While never likely to please the more militant fans of earlier versions, the film ‘Hitchhiker’s’ stays faithful to the spirit of its author, and registers as a (qualified) success.
Trying to get this film made took up many of Douglas Adams’ last years and, in spite of a posthumous rewrite required to get the script ready for production, Adams’ fingerprints are all over the adaptation. The script takes the basic structure of Arthur Dent’s escape from Earth and adventures on the Heart of Gold and twists it into a more standard Hollywood narrative, with clear bad guys and a strong central romance.
The end result is an odd combination of the younger and older Adams, taking rambling, often glib material from his early career and fusing it with the more mature preoccupations of his later writing. The first ‘Hitchhikers’ radio series is acerbic, full of gags and ideas but light on character, while the later novels are less obviously gag-packed but have considerably more depth, character and structure. Like it or not, this film is clearly the product of the same mind that wrote the ‘Last Chance To See’, ‘So Long, And Thanks For All The Fish’ and the pilot episode of the third ‘Hitchhikers’ radio series. The wounded romanticism and passion for travel exhibited in the new scenes is pure late-period Adams.
The early parts of the film are hard to fully assess for anyone who has experienced all previous versions of the story – scenes like the demolition of Arthur Dent’s house, his trip to the pub with Ford and the Vogon poetry are so familiar its hard to get worked up about seeing them in a new form, especially one which barely varies from the TV version in visual style. Martin Freeman (Arthur) and Mos Def (Ford Prefect) nail the characters right from the beginning, but its hard not to get the feeling they’re singing a very old, well worn tune.
Matters pick up immensely with the arrival of Zaphod Beeblebrox, Trillian and Marvin the Paranoid Android. Sam Rockwell, one of those actors who can seemingly do anything, gives it 110% as monstrous egotist Zaphod, while Zooey Deschanel is funny and endearing as Trillian, who gets more of a character in this adaptation than any previous ‘Hitchhikers’. The design of Marvin is one of the most brilliant aspects of the film, a wonderfully slumped little robot weighted down by his giant, downturned head, and Alan Rickman’s voiceover is spot on. All great casting, as is Bill Nighy as planetary tech geek Slartibartfast and a number of other famous voices in minor roles, each perfectly fit to the roles even when very different to actors from the radio and TV incarnations. Stephen Fry plays the voice of the Guide itself as, well, Stephen Fry, every bit as avuncular and silky in his delivery as Peter Jones before him.
This attention to getting the characters right occasionally threatens to undersell some of the gags, with a lack of overtly ‘comic’ delivery. The direction doesn’t necessarily help in this respect, concentrating as it does on sweeping visuals rather than tightly edited banter. However, this is where the cutting back of material from earlier versions really helps – as the film goes on, the pace picks up and the lapses into expositional Guide entries get fewer and fewer, the humour gets snappier and the plot carries through nicely to an all new, very satisfying ending. It’s somewhat telling that its as the story moves further away from radio material and into scenes written straight for the screen that it works better, as director Garth Jennings is clearly more comfortable with Gilliam-esque visual humour than dialogue. The look of the film as a whole is nothing short of gorgeous, and also funny in itself – aside from the aforementioned Marvin, there’s a Henry Moore-esque version of Deep Thought with a TV for a head, an ornate bulbous Heart of Gold and a dazzling Magrathea.
If you were to write a fatuous one-line pitch for ‘Hitchhikers’ based on the concept and the author, you might go for “‘Star Wars’ crossed with ‘Monty Python’”. That’s never been really true of any previous version, but it’s pretty spot-on as a description of the film. No, it’s not the funniest thing you’ll ever see, but then it’s trying to be two things at once, a science-fiction action movie as well as a comedy. As a compromise between these two things, trying to cross over between the teenage and student appeal of the books/radio series and the demands of a cinema-going audience, the movie works. Yep, there are a few things wrong with it, but step aside from pre-conceptions and it’s an enjoyable ride.
One final note… recent interviews with Adams’ widow, friends and colleagues suggest that, for the author, getting the ‘Hitchhikers’ movie made would, in some way, fulfil the potential of the property. Regardless of how it is rated compared to earlier incarnations, by comprehensively recasting and reshaping the material and delivering it to a new audience, Jennings’ movie has taken ‘Hitchhikers’ to the level of those select few stories that carry over between generations, changing to fit the times and the audience. And for a writer, having that happen to your work is as close to immortality as it gets.