The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (review)
This is my copy of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. It’s the first and only copy of the book I’ve ever owned, and I acquired it in, what? eighth grade, maybe. It’s sorta hard to see in the photo, but the front cover has had to be scotch-taped back onto the spine, which is itself in such poor shape that most of the original text has long since worn away. The entire book is so beat up that if I weren’t suffering from such a massive case of geeky disappointment (more on which to come in a moment), I’d probably go into Douglas Adams mode and say something like how the book could only be considered dog-eared if the dog were in fact the Demented Galactawolverine of some silly planet with lots of Gs and Zs in its name, which as everyone knows has 125 ears and as such is the only canine in the universe for which dog whistles blah blah blah.
The point is, I’ve read this damn book a million times, with about 750,000 of them coming in those dangerous years between 12 and 16 that are bad enough if you’re a run-of-the-mill disaffected teenager and even worse if you’re 1) too smart for your own mental health, and 2) convinced you were dropped off on the wrong planet by the interplanetary megastork. This is one of the seminal influences of my protogeekiness as a kid — way more so than, say The Lord of the Rings, even, in that while I certainly liked traisping across Middle-earth with Frodo, The Hitchhiker’s Guide actually had a profound affect on shaping my cynicism, my disdain for bullshit, my despair at anything ever making any kind of sense… on shaping, in short, my personality, such as it is.
I bring this all up because I want all my biases to be out in the open, and because this silly book is such an intricate part of who I am that I simply cannot imagine what this movie version of the book will look like to people for whom this is their first introduction to the wonderful, penetrative satire of Douglas Adams.
But let me take a wild stab.
It won’t make any sense at all.
Because The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy is not — silly planets with lots of Gs and Zs in their names aside — science fiction any more than, say, Charles Dickens is steampunk or Jane Austen is chick lit. Yes, all SF is really about us here and now, but Adams rode roughshod over the trappings of SF only to send up the down-to-earth human tendencies toward paralyzing bureaucracy, toward idolizing pop-culture figures, toward the increasing corporatization of our culture, toward clinging to dogma long beyond the point at which the reasons that prompted its development have been forgotten.
But They went and made a “science fiction movie,” one that is slam-bang crammed with all those trappings that were mere backdrop for Adams, so much so that there is no room left for the satire. And here’s the really insidious thing: They left in the trappings of Adams’s satire — towels, Genuine People Personalities, Ravenous Bugblatter Beasts of Traal, Pan Galactic Gargle Blasters, and lots more, even — but they’re just hollow shells of nothingness. All the “bits” are here but none of their meaning. The film is all setup and no payoff, in every way that this can be so, from the failure to articulate why a towel is so mind-bogglingly useful to a galactic hitchhiker even to the point of bypassing a head-slappingly obvious opportunity to demonstrate it, to slipping in entire new characters and sequences for no reason beyond padding out the second act (because they certainly do not pay off in any way at all: not humorously, not plotwise, and not in advancing our understanding of character). The reason I suspect the film won’t make any sense to the uninitiated — beyond the obvious nonsensical sense of frenetic action and weird aliens and laser guns going zap and such — is that all the punchlines are missing.
It’s way too late to be brief, but here it is: This isn’t just really really bad Douglas Adams, it’s a really really bad movie, period.
Oh, but to the initiated, to the devoted, to those who find Adams one of the wisest and funniest philosophers of modern times, certainly on a par with, say, George Carlin, it’s all sheer excruciating torture. It’s like being in a dream — nightmare, really — in which everything is familiar and yet not. It’s very much like Vogon poetry… which, for the uninitiated, is so dreadful that listeners must be strapped into “poetry-appreciation chairs,” because otherwise there would be no listeners. It’s that bad.
I really must emphasize again how shockingly disappointed I am. I’m not shocked because the Hollywood machine mangled and misstated and got pretty much everything wrong — I fully expected that. I’m shocked because They found all new ways to go beyond that. They betrayed the Adams ethos. I mean, as Adams might say, yes to tinkering with a story that’s already been through more mediums than Nancy Reagan, yes to adapting a cultish story for a mainstream audience, yes to reinterpreting a quarter-century-old story for the modern moment. But the characters don’t feel like the characters, and that’s damn near unforgivable. You can give Tiny Tim a machine gun and have him come out shooting on Christmas morning while spitting out an ironic “God bless us everyone” in Bruce-Willis-yippee-kayay-motherfucker style, but it ain’t Dickens. You can send Marianne and Elinor Dashwood on a crosscountry road trip to hunt down and kill that rat John Willoughby, but it ain’t Austen.
