The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy
directed by Garth Jennings
(Touchstone, 2005)

The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, the radio script and novel by the late Douglas Adams, is one of the most perfect examples of humorous fiction. The mini-series filmed in 1981, while boasting special effects that made the original Star Trek series look high-tech, retained that distinctive brand of Adams wit, overcoming a shoestring budget with excellent characterization, dead-on timing and an obvious respect for Adams' work.

The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, the new big-budget film version of the novel, is great when it sticks to the book. When it wanders astray -- and it quite frequently does -- it feels like the writing or directing team felt they could do Adams one better.

They were wrong.

Filmmakers credit Adams -- who died during production -- for revising, deleting and adding elements of the story in this screenplay, for which he shares screenwriting credits with Karey Kirkpatrick. We'll probably never know which changes came from whom. But, let's face it, even Adams -- justly revered though he be -- was not without flaw. (Ask many a diehard fan about a certain well-loved character from the fourth book in the series who was unceremoniously blipped from the story in the fifth, and you'll see my point.) In this case, the film at times relies less on Adams' brilliant prose and dialogue, and more on special effects (unquestionably grand and visually stunning; for instance, the planetary "factory floor") and slapstick comedy. Perhaps filmmakers believed the novel to be too cerebral for the average American movie fan and hoped Vogon shoot-outs would suffice. I fear they greatly misread their target audience.

Dent's interview with the "mice" who want to buy/take his brain is a perfect example of a scene completely rebuilt for visual effect -- and utterly ruined as comedy.

But first, let's sort out the mixed bag of a cast.

Martin Freeman is an exceptional choice to play Adams' hapless everyman, Arthur Dent. He, more than anyone, captured the flavor of the role as written, and he's a delight from beginning to end.

Other casting coups include Zooey Deschanel as brainy love interest Tricia "Trillian" Macmillan, Bill Nighy as global fjord-builder Slartibartfast, Alan Rickman as the very depressed voice of Marvin the Android, Stephen Fry as the Book, and John Malkovich as Humma Kavula, a character newly penned for the movie by Adams shortly before his death. (Fans of the BBC series will also be pleased to see a brief cameo by Simon Jones, the definitive Dent of TV and radio, as well as the original Marvin in a Vogon queue.)

Rapper Mos Def is almost Ford Prefect, Arthur's best friend, rescuer and alien from a world near Betelgeuse, but he lacks the proper degree of cocky smugness, the necessary glibness and deadpan, ADD-driven humor. As galactic president and conman Zaphod Beeblebrox, Sam Rockwell has energy, flash and arrogance to spare, but he quickly becomes a caricature of himself -- and the new take on his second head is more annoyance than gag.

Three major characters from Adams' entirely British tale were Americanized -- probably a decision by Disney, Touchstone's domineering parent company. Again, this is probably a misguided attempt to make the movie more accessible to big-spending American audiences.

Adams enthusiasts will notice immediately that many of his classic lines have been chopped mercilessly from the script. Some, like the classic cultural debate between Arthur, Ford and their bellicose Vogon guard, were deleted altogether, while others, like the repartee between Arthur and the demolition crew foreman, have been truncated to the point where the humor itself is missing. And, with some vital exposition cut -- Why did Ford give Arthur beer and peanuts? Why were Arthur and Ford picked up by a Vogon ship when Vogons hate hitchhikers? -- anyone not familiar with the novel will be lost.

On the other hand, there's no reason to remake the classic 1981 version when that version's still around to be seen and enjoyed. And I can understand to some degree a desire by Hollywood to do something different and fresh. So, Hitchhiker's afficionados will see a lot of new material, including an expanded role for the bureaucratically villainous Vogons, an obsessed galactic vice president, increased romance between Arthur and Tricia, a politically minded religious leader, a madcap capture and rescue, a powerful new weapon, lots of paperwork, an incriminating signature and increased heroics on Arthur's -- and, surprisingly, Marvin's -- parts as the story evolves.

At the end of the day, I'm glad this movie was made -- but I wish it had been made just a little bit better. It's a treat, but more adherence to Adams' original work, especially in regards to his dialogue and narration, would have made this an exceptional treat.

Adams' classic description of Earth -- "mostly harmless" -- was inexplicably deleted from the script, but it's as good a label as any to apply to the film.

- Rambles
written by Tom Knapp
published 14 May 2005

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