The Hitch-Hikers Guide to the Galaxy!
Do you know where your towel is?
The Hitch-Hikers Guide to the Galaxy (HHGG), as created in the mighty brain
of Douglas Adams, has a special place in my overall scheme of things. In one
of those "Do you remember where you were when Kennedy was shot?" styled
moments, I even remember being on hand, accidentally, for the very first BBC
Radio 4 FM stereo broadcast, back in 1979 or therabouts. HHGG was something
totally mindblowing from anything I had ever come across before, it was the
equivalent of 'Star Wars' for radio, more than making up for the lack of
visuals with ground breaking production, fantastic humour levels, and a
slowly unfolding chinese puzzle of a plot.
Of course I had to follow it up, and when the BBC repeated it on the cheap
and cheerful long wave version of Radio 4, I listened to the whole series,
and the further episodes that they made as well. A bit later on, the books
started to appear, and a little while after that, a television series, which
did a pretty good job, within the notoriously stingy BBC effects budget, of
visualising what I had been listening to and making up in my head before. Of
course, some people may even remember the nasty logic traps in the Infocom
adventure game which came along a bit later still.
Although I loved HHGG, I managed to avoid totally imploding into a Trekker-
like geekdom. I *DID* get involved with the ZZ9 Plus Alpha HHGG appreciation
society in the mid-nineties, at the behest of one Dave 'Pixie' Hodges. That
even got as far as dressing up in a towel robe and scratchy beard, and going
to conventions, for flip's sake! New readers may want to refer to some of
the Maggie 'teenage' issue numbers, for my reports on these little
misadventures! Latterly, HHGG faded off, as other interests grew.
Now, many years later, and possibly for too long a period after HHGG ceased
to be fresh, a movie has been made.
Before I get into that, I'm going to digress with a little section on how
I'd personally rate the different works of Douglas Adams.
Most people speak in terms of Douglas Adams, the great writer. Whilst this
is true to some extent, I never really got into the Dirk Gently series, and
his later books on the HHGG canon were definitely going off the boil.
Besides which, he was a reluctant novelist, and even more notorious for
breaking deadlines than any demo coder!
Where his real genius lay in my opinion, was with the original radio series,
where not only the writing counted, but the fantastic production and
soundscape featured too. A book is a load of letters on a page when you come
down to it, but the radio series made HHGG come properly alive, and was
really doing new and amazing things with the format.
The BBC managed to successfully carry this over to their television series
as well. So I'd rank the various forms of HHGG media thus;
1. The original Radio 4 series..
2. The BBC television series..
3. The earlier books..
4. The Infocom Adventure game..
5. The final book. (In last place by a long way!)
So having done your little worship at the altar of Adams-ology, can we get
back to the film review now?
Cyclone politely informs some Alive contributors of the new deadline!
The HHGG movie has a long prehistory. I seem to remember that it has been an
active project since the time I was involved with ZZ9 at the very least.
Nothing happened for a long time, and the tale goes something like, Douglas
Adams selling the movie rights, nothing much happening for a long time, and
Douglas Adams struggles to get them back again. Eventually he does, but just
when it looks like things are really beginning to happen, Douglas Adams
I'm kind of suspicious that with the death of Douglas Adams, it suddenly
became easier for the movie to be made, once the annoyingly perfectionist
writer has been taken out of the equation?
It's not just any Hollywood megacorp film company either. We've got Disney
Corp's Mickey Mouse paw-prints on a preciously fragile comedic national
treasure like HHGG. Surely nothing good can come of this falling into the
hands of a bunch of all-American family values talking squirrel merchants!?
Let's start with the cast, and just who's playing who? In one sense, it
would have been nice to get the original radio/Tele series cast, but the
fact that they are too English, obscure, old, and in one case (Peter Jones
as the guide) dead. Here we have a mixed cast, with some well known but not
The principal players..
Arthur Dent, Martin Freeman, better known from the 'Office'.
Narrator/The Guide, Stephen Fry.
Ford Prefect, Mos Def.
Zaphon Beeblebrox, Sam Rockwell.
Trillian, Zooey Deschanel.
Marvin, voiced by Alan Rickman, not given that much to do.
Humma Kavula, John Malkovich
Slartibartfast, Bill Nighy,
So onto the film itself, The first important question to ask is how much
does it deviate from the source material? Even bearing in mind that no
version of HHGG made by Douglas Adams was ever the same as what came before,
the answer has to be "Quite a bit."
In spite of the principal characters making the final cut, and the plot, up
to a point, sort of being faithful to the source, there is quite a lot which
has been chopped around and taken out, and in many cases, replaced by
something not as good as the source material. Whatever the differences
between versions, you could always spot the hand of Douglas Adams in it. But
in the movie, this mojo is strangely absent. It's never a good sign when you
spot the name of the deceased author in the title credits as an 'executive
producer'. Maybe he is dead for tax reasons after all?
It's a bit like caffeine free coffee, or alcohol free beer, we now have
Hitchhikers Guide without Douglas Adams! What made the original so appealing
has been filtered, and washed, and strained through a fine mesh of hollywood
decision making, until all the essence that made it an authentic Adams
authored product has been removed. What is left looks a bit like Hitch-
hikers, but it isn't!
Okay, so it's not that bad really. If you forget about what came before, or
are new to all of this, the movie makes a not unappealing spectacle. Of
course, the visual effects have been given a big kick, so you finally get
things described by Douglas Adams as a throwaway radio joke properly shown.
