Life, the Universe, and Douglas Adams and The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (review)

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The Hitchhiker’s Guide to Douglas Adams

It is revealed in Life, the Universe, and Douglas Adams, the 2002 direct-to-video biography of/tribute to the writer, that the horror of getting a film made of his signature novel, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, was “the single most substantial frustration of [his] professional life.” We can now, of course, only guess at how he would have taken to Hollywood’s adaptation of the book — Adams died suddenly and unexpectedly in May 2001 — but for those to whom the movie will be their first exposure to the man’s outrageous satire and piercing wit, Life is a loving and funny introduction to the man himself.
Longtime fans will find a lot to appreciate here, too. I can’t call myself a scholar of Douglas Adams’s life and work, but I’ve certainly read most of his writings, as well as much of what has been written about him. And so much of the actual facts here aren’t new to me — I already knew all about Adams’s aversion to deadlines, for instance — but writer/director Rick Mueller apes Adams’s own self-deprecating and understated humor to deal with all the bits well known to devotees in a way that celebrates Adams’s idiosyncrasies rather than merely reciting them. The film cannot, perhaps, be considered objective — it was commissioned by Adams’s estate, after all — but it is a thoroughly charming portrait from which Adams’s expansive personality shines out.

Everything here is affectionately off-kilter in a way that gives the film a genuine warmth — this isn’t talking heads offering reverent memories but friends and family fondly and sadly telling the kind of can-you-believe-that stories we use to remind one another about what a nut our dearly departed pal was. Some are famous names: Monty Python’s Terry Jones; cartoonist Berkeley Breathed; actor Simon Jones (the original radio and TV Arthur Dent), inexplicably wearing the original dressing gown from 1981 BBC miniseries. SF author Neil Gaiman, Adams’s friend and biographer, narrates the film with an appropriate lack of stuffiness and a lot of tenderness. Most are not famous, including Adams’s sweet and funny younger sister, and his former Cambridge University buddy Martin Smith, who is, I presume, “bloody Martin Smith from Croydon” (one of film’s series of VH-1-style trivia pop-ups asks that question, too).

Adams himself appears via numerous television clips and amateur videos of personal appearances, including a Tech TV interview shot only days before his death, all keepsakes of Adams’s indubitable charisma and wry intellect. I saw him in person once, at a press event for the release of his computer game Starship Titanic, and yeah, he was pretty much what we see here, which is supremely funny in a way that’s keenly watchful of the world and the human foibles that make it run or, very frequently, fail to do so. Scientist and science writer Richard Dawkins here says that Adams’s books are “full of scientific imagination and scientific wit,” and they are, but to me, it’s Adams’s observations on the peculiarities of people that make him so important a writer: like how computers serve the vital function in a writer’s life of enabling procrastination; or, more broadly, as Adams reveals for us here, his theory on the human relationship with new gadgets and new technology and how it changes over the course of our lives. I won’t tell you what that theory is: it’s worth seeing the film to hear him tell it himself.

“There was more to Adams than missed deadlines and bestselling books,” Gaiman reminds us, as if we needed reminding. No, he was also “fantastically tall.” This may have explained his aversion to sitting down at the typewriter/computer and writing; his legs were too long to fit under the desk. But this is only unproven and irresponsible speculation on my part.

Don’t panic
No newcomer to Adams should miss the aforementioned BBC TV miniseries, which ran in Britain in 1981 and in years immediately after on PBS in the United States, which was when I first had this measured cupful of insanity poured into my brain. That is worth noting, in fact, because with the many, many incarnations that The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy has seen — radio drama, TV drama, novels, computer game, big-screen film, probably paint-by-number oils, and very likely an adaptation for paper placemats in Greek diners off the New Jersey turnpike — it is generally accepted by most leading galactic authorities on these matters that one’s first exposure to The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy is invariably one’s favorite. (See also the subtheory regarding Doctor Who and one’s opinion on which Doctor is indisputably the best.)

I am, in this as in most other things, something of an oddball in that while I discovered Adams first in print and second via the boob tube, I cannot bring myself to say without equivocation that these six kooky episodes should be considered inferior to the book. (I also have some rather unconventional notions on the Doctors Who, but that’s for another day.) I was, of course, in the early 1980s, when I saw this for the first time, at the point at which I was starting to think in a really geeky way about the possibilities of visual storytelling, and much of what wormed its way into my head back then were the performances. For while much of it is cheesy or at least wildly cheap-looking, the focus here is where it should be: on the words and how they’re delivered. Adams adapted his own radio scripts, so it’s no wonder that the dialogue is so sharp and flows so smoothly, even though it’s packed with exposition and much convoluted humor that demands you pay close attention in order to understand the punch line (which may not pay off for quite a while, actually).

So what if Zaphod Beeblebrox’s second head is in constant danger of falling off actor Mark Wing-Davey’s (The Grey Zone) shoulder? No one can deliver a “Heyyyyyyy!” like Wing-Davey can — when Zaphod talks about awarding himself several million points out of ten for style, you know this is a man to whom cool is a religion. I mean, yes to Simon Jones’s (The Devil’s Own) Arthur Dent, who raises panicking to an art form; yes to David Dixon’s Ford Prefect, whose shifty-eyed alienness I found particularly intriguing as a teenage girl who would have given anything to get off the planet; yes to Sandra Dickinson’s Trillian, who’s confident and independent enough in her femininity and astrophysicistity to travel the galaxy dressed as a cocktail waitress at Epcot Center. But mostly I love how director Alan J.W. Bell just lets Adams’s words carry the day.

All this goofiness is now on DVD, naturally. The blue bread and green goop, done up Dentrassi style, that Ford feeds to Arthur are, in the nice transfer, particularly vivid shades of toxic cerulean and nuclear chartreuse, just like they loom in my memory. The remastered sound is a bit funky in places, but that twangy banjo on-the-road theme song sounds fab. And all those Guide entries, read by the authoritative but calm and friendly voice of Peter Jones (Chariots of Fire) are positively made for the DVD Pause button.

see also:
The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (the Hollywood flick)
Space Junket: On Meeting the People Behind Hitchhiker’s
Novel Approach: How Douglas Adams Got Defanged by Hollywood [at The Internet Review of Science Fiction]

Life, the Universe, and Douglas Adams
viewed at home on a small screen
not rated
IMDB | buy the video

The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy
viewed at home on a small screen
not rated

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