HitchHiker's Guide To The Galaxy:
One Fan's Refutation
Editor's Note: We ran a preview of this
film a couple of months back, which was highly positive.
Contributor Andrew Simchik, having now seen the movie, would
like his say as a long-time fan...
is now well recorded, there is a movie adaptation out based
on that wholly remarkable book, The Hitchhiker's Guide to
the Galaxy. This has made a lot of people very angry and
is generally regarded as a bad move.
and I grabbed some friends and went to see this adaptation.
I didn't expect to love it, and I didn't expect to hate
it, and both expectations were fully met. It could have
and should have been much better; it could have been and
thankfully wasn't much worse. If I'd gone to see it alone
I probably would have told you it was awful, but I didn't,
and my girlfriend really liked it. This last fact truly
surprised me and gave credence to the hypothesis that my
negative reaction had a lot to do with being a fan of the
series in its earlier forms.
my overall reaction is negative, to be fair, I'm going to
post the top 10 things I liked about the movie and the top
10 things I hated, so it all evens out. My short opinion
have never read the books or heard the radio series, you
should see this movie first. You won't have any idea how
good it could be, and you'll have some wonderful visuals
to take with you into the other versions, and there won't
be anywhere to go but up. The best analogy I can make with
this movie is David Lynch's Dune: everyone agrees it's an
overacted, overcondensed mess, but I saw it before I ever
read the books and I doubt I would have fallen in love with
them without seeing Lynch's visually splendid, bizarre,
enchanting (but disowned) take first.
If you are already a fan, who are you kidding? You're going
to want to see it anyway, so just get it over with.
10 Reasons I Enjoyed the Movie
Opening with the dolphins. Very suited to the tone of the
series. I was so glad it didn't start with space or something.
They only flubbed part of the joke, too.
The Book. Stephen Fry is just reading it straight but he's
a worthy successor to the brilliant Peter Jones. The graphics
are terrific, and the jokes are relatively unexpurgated.
that people who don't know this series will wonder why it's
named after a book that's tangential to the story, but that's
my only complaint.
The theme. Not the "So Long, and Thanks for All the
Fish" song -- that's in the next list. I mean the instrumental
theme that introduced each radio episode, the one they play
after the story's gotten underway in the movie. Good on
them for keeping that in.
Ford Prefect. I have serious complaints about the way Mos
Def mumbled his lines, but I have similar complaints about
nearly everyone else. Otherwise I actually thought he was
brilliant; the most authentically alien Ford Prefect we've
ever really seen or heard, thoroughly weird and charming
all at once. Hideously underused, unfortunately, but they
did add a good flashback (how he and Arthur first meet).
There are even a couple of mildly homoerotic moments between
him and Arthur. Fun all around, really.
Paper bag callback. As part of a brief montage during Prostetnic
Vogon Jeltz's speech to the Earth, we see that the folks
in Arthur's local pub have decided to lie down with paper
bags over their heads. Great callback, and the sort of visual
joke you can't really pull off in a book or radio series.
Just barely beats out the lightning-fast Gag Halfrunt moment
because it's funny to non-fans too.
The effects of the Improbability Drive. It's understandable
that they condensed the bits about Ford being "a perfectly
safe penguin, and my colleague here is rapidly running out
of limbs!" into the two of them becoming sofas (my
girlfriend said, "no, stay sofas!" and meant it
nicely), and this really gets fun halfway through the movie
when the Heart of Gold materializes as a ball of knitting
and the crew are rendered for a short time as animated yarn
characters. I will pay someone to knit me those. SO. CUTE.
Huggable Marvin. He's almost disturbingly huge but otherwise
totally adorable. An excellent design choice, marketable
as hell, and believe me I'm first in line for the stuffed
toy or even the action figure.
Worshipping the Great Green Arkleseizure. A throwaway joke
from the book becomes a short but pretty funny church scene.
"Amen" becomes "Achoo," to which John
Malkovich's creepazoid pseudoPope Humma Kavula replies,
"Bless you." That's pretty brilliant.
Slartibartfast. I wish he'd delivered some of the lines
more crisply, but Bill Nighy is always enjoyable and as
Slartibartfast doubly so. Best of all, they kept one of
the best exchanges from
Arthur's encounter with the fjord designer (paraphrased):
"I'd rather be happy than right any day." "And
are you? Happy, I mean." "Not really, no. That's
where it falls down a bit, you see."
