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I don't read a lot of fiction. I never have. I'm not completely illiterate, of course; I do like a good autobiography or political diatribe, but fiction has never been my cup of tea in the literary world. There has been one exception to that rule, and it's probably the only long piece of fiction I've read in a decade without being it assigned by a teacher. As you've probably guessed, oh you the inquisitive clicker of easy-to-navigate internet link, that book is Douglas Adams' The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy.
And even that's not entirely true. I've read the book's sequels as well, but not as many times as I've read the one that started it all. In fact, I've not only read it a half-dozen times or so, I've also listened to the audio book as read by author Adams, as well as the radio program produced by the BBC on more than one occasion. You know how manic some people are about Star Wars? Well, I'm that way about Star Wars too. But I'm also that way about The Hitchhiker's Guide, and have been waiting roughly 15 years for a proper feature film adaptation to come out.
When I heard about it, I was torn. The first thing that probably sticks out in any HHGttG fan's craw is the casting of rapper Mos Def as Ford Prefect. It was a hard pill to swallow at first, but I soon learned to live with it. Sam Rockwell and Zooey Deschanel are certainly welcome, and Warwick Davis seemed like a given to don the costume of Marvin the Paranoid Android. And while I wasn't familiar with the work of Martin Freeman, the actor filling the role of Arthur Dent, at least I was comforted with the fact that he was British. But still, even with my comfort overall with the casting, I knew that the story was going to be tough to get right on the silver screen. I mean, the HHGttG ain't exactly the easiest story to adapt.
So while most geeks were getting worked up about stuff like Batman Begins and The Fantastic Four and the final (?) installment of Star Wars, I was pacing around my house worrying that after all these years of anticipation I was going to be greeted with a gigantic celluloid turd instead of the pure and holy film adaptation I had dreamed of. Was it impossible to adapt the film to my liking? No, just highly improbable.
Roughly four and a half hours from the time I typed "four and a half hours", I began to make that determination for myself.
Now, the only way for me to concretely explain/summarize/extrapolate my feelings toward this film at this point is just to take it from the beginning. I have no rough outline of what I'm about to write. I'm just going to start writing and pray that in my haste I don't make too many typos or set the keyboard on fire. So, without further ado, here it is; the first review I've written in a matter of months: A systematic dissection of the film version of The Hitcchiker's Guide to the Galaxy.
The film actually starts off no less perfectly than it could ever ask to. Fans of the book will recognize it immediately. The bit from the guide about the dolphins being more intelligent than humans? It's not only summed up in a practical word-for-word retelling from the book's narrative, but it also does what a book can not: creates a highly amusing musical number entitled, as one might expect, "So Long, and Thanks for All the Fish." In other words, so far so good.
Now, we get to the actual film's story. And this is when the dilemmas of filmmaking really start to show. As fans of the book know, The HHGttG starts off with a long and enjoyably tedious exchange between our hero Arthur Dent and the foreman attempting to knock down his home in order to build a bypass, Mr. Prosser. Prosser isn't even named as such in the film, and really only gets about two lines before Ford Prefect comes barging in with a shopping cart full of beer which he uses to pretend to bribe the workers and get Arthur away and down to the local pub so that he can explain that the world's about to be blown up. There's none of the clever banter that exists in the novel between Ford and Prosser playing on the most basic ironies; rather, the scene wraps up before you'd be able to read a page or two of the text. As a fan of the book, seeing this brilliant opening sequence trimmed down to a couple of fleeting minutes worth of prologue is disappointing, but I tried to tell myself that it's not supposed to be a direct interpretation of the source material and that even the book is different from the audio that it was originally based on so I should stop being such an elitist snob.