The BBC series made do with a single Vogon Constructor ship, but thanks to
the wonders of CGI, you finally get to see the whole fleet and appreciate
how vast it is. The destruction of the Earth to clear the way for a
hyperspace bypass has been done proper justice here.
The other thrilling 'big canvas' sequence, has to be when Arthur Dent is
taken on a tour of the Magrathea planet-making factory floor, where you do
see everything life-size, and of course when they visit the mark 2 version
of the Earth, which is in the final stages of being built. The iconic Hitch-
hikers Guide animation sequences do get in here, but to a lesser extent, and
in a strangely simplified style, sort of like an animated powerpoint
There are other things to like about it too. The Vogons were nicely
depicted, and the digression to the Vogon home planet Vogsphere was almost
worth the plot upheaval to get there. These guys deserve their own movie!
The character of Trillian, usually not that well developed, and something of
a cipher originally, has been much more strongly written and comes across as
someone who really knows where her towel is. The 'real-world' developing
romance between her and Arthur Dent is kind of neat taken in isolation, but
tends to distort the structure of HHGG somewhat. The character of Zaphod
Beeblebrox is about 70 percent there. The idea of a celebrity airhead
laughably interacting with the big bad universe, being useless with it, but
somehow getting away with it, is even more pertinent now than it was back
when Adams first invented the character. I'd say he should have been a bit
better played as more cheerfully cynical as previously, and a little bit
less overtly flaky.
Stephen Fry does a pretty fair job in place of Peter Jones, as the Guide. It
would have been nice to have a little bit more of the guide, but obviously,
some hotshot thought that the movie was not 'linear' enough, ah well.
Martin Freeman as Arthur Dent may have been a little bit young for the role,
I tend to think of Arthur Dent as a certain kind of slightly repressed and
old fashioned thirtysomething englishman, of a sort which isn't around
anymore. Difficult one to call really. Mos Def as Ford Prefect does a
competent job, but then again, that role can be more flexibly interpreted.
Bill Nighy as Slartibartfast does a great job in his limited screen time.
John Malkovich, is presented as an adversary to Zaphod Beeblebrox, but seems
to be totally in the wrong movie. The other star turns, such as Helen Mirren
as Deep Thought, and Alan Rickman voicing Marvin, phoned in their
And now we're onto the really big and important question of the day. Where
does the movie screw up?
The thing which gets most hardened fans screaming "Nooooh!" and walking out
is in the cavalier treatment of the plot and dialogue. The words clumsy,
rushed, choppy, mangled, and incomplete, are all appropriate to describe the
handling of the plot structure and dialogue in the movie. yes, it really is
that teeth-gratingly bad! There have been cuts and omissions from the source
material. Fair enough, as some bits might be past their best, or otherwise
send the running time of the movie too long. But the butchery has been
extensive, and not only chopping out complete sequences, but making a
horrible botched mess of much of the remaining material. Extended dialogue-
based humour is cut into pieces, punchlines appear without the lines which
came before. All the subtly weighted nuances of the spoken word, that
Douglas Adams was so good with, have all been smacked around the head with
an editorial ploughshare, until they are rendered incoherent and useless.
Now if this is appreciating the genius of Douglas Adams, I'd hate to see the
A 'good' example of the dialogue malaise, is the way that Marvin, the
paranoid android, has been reduced to a minor role. His depressive but witty
interactions with the other characters have been totally lost, and he's been
reduced to a load of unfunny and non-specific moaning.
It doesn't stop there either. We have a plot structure which is incomplete.
In place of much of the missing material, there is a pointless kidnap and
rescue the babe-in-peril sub-plot grafted on, presumably to lend some more
conventional movie action to keep the more, ahem, American audiences happy.
There is a half-developed subplot where our heroes get to meet the Humma
Kavula character, and Zaphod loses some vital bodily parts, but he somehow
loses interest in getting these back by the end of the film? (Perhaps this
is leaving the way open for a sequel, where Humma Kavula gets a bigger role,
but would we give a stuff about that?)
There are lots of stupid basic mistakes which wouldn't have happened if the
people responsible had really properly understood the source material. For
example, the Restaurant at the end of the Universe refers to the end of
time, not the end of space for grud's sake!
I don't think there ever was any intention to ruin it. There isn't a
fanciful smoke-filled room full of hollywood movers and shakers poring over
the radio scripts, reading and soaking up the exquisitely witty exchanges,
then gleefully rewriting them deliberately to deaden the impact. The problem
seems to be with a team which probably either hadn't read the source
material too carefully, or were tone deaf and unskilled when it came to
understanding it. Or has the senior suit in charge decided there was too
much standing around and talking, and that more "action" was needed, even if
it was of the inconsequential knockabout variety, which didn't add anything
to the story.
Perhaps it's too late for a decent Hitchhikers Guide movie? The ideal
situation would have been for it to be made by Handmade Films, the Monty
Python movie people, to keep the essentially english flavour intact, with
the best time to do it being around twenty-odd years ago. There is such a
thing as franchise fatigue, and maybe we've reached that point with
the Hitchhikers Guide?
This movie will be assessed as "mostly harmless" eye-candy by people
previously unfamiliar with the cult, but hardened fans will need a drink
after seeing this, and will seek to get one by sticking a finger down a
CiH, for Alive Mag,May '05.