Title: The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy
Genre: Adventure, Comedy, Sci-Fi
Director: Garth Jennings
Screenwriters: Douglas Adams
Starring: Martin Freeman, Yasiin Bey, Sam Rockwell
As an adaptation of the late Douglas Adams’ legendary novel, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy serves, and sometimes is even impressive. As a movie, it is a little dicey. I relished seeing Adams’ conceits and jokes translated to the screen, and found it all appropriately amusing; everything I saw connected back to something I read (and reread just recently), and so I laughed. This is a terrific lark, a great time-waster for those of us who are fans of the novel and want to see it interpreted visually with a hefty budget and a wonderful cast.
What the film will do for those who have never come in contact with the books, the radio play, or the BBC mini-series, I couldn’t tell you. It is entirely possible that they will find it puzzling, inconsequential, arbitrary, and/or terminally twee. Certainly they could be forgiven for asking what all the fuss is about. There is little in the movie to hint at something that would merit a worldwide fan following; the best we can hope for, I guess, is that people will find a few of the jokes funny enough to pick up the short, undemanding novel next time they are at the bookstore.
To be fair, I should mention that even some of the fans are walking away disappointed. The satire doesn’t come through, they say. The film is a jumble, they insist. It’s a bizarre sci-fi saga instead of a hilarious send-up of bureaucracy and hypocrisy. These things are probably true, and I must clarify that if you are hoping for the complete Hitchhiker’s Guide experience in cinematic form, you too are in for a letdown. Books are not movies, and Adams’ style is not the most visual or adaptable, so sacrifices had to be made. You may sneer, too, at the various additions to the canon, such as Zaphod Beeblebrox’s rival Humma Kavula (John Malkovich), or the meddling Vice President of the Galaxy (Anna Chancellor).
But consider what we have here. We have The Office‘s Martin Freeman, perpetually confused and wearing a bathrobe, as Arthur Dent, reticent intergalactic traveler. We have Mos Def as Ford Prefect — an unexpected choice, certainly, but an exceptionally inspired one. We have the wonderful, beautiful, sarcastic Zooey Deschanel as Trillian, even if the movie does decide to manufacture a stupid romance between her and Arthur. And of course we have Stephen Fry as the voice of the Guide, and I ask you — who better to assure us not to panic?
These actors commit to the material with enough conviction that they may yet become the characters in the minds of fans, even ones reluctant to embrace this adaptation. Surely it must be a pleasure to watch talent of this caliber attack a work as brimming with potential as this one, even if the results are hit and miss. I am not sure how I feel about Sam Rockwell’s zany, slimy interpretation of President of the Galaxy Zaphod Beeblebrox, but I sure am glad I got the chance to see it.
It’s a pleasure, too, to watch a movie so clearly made for the fans, even if the fans are unappreciative. Though the film does plenty of explaining, certain things remain blissfully, satisfyingly obscure; if you are not looking for the Towel, for example, you may not find it, or may just be confused. This must be what Roger Ebert means when he writes that “it obviously thinks it is being funny at times when you do not have the slightest clue why that should be.” To that I say, you should have read the book.
If there is one thing that the movie version of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy does best, it is preserving Adams’ awesome but oft-ignored science-fiction conceit, which I will not reveal here for fear of spoiling it for novices. Amid all the satire, the quirky British humor and the endlessly quotable paragraphs, it is often forgotten that The Hitchhiker’s Guide is still a sci-fi novel, and a damn good one at that. Perhaps lacking any other options — sci-fi is easy to put on screen, British humor is not — the film does this aspect of the story justice.
I suspect my tone hints that I would have accepted any adaptation of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy as long as someone put in the money or effort. Perhaps that is true, I cannot really say. This version, however, genuinely did strike me as enthusiastic, respectful, amusing and fun. It is not entirely accessible to outsiders, nor faithful to the point of reverence. But that touching final title card — “For Douglas” — is earned.