The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy

Oh dear. I really wanted to like this movie. I had reservations[1], of course. Given that the project continued after the death of Douglas Adams[2], and the work was in the hands of the soulless creatures of Hollyweird, I was worried that Bad Things would be done. “But hey”, I told myself, “how bad can it be?” So, on Tuesday afternoon, I went to see the, err, long-awaited movie version of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. I really shouldn’t have listened to myself.

But before I get into describing the movie, a little background for any strags[3] who may be reading this. HHGTTG[4] originated as a radio series on BBC Radio 4 in 1978. I missed the first transmission, but caught up when it was repeated some months later. While humorous sf had been done before[5], this was something quite new, and uniquely British. Outrageously funny, very intelligent and quite wonderful. A one-off special episode and a second radio series followed. Then came the books – five of them, eventually. There was also a TV adaptation, featuring most of the radio cast, and largely based on the first radio series. Most fans weren’t all that impressed with the TV version, as everyone knew that with radio the pictures are much better.

The idea of a movie version was raised quite early, but the project died a few times. Not long before Douglas Adams’ tragic premature death, it was all back on again. Doug was working on a script, and it began to look like it was finally going to happen. Then Doug died. A lot of HHGTTG fans thought that the movie project should have been decently buried at that point, but far too much money was involved, and it went on.

Given that Doug isn’t around to comment, it’s difficult to tell how much of the movie was based on his script, and how much was the work of the forces of darkness, sorry, Hollywood. It is true that Doug was always happy to revise his work[6], and I know that some of the new material was his, but I think at least some of what follows has to be the fault of the evil forces of Hollywood.

OK, so the rest of this is not by any standards, an unbiased review. I am, quite unashamedly, a HHGTTG fan. Douglas Adams was one of my favourite ape descendants. I cried when he died. Thinking about the fact that Doug is dead and other, less wonderful alleged humans are alive distresses me. So perhaps you will excuse any apparent emotional responses in the rest of this post….

OK, the movie starts with the bit about the dolphins leaving the Earth before it’s destroyed. Nothing wrong with a bit of resequencing for a movie, but this was a seriously redundant title sequence with a song of mind-boggling badness. I’m not sure if it was meant to be bad in an ironic way, but either way it didn’t do much to get me in the right mood for the movie. If you’re familiar with The Producers[8], you’ll remember the bit where the theatre audience are sitting open-mouthed, transfixed with horror at what they are seeing. That was me.

After that, events follow more or less the usual story line. Arthur Dent (Martin Freeman) does the lying in front of the bulldozer bit, Ford Prefect (Mos Def) arrives, takes him to the pub, they hitch a ride, the Earth gets demolished, and they hear some delightful Vogon poetry. Now I understand that to fit the events of the three hours of the first radio series into a two-hour movie would involve a fair degree of cutting of events and dialogue, but the cutting involved excising some of the best jokes, and losing much of the essential character of the original work. For instance, there’s a lovely interchange between Arthur and Mr Prosser[9]. Prosser has just told Arthur that it’s a bit late to be complaining now, and the plans had been available for nine months in the planning office. Arthur points out that the plans weren’t all that obvious to the eye.

Prosser: That depends where you were looking
Arthur: I eventually had to go down to the cellar…
Prosser: That’s the display department
Arthur: …with a torch
Prosser: Ah, the lights had probably gone
Arthur: So had the stairs
Prosser: But you found the notice, didn’t you?
Arthur: Yes. It was on display in the bottom of a locked filing cabinet stuck in a disused lavatory with a sign on the door saying “Beware of the Leopard”. Ever thought of going into advertising?[10]

Now that has rhythm. It flows. It builds to a peak of absurdity. And more to the point, it’s bloody funny. So naturally, the movie version stops at “cellar”. There are other missed opportunities like this throughout the movie, sad to say.

But it’s not all bad. Marvin the Paranoid Android[11] looks quite lovely, and Alan Rickman’s voice is quite perfect. Stephen Fry does a fine job as the voice of the Book. Shame the graphics for the Book are hugely inferior to the insanely detailed[12], hand-animated work done for the TV series many years ago.

The biggest problem is the huge emphasis given to the relationship between Arthur and Trillian. Apparently, this was forced by the Hollyweird idiots while Doug was still around. It’s pointless, it slows down the story, and if they hadn’t bothered with all that, they could have left in some of the better jokes.

There are some other good sight gags. For instance, the Vogons are seen crushing some lovely glittery crabs, and Prostetnic Vogon Jeltz has a chair whose design will only be appreciated by people who’ve read the books. Nice. Points are awarded for that.

Overall, I was, err, less than impressed, though. Watching the movie felt like listening to a really bad cover version of a favourite song. A lot of the words were there, but somehow the essence was lost.

Could a better job have been done? Well, to be honest, probably not. Not with Hollyweird involved[13]. It’s possible that this version of HHGTTG will grow on me eventually, but it will never replace the radio series or the books. And even the generally quite optional TV series handles the story better.

[1] More reservations than a very popular hotel at a very popular time of year, to tell the truth
[2] And I am still very upset with the Universe about that
[3] Non hitchhikers
[4] If you’ll excuse the abbreviation
[5] Most notably by Robert Sheckley
[6] The books are different from the radio series, which is different from the TV version, which is different from the stage version, which is different from the records[7]
[7] In the days before the BBC got commercially minded, the first radio series was re-recorded (more or less) for a couple of record and cassette releases. I think I still have the tapes somewhere. Generally not as good as the original BBC versions, which are available on CD.
[8] And if not, why not?
[9] In charge of the demolition crew
[10] From the radio scripts book
[11] Always my favourite character
[12] Seriously. There are details in there that you can only see with a frame-by-frame advance on DVD. Most VCRs were not good enough to catch everything…
[13] Terry Pratchett did the sensible thing and didn’t let them do anything to his Discworld books. Allegedly, they wanted to do Mort, but wanted to lose the “death angle”. He might have been exaggerating, but I suspect not…

2 thoughts on “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy

Comments are closed.