And you can give a man named Arthur Dent a funny plan to rescue a damsel in distress, but it ain’t Douglas Adams. Damn, there are no damsels in distress to start with in Adams — damsels in distress would have made Adams gag. I mean, I can see how They in Hollywood could sit around and say, “Too British. Too thinky. No gangs of idiot teenage boys are going to sit still for some Limey nerd fretting about the end of the world and where is he going to get a decent cup of tea now.” But it deeply pains me to see Arthur, mild-mannered Englishman and one of two escapees of the destruction of the Earth to make way for a hyperspace bypass, be transformed from a gentle if befuddled and grief-stricken soul to a wiseass, Hollywood-heroic figure. Goddamn, Arthur is not a hero — he is, on his very best day, a barely-holding-his-shit-together survivor, and on his very worst, he’s curled up in a corner in a state of catatonia. (Well, how would you react to the end of the world? Not half as well, probably.) It pains me deeply to see Trillian, the other survivor of Earth, transformed from a brilliant scientist and all-together cool girl into the aforementioned damsel in distress. It pains me deeply that Ford Prefect — the slightly manic researcher for the Guide who came to Earth for a week and got stuck for 15 years and saved Arthur from its destruction at the last moment by hitching a lift on the very Vogon constructor fleet sent to demolish the planet — has next to no personality whatsoever here. It pains me very deeply to see Zaphod Beeblebrox — the ex galactic president who is forever out to lunch and is so self-centered he’s eternally on the brink of collapsing into a one-man black hole — forced to appreciate the perspective of another mortal being via a new invention for the film, the Point of View Gun, which, when you shoot someone with it, makes him or her understand where you’re coming from; this comes very close to an actual rape of character, and would be considered justification for murder in some of the more relaxed sectors of the galaxy.
They say that all this new stuff comes from Douglas Adams’s own script of his book, but I find it pretty suspicious that it’s only after Adams’s too-early death that this film got off the ground, particularly when I know I’ve heard that he dragged his feet on the script precisely because he knew the whole thing would never work for Hollywood.
You can tell how disappointed I am, cuz I just can’t shut up about how disappointed I am. It’s even worse when the flick starts out more than okay, with a hilariously Monty Python-esque little ditty sung by the dolphins (the second most intelligent beings on Earth, after the mice and before the humans) about how the world’s about to be destroyed, called “So Long and Thanks for All the Fish.” It’s even worse when the cast is pretty much to die for, and then gets so hamstrung by the strangled script — by Adams and Karey Kirkpatrick (The Little Vampire, Chicken Run), though who did what is open to debate because Kirkpatrick won’t say — that they’re left to flounder: Martin Freeman (Shaun of the Dead, Love Actually) as Arthur is the embodiment of the English everyman, but the Hollywoodization of the character trips him up; Mos Def (The Italian Job, Brown Sugar) is an unusual choice for Ford, but the genuine alienness he injects into the character early on is lost as he gets shuffled into the background; Zooey Deschanel (Eulogy, Elf) is wasted as Trillian, her delightful quirkiness lost in her reduction to a romantic trophy; and as for Sam Rockwell (Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, Welcome to Collinwood)… if there were a single American actor I’d choose to play Zaphod Beeblebrox, it’d be him, just cuz he’s so out there, man, and though he gives Zaphod a sort of Bill Clinton/Elvis spin that is totally hilarious, he’s not given enough room to run with it. Zaphod is, like the rest of the film, all setup and no punchline.
And you know, no disrespect whatsoever to the fine actors Anna Chancellor (The Dreamers, What a Girl Wants) and John Malkovich (Johnny English, Knockaround Guys), but if anyone can tell me what the hell their characters — respectively, the galactic vice president Questular Rontok and the religious leader Humma Kavula — are doing here, I’d love to hear it. Cuz it ain’t about the fact that they weren’t in the book — it’s about the fact that there seems to be no reason whatsoever for them to be in the movie, except that A) Hollywood requires a reason for Zaphod to suddenly not be all that hot for Trillian, which if they just left the damn story and the damn characters alone in the first place woulnd’t have been an issue, and B) Hollywood needs a reason for a second act to exist, even if it has no affect whatsoever on the third act. (That is to say: Why the hell does Humma Kavula want the POV gun, and why doesn’t he ever get it? I feel like Marvin the Paranoid Android: I don’t know why I even bother to ask these things oh god I’m so depressed.)
All said, They have a lot to answer for. Which is very ironic, because “They” is a concept about which Adams had a lot to say. In very roundabout ways, how much They don’t know while simultaneously pretending to know it, and how much power They wield as a result, is what Arthur’s travels through the galaxy were all about lamenting. I doubt Adams would be surprised.
• Space Junket: On Meeting the People Behind Hitchhiker’s
• Life, the Universe, and Douglas Adams and The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (1981 TV mini)
• Novel Approach: How Douglas Adams Got Defanged by Hollywood [at The Internet Review of Science Fiction]