I first read British writer Douglas Adams’s comic science-fiction novel The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy – an adaptation of his radio series that created for the British Broadcasting Company – back in junior high school some 23 years ago. I was instantly captivated by the book’s, and its subsequent sequels’, sense of humor and have reread all the books repeatedly over the years, until the story of Arthur Dent, one of the two last survivors of Earth after it has been demolished in a fit of interstellar highway construction, and his haphazard travels through space and time became as familiar as the back of my hand. As Hitchhiker’s became something of a phenomenon, I devoured the recordings of the original radio series, the videotape of a British television mini-series adaptation, even a record album that re-recorded the radio series’s first four episodes. Throughout high school, Adams’s universe became a touchstone for myself and several friends – quoting jokes became a type of secret code among us. Through all these versions, Adams tweaked his story, tinkering with bits that might not have worked so well before and adding new pieces of story or background in where he saw fit. Adams would joke that the series, no matter which iteration, was “definitively inaccurate.”
Which leads us to the latest incarnation of the Hitchhiker’s story- the film. While the film is true to the spirit of constant reinvention, the addition of several characters and some plot elements stray so far from the core story that the film runs the risk of alienating a segment of Adams’ faithful fan following.
A film version of Hitchhiker’s is something that Adams had worked off and on at for the last two decades as Hollywood would express and then loose interest in the fairly capricious way that it often does with developing film projects. Presumably Adams had spent numerous hours thinking and debating ways to best bring the material onto the silver screen. In fact, according to the production, the screenplay used here is the one Adams was working on at the time of his death in 2001, with a second screenwriter brought in to work out a few structure and pacing points. Ultimately though, first time- director Garth Jennings has stated that all new concepts in the film are from Adams and that is on whose doorstep the film’s fault should, unfortunately, be lain.
It seems that some of the new material unbalances the general flow of the story for those of us familiar with the previous versions. Although there was a bit of unrequited love on the part of Arthur (played admirably in the movie by Martin Freeman) for fellow Earth survivor Trillian (Zooey Deschanel) hinted at previously, the film has amplified it into a full-blown romantic triangle involving the two and the rock-star charismatic president of the galaxy Zaphod Beeblebrox (Sam Rockwell, playing the galactic president with a rather familiar Texas twang). The strength of Adams’ humor comes from the compounding of one punch line on top of another, allowing scenes to build a crescendoing, comedic rhythm. Unfortunately, many of these memorable scenes have been trimmed to run faster, with the unfortunate side effect of disrupting that rhythm. There’s also a side trip from the main plot that feel as if Adams felt compelled to add action beats into a big budget Hollywood adaptation of his work, although the possibility exists that Adams was mocking that very same Hollywood tendency for action. Sadly, though, these digressions don’t seem to have any direct payoff in the film’s finale. Instead, they contribute to a large number of plot threads left dangling when the end credits begin to roll and leaves at least this fan wondering if the unfortunate shortening of other scenes well engrained in fans’ collective memories was worth these new inclusions.
But for every instance where the film seems to stumble, there is an equal moment where it shines. The production design is fantastic and imaginative. There are also a few in-jokes for long time Hitchhiker’s fans to discover. The visual effect work is flawless and contributes some rather funny moments. There are numerous great performances. Bruce Nighy is perfect as custom planet designer Slartibartfast and the tour of the “factory floor” where these custom planets are built is a visual treat. Alan Rickman contributes a great vocal performance as the voice of the clinically depressed robot Marvin, perfectly complimenting Warwick Davis’s physical work in Marvin’s robot costume. Mos Def provides many manic moments as Arthur’s traveling companion Ford Prefect.
But it may be those who are unfamiliar with Douglas Adams inventively demented universe who will enjoy the movie the most. The most important element of comedy is surprise and for many fans this is well known material. Anticipation for a favorite moment of dialogue or business is bound to be dampened when confronted with the alterations the film has made to the material. Still, the filmmakers seem to have proceeded with a reverence for Adams’s source material that is clearly evident through the picture, its good intentions helping to carry the film over its rough patches.