Douglas Adams created all the various manifestations of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (THGTTG), which started life as a BBC Radio 4 series. Since its first airing in March 1978, it has been presented as a series of best-selling novels, a TV series, a record album, a computer game and several stage adaptations. It was, in essence, his life’s work. Or at least the work he was most closely associated with. As such, he had plenty to say about how THGTTG should appear if and when Hollywood came calling. He even wrote the screenplay for the movie now appearing at your local multiplex. The question I had going in was this: “Did they do Douglas proud?”
My experience with THGTTG began with reading a paperback in highschool. I was struck dumb by the incredible world Adams created and must have read it some five times before I was able to get my hands on the books in the trilogy. It holds a very special place in my heart and mind as well as in my bookcase although the ratty, well-read copies of the books have been replaced with an omnibus edition which includes all four books of the trilogy in one volume. Yes, there are four books in the THGTTG trilogy, which just goes to show you how clever Adams was at his peak.
He had tried various times to get a big-budget version of THGTTG made with little success. In fact, at one time ex-monkey Mike Nesbitt was going to play a part in bringing the story to the silver screen, but it, like many other attempts, failed to capture the attention of Hollywood’s elite.
When he died on May 11th, 2001, Adams was working on the film. Casting had just started and principal photography was still years away. I wondered then how they would change the stories in order to bring them into line with the expectations Hollywood has for films that are “high concept.” Despite the fact that the book sold almost as many copies as the Bible, producers still considered the premise to be high concept and struggled with the screenplay, asking for rewrite after rewrite.
Now, after seeing the movie, I can say that the story is still there, watered down, but still there. I’d really like to tell you that I enjoyed the movie completely, but the sad truth is that I wasn’t impressed and more than a little disappointed with a few things. Most of them can be attributed to the camera of the mind and how I perceived certain creatures, planets, and gags and bits.
The Vogons didn’t look or sound at all like I imagined, nor did Marvin the depressed android. What was the most disappointing though was Zaphod Beeblebrox. The two headed president of the galaxy, played excellently by Sam Rockwell, was one of the characters I had the most trepidation about. The old BBC TV version of Zaphod used a rather clumsy fake head back in 1984 and one would expect the 2005 version, with the availability of standout CGI artists falling out of trees in Hollywood, would knock your socks off… but it didn’t. It was only slightly better than the dummy head version, but at least the dummy head had old school cachet about it. This new version is thankfully only on screen for a few minutes before it is unceremoniously removed (in a bit written especially for the movie for John Malkovich by Adams) and completely forgotten.
The screenplay itself is filled with instances like the one described above. Maybe that’s why I have issue with the movie. I don’t mind when filmmakers take the story places the literary versions don’t. My problem is when the changes don’t take the story somewhere better or help move the story along quicker. Making wholesale changes just for the sake of making changes is really a poor use of proven material. Especially when it arises from pure laziness. Such is the case with most of the more difficult aspects of THGTTG. What would be too difficult to put on screen, they simply replaced with something less than worthwhile. I would rather they cut it out completely than to do that.
All in all, I would imagine that THGTTG will be successful despite its considerable flaws. What THGTTG has going for it is excellent casting, which almost saves this mess from itself. Sam Rockwell, as stated earlier, is great as Zaphod; Zooey Deschanel makes a lovable Trillian; Mos Def was an inspired choice as Ford Prefect; and Martin Freeman makes a passable Arthur Dent. Malkovich isn’t much of an addition and could be excised from the final cut without losing much. Bill Nighy steals his few scenes as Slartibartfast and continues to impress with me with his versatility. If for no other reason, I recommend THGTTG just for these great performances. Just don’t expect to be entertained if you love the books as much as I did. And if you’re wondering what the answer to my question as to whether or not they did Douglas proud, I have to say, “No, they didn’t.”
It is too bad too… cause I really wanted to like the film… for Douglas.