’ increased presence in the film version, as well as showcasing the aforementioned design work. (It also results in a line which made me laugh: “I’m British, I know how to queue!”)

Ultimately, the melancholic and futile tone of the original work is undercut somewhat by a couple of Hollywood elements: an awkward love story between Arthur and fellow earthbeing Trillian (he seems rather unbelievably smitten and jealous after only one previous date), and a semi-happy ending which not only reinstates the demolished Earth but its inhabitants as well. (Granted, Adams also relented when it came to the Earth, resurrecting it in the fourth book before destroying it for good in the fifth.)

I wonder if Hitchhiker’s doesn’t simply defy big-screen adaptation. A book or radio series can afford to ramble, a movie not so much. And the humor, while clever, is very dry. At times, I felt as if someone was reciting a joke rather than telling one.

All in all, I would say that it’s worth seeing for visuals and for the honest attempt to bring much of Adams’ unique universe to life. However, in addition to a towel, you should pack diminished expectations for your trip to the theater.

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