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Sunday 1 May 2005

Mostly Charmless:
A Review of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy

by Gary Westfahl

Directed by Garth Jennings

Written by Douglas Adams and Karey Kirkpatrick

Starring Martin Freeman, Mos Def, Sam Rockwell, Zooey Deschanel, Stephen Fry, John Malkovich, Alan Rickman

The story begins in 1978, when Douglas Adams scripted the first of two BBC radio series entitled The Hitch-Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy, featuring a hapless Earthman named Arthur Dent catapulted into madcap space adventures after Earth is destroyed by a cosmic demolition team. Their contents were subsequently adapted as the novels The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy (1979) and The Restaurant at the End of the Universe (1980); later, in response to their deserved success, Adams produced three additional novels — Life, the Universe, and Everything (1982), So Long, and Thanks for All the Fish (1985), and Mostly Harmless (1992) — of steadily diminishing quality. Now, years after his death, comes Adams's final contribution to the series, a film adaptation of the first novel co-scripted by Adams and Karey Kirkpatrick.

Curmudgeons get tired of saying the same old thing, but honesty compels one to say of the film that it isn't as good as its source material. But what we have here is not the familiar scenario of brain-dead Hollywood moguls homogenizing and dumbing down a wonderfully original story to appeal to the masses and maximize their profits. Rather, the problem can be attributed in part to the very nature of Adams's talents, and in part to Adams himself.

One reason that Dent's saga worked so well as a radio series is that Adams was brilliant at verbal humor — not only witty dialogue, but also clever descriptions of cosmic history, aliens, and other worlds, usually worked into scripts as purported excerpts from the guidebook The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. But satirical science fiction on film and television — especially in an era when audiences expect stunning visual effects at every turn — also demands visual humor, and the images crafted out of Adams's words simply aren't as amusing as Adams's words themselves. Like another superb verbal wit, Lewis Carroll, Adams may be destined to remain an author whose prose remains perpetually in print without ever achieving a satisfying film adaptation. (Is it only a coincidence, one wonders, that the film's alien Vogons recall John Tenniel's illustrations of Carroll's Duchess?)

Thus, to achieve a visually satisfying film, the book that accompanies Dent and his friends on their journeys, The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, is reconfigured as a folding television screen that shows simple cartoons to illustrate its narrated entries. Sometimes, Adams's language lends itself to visualization and is retained — as in the discussion of how one of Dent's remarks inadvertently triggered an attack on Earth by minuscule aliens, a vignette that pops up halfway through the closing credits as a bonus for the few audience members who sit through the credits. At other times, Adams's language doesn't work as a cartoon and is jettisoned. For example, Adams's radio account of the universal translating device, the Babel Fish, ends with the comment, "The poor Babel Fish, by effectively removing all barriers to communication between different races and cultures, has caused more and bloodier wars than anything else in the history of creation." It's a funny line, but it doesn't suggest a funny image, so the film removes the line and replaces it with a cartoon showing a farmer milking a cow who disconcertingly learns, by means of the Babel Fish, that his cow is in love with him.

Also, without meaningful guidance from Adams's words, the filmmakers prove unable to achieve a cohesive visual style, and what one sees on the screen often appears incongruous: when the effects should have been bad, they are good, and when they should have been good, they are bad. Consider the Vogons, the alien destroyers of Earth and Dent's recurring nemeses. When they say, "Resistance is useless," audiences will think that Adams is imitating the Borg's "Resistance is futile" from Star Trek: The Next Generation. In fact, the line can be traced back to Adams's 1978 script, so Star Trek was actually imitating Adams. But the filmmakers build upon the linkage by giving the Vogons huge, boxlike spacecraft that resemble Borg vehicles in space (and, when viewed from the surface of Earth, recall the invading spaceships of Independence Day), while the interiors of Vogon structures are Borglike in being gloomy, gray, and ponderous. These excellent renderings suggest that the Vogons should be regarded as genuinely menacing — but of course, Adams's Vogons are actually comic figures whose vehicles and buildings hardly needed to be imposing. In contrast, Adams's ultimate alcoholic beverage, the Pan Galactic Gargle Blaster, should be spectacularly visualized as a hissing, bubbling, poisonous concoction, but in the film the drink looks disappointingly ordinary.