The Earth Mark II. There's a point near the end where it
seems like Arthur is going to just get his old house back
on the replacement Earth. This actually would have been
a terrific way to make the story self-contained. It's not
quite this simple, of course, but the suggestion, combined
with the fantastic and hilarious visuals of the second Earth
being built, easily makes the top 10 list.
10 Reasons I Disliked the Movie
of these were things that my girlfriend also disliked, so
I know they're not just fanboy whining.
Zaphod W. Beeblebush. If I grit my teeth hard and squint
until the vein in my temple throbs, I can see the cleverness
of having Sam Rockwell play Zaphod as Robin Williams doing
George W. Bush. It fits with Adams' bits about the role
of the Galactic President being not to wield power but to
draw attention away from it. And he does look the part,
and the voice and attitude aren't too far off. But he comes
off as such a complete idiot that the loss of one of his
heads doesn't seem to alter his character appreciably, and
most of the time he flails at random with no clear motivation
or stable personality. So one of the best characters in
the original story is thoroughly wasted. The treatment of
the two heads is so ridiculous that I would rather they
had just ignored this inconvenient character trait (it's
usually irrelevant anyway), but it could have floated if
everything else had worked.
Too much of the Vogons. I get that they probably wanted
to get a lot of value out of the Henson suits they made,
and they were forced to carry most of the "isn't bureaucracy
stupid and hilarious?" motif that recurs in Adams'
oeuvre. But they're pretty tiresome, and it would have been
nice to see more of the kaleidoscopic variety of alien forms
(if only to help reinforce another Adams motif, "no
matter what they look like, most aliens are a lot like the
people you meet every day"). The multitorsoed Japanese
schoolgirl was, I'm sorry, kind of dumb.
Random motivations and loose ends. Do you believe Zaphod
wanted to find the Ultimate Question? I might have, if the
script and Sam Rockwell had sold it; after all, in the books
he wants to find out who rules the universe. But why does
he want it so badly he lets Humma Kavula hold one of his
heads hostage, then never goes back to retrieve the head?
Does Kavula not care that he never gets the gun? Why even
include this plot element if you're not going to resolve
it until the next movie (if ever)? The structure of the
radio series is comic sketches linked by comic monologues;
we could very easily have had that same structure in this
movie, but instead the plot was stitched together by a blind
tailor with a drinking problem.
Deep Thought. Hard to believe they could screw this up.
But they rushed it in terms of script and direction, Helen
Mirren rushed it in terms of delivery, and so another of
the funniest and most meaningful sequences in the whole
books is, I'm guessing, lost on the uninitiated. The design
is cute, though, almost as good as Marvin's. If only we
knew why Deep Thought watches cartoons (a cheap, meaningless
non-joke) or guards the Point-of-View Gun.
Trillian & Arthur (tie). Arthur is well-cast but unsympathetically
written and acted. He's a plausible Everyman in the radio
series and the books, like many of us interested primarily
the comforts of one's own home, a nice cup of tea, and knowing
one's planet will still be there in the morning. Here he's
a blustering coward with delusions of grandeur and the hormones
and common sense of a 14-year-old, proving once again why
everyone likes Han Solo better
than Luke Skywalker (unfortunately, see above regarding
Zaphod, our should-be Han Solo). The Arthur fans know and
love would have suggested Cornwall for a date because running
off to Madagascar on a moment's notice is a romantic whim;
a reasonable person reads a guidebook or two and packs proper
supplies instead of blundering into the forest like a loud
stupid tourist. This Arthur just seems small-minded and
Trillian is just as bad. Zooey Deschanel looks the part
(dark-haired, pretty, not a complete bimbo) and honestly
I thought she made the most of what she had to work with.
Unfortunately, what she had to work with sucked. It wasn't
just the missed opportunity for this character to finally
get the respect Adams set her up to deserve (as originally
written she has a "degree in astrophysics and another
in mathematics," so as she puts it it's either run
off with Zaphod to see the galaxy or "back to the dole
queue on Monday"). It's that there's really nothing
to fill the void, and she has to make us believe that her
best romantic options were, at one point before the Earth
exploded, the utterly vapid Zaphod or the utterly wretched
Arthur, and that choosing between them is her highest priority.