So I did. And I really enjoyed the hell out of the first twenty minutes or so of the film. Oh, and I can't forget the opening title sequence, which utilized the title theme from the original radio performances. Certainly a nice little touch that got me pretty enthused for the rest of the film. From this point, of course, Ford and Arthur "hitchhike" onto a Vogon Constructor ship just moments before the Earth is blown into bits, and then are subjected to the third worst poetry in the known universe. After being sucked out of an airlock, they wind up on the Heart of Gold, the amazing spaceship recently stolen by Galactic President Zaphod Beeblebrox and his gal-pal Trillian.
So again, so far so good. Hell, even the excerpts from the "Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy", the tome which Ford is working on during the course of the novel and movie of the same name, are done brilliantly and almost verbatim, using a bit of modern technology to animate the entries. Sure, i missed some of the fantastic verbal exchanges that gave the novel so much of its charm (the explanation of hitchhiking by Ford, the heart-to-heart that the two have with the Vogon guard about him wasting his life, the Vogon commander's response to Arthur's interpretation of the poem) but i realized that this is supposed to be a commercially viable motion picture and those aren't traditionally six hours long.
Which, of course, begins the problems.
Because, you see, when you're adapting a novel into a film, and you need to shave the thing into roughly a third of the time it takes an average reader to finish the book, it doesn't serve you well to tack on additional superfluous story arcs which really serve no purpose at all.
Okay, here's the deal. There's a whole bunch of stuff that someone who might have read the book casually just one time (I had one of those in my screening party, actually) might wonder if they just skipped when reading it. First, the Vogons keep reappearing, whereas in the book they disappear pretty much forever once they toss Ford and Arthur into the vastness of space. Fine, whatever. Simplify the conflict if you must, I guess. There's the introduction of a new character (created by Douglas) named Humma Kavula (played by John Malkovich) which opens up a giant unresolved plot involving a goofy "point of view gun." And then they work in this whole "Trillian gets kidnapped and Arthur rescues her out of love" subplot which serves no purpose outside of a few marginally comedic bits which don't feel like they have Adams' fingerprints on them at all. The way that Zaphod's extra noggin and appendage are handled seems like an utter waste as well. The special effects used to deliver them aren't exactly the best you'll ever see, but they work fine. But it seems like an entire plot arc (the Humma Kavula bit) was devised just to eliminate them from the picture, and as mentioned before, it winds up being a loose end that's never tied.
So by now, a whole slew of annoyances start trickling down. The mass of The HHGttG novel is consumed with the philosophical question of Life, the Universe, and Everything. Entire chapters are devoted to flashbacks of the millions of years spent trying to come up with the answer, and then once the answer disappoints, tring to figure out what the question was to begin with. In this movie, it's a mere afterthought. It's as if it's something Zaphod just happens to be thinking about when he's not trying to be a bizarre amalgamation of George W. Bush and Bill Clinton (Zaphod's entire characterization, as a side note, was a major annoyance, as he was less pompous rock star than an over-the-top cowboy here.) It's something Arthur is less concerned about than starting an intergalactic love affair with Trillian. It actually, for the most part, causes the entire second and third trimesters of the film to seem almost pointless, because nobody really seems to be at all bothered by the story's main fabric.
Adams was not exactly known for writing the best endings. He was fantastic at beginnings, but the novel of The HHGttG does kind of end unfulfillingly. It's a nice setup for the sequel and the following novels, but as a standalone it's a bit anticlimactic. So I'm fine with a little tweaking of the finale for Big Hollywood Movie #1. And, really, I shouldn't complain. Yes, this paragraph will contain a spoiler or two. Deal. The Vogons being reduced to Marvin's level of depression was as amusing a touch as I'd expect. But there's a whole new can of worms opened. In the book, production on the Earth Mark 2 was halted. In the movie, it's finished. Not only is it finished, but it's finished in modern times. I expect this to be a big problem if they ever plan to make a movie version of The Restaurant at the End of the Universe. You know, especially if they want to keep that story's ending, which, of course, is one ending that actually works.