The second problem with the film involves the trajectory of Adams's career, as he gradually lost sight of what had made the radio series so effective. In the later books, he marginalizes and finally removes the story's best character, Marvin the Paranoid Android (about whom more later), and unwisely transforms Arthur Dent, originally the perfect butt of everyone's jokes, into a sympathetic figure that we are supposed to care about, with plots about Dent finally finding True Love and discovering the daughter he never knew. This sweetly sentimental recasting of Dent's character also distorts and disfigures this new adaptation of the original story, and while one would like to blame co-author Kirkpatrick or interfering studio executives anxious about the bottom line, I strongly suspect that Adams himself added this overlay of treacle to what was once his delightfully acidic concoction.

So, in this version of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, we see the inept Dent (Martin Freeman) maturing and blossoming into a likable, heroic figure. A key moment is an expanded depiction of the party where Dent first met the beautiful Trillian (Zooey Deschanel), now shown at a costume party with Trillian dressed as Charles Darwin and Dent dressed as David Livingstone. The symbolism is not subtle: Trillian is devoted to evolution, to seeking out adventures and experiencing constant change; Dent is the epitome of the rigid colonial spirit, who may travel to exotic realms but always remains quintessentially British and resistant to change. Dent's Livingstone, ironically, is even unwilling to go to Africa when Trillian suggests an impulsive trip to Madagascar, and hence loses her to galactic president Zaphod Beeblebrox (Sam Rockwell), who entices her to take a ride in his spaceship. Dent's cosmic voyage, no longer a series of scintillating comic episodes, now becomes his quest to reconnect with Trillian and to develop into the courageous, adaptable companion that she requires. Eventually rising to the challenge, Dent rescues Trillian, defeats the evil mice, and resists the temptation to return to his comfortable home on a reconstructed Earth. Instead, he advises world-architect Slartibartfast (Bill Nighy) that this version of Earth can do without him and tells Trillian, "Let's go somewhere," committing himself to a new life of voluntary, rather than involuntary, space travel.

This reinterpretation of Dent is not only unmemorable, but it actively serves to make the movie less funny. In the novel, the mice seeking the Ultimate Question offer to purchase Dent's brain and replace it with an electronic brain. This is not presented as a matter of great concern, and before there is a fortuitous escape, Zaphod at least finds it an excellent idea:

"You'd just have to program [the electronic brain] to say What? and I don't understand and Where's the tea? Who'd know the difference?"

"What?" cried Arthur, backing away still further.

"See what I mean?" said Zaphod.

But now that Dent has been refashioned as a really swell guy, such nasty comments can no longer be countenanced, so the exchange is replaced by a dull sequence in which the mice attempt to forcibly remove the brain but are resisted by Dent, who pushes away their apparatus and crushes and kills the mice.

Also attributable to the influence of the latter-day Adams is the horrid misrendering of Marvin the Paranoid Android, arguably the most memorable robot character ever created in science fiction. Consistently bitter, depressed, acerbic, and contemptuous, Marvin provided many of the funniest moments in the radio series and early novels, well illustrated by the speech he gave at a bridge-opening ceremony in Life, the Universe, and Everything: "I would like to say that it is a very great pleasure, honor and privilege for me to open this bridge, but I can't because my lying circuits are all out of commission. I hate and despise you all. I now declare this hapless cyberstructure open to the unthinking abuse of all who wantonly cross her." But this film's Marvin, while still gloomy, is never venomous in this way, maintaining the kinder, gentler spirit of the adaptation. Furthermore, despite having the resources to provide Marvin with fully animated features, the filmmakers inexplicably chose to replicate the primitive robot of the television series, a doll-like figure with a large, spherical, and featureless head, making it easy to ignore or discount the character — and, one assumes, instead pay more attention to Dent and Trillian's budding romance. In one sequence that illustrates how the character is being misunderstood, someone shouts "Freeze!" at Marvin and he replies, "Freeze? I'm a robot, not a refrigerator." But this simply isn't something that Marvin would say. It can't be a sincere but misguided reaction because, infinitely more intelligent than the humans that surround him, Marvin would instantly understand the true meaning of "Freeze" in this context. And it can't be a deliberate joke, because the dour Marvin would have absolutely no desire to endeavor to amuse his companions.