Unbreakable Marvin. In the books Marvin is almost indestructible;
a laser to the head is not a more serious problem than the
pain in all the diodes down his left side. But that's no
big deal. What bothered me is that they clumsily show him
"dead" (the lights in his eyes go out) just to
tug at your heartstrings, and then with no explanation or
provocation whatsoever have him come back to life and somehow
pick up the gun with no one noticing. Was he recharging?
Temporarily "unconscious"? Who knows? It just
said in the script that someone should get hurt here so
we could have a little emotional dip and then a rise again
when he turns out to be okay after all. Awwww! It could
have been any of the characters and it still would have
been stupid, stupid, stupid.
"So Long, and Thanks For All the Sk8er Bois."
Do you hate it when this really clever line will come up
in a song, and you think, "wow, brilliant!" and
then it's ruined because the singer realizes how brilliant
it is and repeats it over and over? Like in the Smiths'
"Sweet and Tender Hooligan," when Morrissey sings
"in the midst of life we are in death, et cetera"
(hilarious) and then proceeds to vamp that line into the
ground? That was the effect, for me, of opening
with a great bit like the "second most intelligent
species on Earth" dolphin stuff and then making their
final message to humanity into a stupid little ditty. I
didn't realize until later that they'd ripped off the verse
melody from Avril Lavigne's "Complicated," adding
injury to insult.
don't get me started on the incidental music score. Incidental
music is like perfume or cologne: figure out the absolute
minimum you think you need to get you through the next two
hours, and then use a quarter of that. Most movies these
days are like that over-made-up middle-aged woman who sits
next to you on the plane smelling like she just did ten
laps in an Olympic-sized pool of Chanel No. 5.
The tone. This wasn't as far off as it could have been.
But it was off. Much of the problem was caused by the next
two points, to be fair, and much of the rest of it was caused
by the demands of making a movie out of a serial. It felt
to me like the difference between the original Dr. Who series
and the TV movie with Paul McGann; in both cases it seemed
as though the Britishness of the original was being downplayed
in the later adaptation. This goes beyond accents and into
worldviews. Adams wasn't trying to write funny science fiction,
any more than George Orwell was setting out to write a dramatic
story about farm animals. Adams was writing satire, and
science fiction happened to be the ideal stage for that
satire. The points of the satire -- life is amazing, inscrutable,
random, and ridiculous; culture is culture, petty, bureaucratic,
greedy, but charmingly so and mostly harmless; the best
things in life are food, drink, and a comfortable place
to sleep -- are not completely lost in the movie, but they
are far weaker than they ought to be.
The dialogue. Contrary to what I'd read, they didn't cut
out all the jokes. But they cut out many of them, and flubbed
a lot more through needless editing and horrible delivery.
The dialogue is by far the best part of the original series,
as you might imagine, because Adams was a comedy writer
and because he mercilessly edited and reedited each radio
episode until it was perfect. Granted, each episode was
30 minutes long, but the first four episodes cover the whole
of the movie. Why they had to snip lines and parts of lines
that would have taken mere seconds to speak in full I've
no idea. However, most of what they used instead was meaningless
grunting ("look out," "uh-oh, what?",
that sort of thing) and the delivery was as far from crisp
as it gets. There were exchanges I literally could not understand
because the actors rushed and mumbled them. There were a
few witty new bits (Trillian's "it won't work on me,
I'm already a woman," for example), but most of it
just fell flat to me. The original dialogue is usually as
honed, set-em-up-and-knock-em-down as the Simpsons, and
I have to figure that even new audiences could see that
this wasn't like that at all.
The romance. I don't think anyone who went to see this with
me liked the romance between Trillian and Arthur that took
over the story. There was even a totally sketched-in, meaningless
thing between Zaphod and Vice President Questular. I'm at
a loss for words (finally, you're thinking) but let me just
say: no chemistry, no plausibility, no point. Romance is
fine in a satire like Candide because Candide is a would-be
romantic hero. Arthur Dent is a philosophical hero, and
the philosophical tone is all but completely wrecked by
the Hollywood insistence on bringing romance to the forefront
of the story. Think carefully about the role of romance
in two of the best-scripted films I've seen in the last
ten years, Monsters Inc. and Finding Nemo. It's there, but
it's part of life and not the focus of the story or the
reason for the heroes' personalities. That's the role it
should have played here as well. Titanic this ain't.