Even the smallest of things have been changed just to serve as a minor annoyance. After the film's finale, an entry from the guide runs alongside the closing credits. It's a pretty important one in the book: the one where Arthur makes a statement that enters a wormhole and is translated as an insult that causes two warring factions to team up and declare war on Earth but a miscalcualtion in scale results in them being a dog's lunch. Of course, in the book, it's the very amusing summary of Arthur's crappy Thursday, "I seem to be having tremendous difficulty with my lifestyle," that sets it off. In the movie? Just a cheap gag about always having your towel. And on the subject of towels, the whole towel bit is completely overused and becomes a silly gimmick in the movie, yet oddly enough, the guide entry about towels, which would be helpful in explaining why carrying one is so important, is nowhere to be found. Man, I'm sure glad I opted not to be the one geek who actually brought his towel to the theater to see this one.
Oh, and the one thing that really chaps my hide? The fucking goddamn romance bullshit. I realize that the original story has Arthur pining for Trillian, the one that got away, but is Hollywood so fucking one-dimensional that they have to work an actual love triangle into this thing? And (more spoilers coming, homeslice) do you have to make sure to hammer the point that Trillian and Zaphod are no longer an item by a) putting in an unnecessary bit about Zaphod being the person wholly responsible for the Earth's destruction and b) having Zaphod hook up with another girl at the end just to perfectly clear the way for Arthur and Trillian to live happily ever after? And what's probably the only thing worse than all the useless junk that's added to the film is the stuff that's missing.
And this film is missing a lot. Most notably gone are many of the most hilarious passages from the book ("It's times like this I wish I'd listen to what my mother had told me when I was young" "Why, what did she tell you?" "I don't know, I wasn't listening" comes to mind, as does the subtle surreality of lines like "The giant yellow constructor fleet ship, the size of many city blocks, hung in the air precisely the way bricks don't." The entries to the guide within the Guide are done well when they want to be, but some of the most amusing and poignant ones are gone (the Babelfish entry was nice, but I guess it was too edgy to mention the bit about how the existence of said fish both proves and negates the existence of God, and was it really so taxing to include the description of the Earth as "harmess" or "mostly harmless" as in Ford's update?) It's odd to note that Ford Prefect never once mentions that he's working on compiling the revised edition of the guide, except for in the one scene that isn't even in the book to begin with. Important scenes, such as the one where the main foursome manage to narrowly elude the cops who shoot people gratuitiously and then agonize about it afterward to their girlfriends, are completely omitted in favor of useless subplots and Predictable Hollywood Endings™.
And, probably most unfortunately, the film is lacking an infinite number of monkeys who want to talk about this script for Hamlet they've worked out. I wanted monkeys, goddamnit! And, sadly, no whale guts either, but that's a minor quibble.
Sure, the film's not perfect, but it does have its merits. There isn't a bad performance in the house. Every actor on board does the best they can with what they're given. Special props to Bill Nighy as Slartibartfast, the best translation of a character from the book's description, and Alan Rickman, who lends his deadpan to Marvin's gloom and doom persona. And I really liked the art direction of this thing. Especially brilliant was the handling of the impobability drive -- seeing our heroes morph into everything from sofas to vomiting balls of yarn was rather amazing stuff. And kudos to the filmmakers for utilizing good ol' fasioned Jim Henson puppets rather than CGI for characters like the Vogons. That was a breath of fresh air. Arthur's tour of the Magrathean planet factory by Slartibartfast is actually more beautiful than I ever thought possible from the text. Honestly, if I had never read the book, I probably would have actually liked the movie a whole lot. Unfortunately, I did read the book numerous times, and so now I'm one of those fanboys you generally try to avoid when discussing such things as science fiction novels by dead English guys being adapted into Hollywood Movies of the Week.
To sum it up, I've got some good news and some bad news about the film I've just seen: The good news is that The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy is the second best film I've seen this year. The bad news is that it's only the second film I've seen this year.
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