Most significantly, the film's ham-fisted efforts to make Dent a more rounded and likable character undercut the serious message beneath the original satire — the disheartening notion that humanity, despite all our pretensions, is in actuality desperately insignificant in the broader scheme of things. In the radio series, we are first presented as a minor species that superior aliens might thoughtlessly destroy, and later as mere cogs in another alien race's computer program. The film retains these elements, but by cherishing and validating Dent, it also contrives to reassert humanity's value and meaningfulness. This is especially evident in the film's closing sequences, in which a Slartibartfast who is much too dignified and insufficiently senile presents the reconstructed Earth not so much as a revived computer program, but more as a sort of tribute to Dent, with special attention paid to rebuilding his demolished country home. Subsequent images of beautiful plants, animals, and people coming to life visually characterize Earth and its myriad creatures as indeed something special — reinforcing the conceit that Adams was originally assailing.

Along with this general aura of wrongness about the whole affair, fans of Adams will also lament a number of significant omissions in the film. Ford Prefect (Mos Def), trapped between the Scylla of the over-the-top Zaphod and the Charybdis of lovebirds Dent and Trillian, is given less and less to do as the film progresses. Incredibly, the succinct description of Earth he provides for The Hitchhiker's Guide — "Mostly harmless" — is never mentioned, and other memorable passages are truncated, such as the Guide's description of space — "Space ... is big. Really big. You just won't believe how vastly, hugely, mind-bogglingly big it is. I mean, you may think it's a long way down the street to the chemist, but that's just peanuts to space" — which here lacks its final sentence. Even though it didn't find its way into the first novel, it would have been nice to see the Restaurant at the End of the Universe (in the film, only briefly mentioned as existing in some physical corner of the universe, not at the end of time overlooking the Apocalypse). And time for all of these things and more could have been found by omitting the film's one noteworthy addition to the saga — an episode introducing Zaphod's defeated opponent, Humma Kavula, a lamentable waste of John Malkovich's talents.

Still, I think, purists should be wary of overreacting to this film. It is disappointing, but not disastrous. Many of Adams's funniest lines and sequences have been retained and work very well, and some added visual elements are amusing — like the brief transformations of Dent into a sofa and a knitted yarn figure who vomits multicolored threads. Many will appreciate the film's nods to distinguished predecessors: in addition to the noted references to Star Trek and Independence Day, the cosmic guidebook is first presented as a large rectangular object in space, recalling the enigmatic monolith floating near Jupiter in the closing scenes of 2001: A Space Odyssey, and Trillian deploys a miniature version of the lightsaber from Star Wars which both slices and toasts bread. (Look for George Lucas's name in the credits.) Filmgoers previously unfamiliar with Adams's work, like my daughter Allison, may justifiably regard the film as a fresh, marvelous comedy, not as a pale shadow of what might have been. The final scene explicitly lays the groundwork for the sequel that may well emerge, and may well be worth watching, if a new team of filmmakers uninterested in visual pyrotechnics can dispense with the sweetness and light to rediscover the invigorating chill of Adams's early narratives. Terry Gilliam's I, Marvin, anyone?

— Gary Westfahl

© 2005 by Locus Publications. All rights reserved.