Shiny Shelf

The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy

By Lance Parkin on 03 May 2005

What I wanted this film to be was a faithful adaptation of a much-loved classic. Adaptation being the key word – if you turn ‘The Fellowship of the Ring’ into a movie or ‘Pride and Prejudice’ into a TV serial, then you’re going to lose some of the detail and wordplay, and you have to replace them with a little more spectacle and nice actory bits.

‘Hitchhiker’s’ has an advantage here because, well, the heretical truth is that the radio series, the book
and the TV version are all, in their way, flawed. You have to immerse yourself in all three to get the full experience. Many millions of people did, especially people around my age. For us, Douglas Adams is at least as revered as Austen or Dickens, and you wouldn’t mess around too much adapting any of them.

This movie had the chance of being the ultimate version of the story, the one that takes the strengths of previous attempts, scrapes away a few of the dated bits, and adds the sort of big special effects that can show off the really big ideas. They used to say that the pictures were better on radio, but the movies have computer graphics now.

But I want to make it absolutely clear: I knew before I went in that this movie wasn’t a literary adaptation. I’m not measuring this against some version in my head or some idealised version, or wishing I’d done it myself. I’m judging this movie on its own terms. I’m not interested – at this stage – in which bits Douglas Adams wrote, or whether or not he would have approved.

The problem with ‘The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy’ movie isn’t that it’s not faithful, it’s worse – it’s that it’s not funny.

There’s some good stuff – Marvin. Looks fantastic, Warwick Davies does a great job in the suit and Alan Rickman has the perfect voice for it. Previously, though, Marvin has been a huge identification figure, someone so relentlessly miserable that you can’t help liking him. He hangs around Arthur, just inside his personal space, relentlessly just there and dragging everyone down with him. Here … no. He comes and goes, quips and wanders off and there’s no time to build up any of the masochistic sympathy you need for the long, lingering ending to work. Stephen Fry is superb as the voice of the Book. Did he even have to consult a script? I suspect he, the League of Gentlemen (who play Vogons) and Bill Bailey (the Whale) learned their lines at some point before the Falklands War. All of them are great.

Mos Def is good, but never quite jumps the hurdle that his character has nothing to do once he’s introduced Zaphod to Arthur. His best new joke is pronouncing the ‘d’ in Guildford. It doesn’t help that he’s not the git of the radio series – a fact best summed up by noting that he actually does find a switch in the Vogon airlock.

Zooey Deschanel is also good as Trillian, in a role that’s much more central and developed than the earlier versions – she hits it spot on, with just the right mix of cute, funny, kooky, clever and manically depressed. Because that’s one of the key things missing from most of the movie. Douglas Adams created an entire universe from a sort of honey-coated misanthropy built on foundations of utter futility. Even after reading two biographies of Adams – the good one’s by MJ Simpson, in case you have to pick – I’m not going to guess how much of this is a reflection of the author’s own mental state, but Hitchhiker’s destroys the world for laughs, then shows how meaningless and tiny the ultimate apocalypse was. It’s Hamlet, where Arthur gets to see the entire universe and it means nothing. It’s this sensibility – the sheer mockery the word ‘infinite’ makes of anything a human being can imagine -that’s the controlling idea of the novels. Simon Jones’s Arthur was always on the verge of a nervous breakdown – even before the Vogons showed up. Martin Freeman seems constantly on the verge of falling asleep.

The main good thing about the movie is that it looks lovely. Spot on. Everything is perfect. The Vogon fleet is everything it needs to be, as are the Vogons themselves. Like ‘From Hell’, the design work couldn’t be bettered – and like ‘From Hell’, I really hope they filmed the actual movie while the sets were up.

The ending is also nice, a weird reverse-’Dr Strangelove’ sequence. You don’t hear ‘Wonderful World’, but you do get to see it, and that’s better. It’s very much in the spirit of Douglas Adams in his optimistic mode (although even that was filtered through the knowledge that the rhinos and parrots he championed were on the verge of extinction). There are nice ‘Alice in Wonderland’ moments, like a knife that toasts as it cuts that really sing, and – whether by Adams or not – really seem to capture the spirit of his work.

The makers know their stuff. The bulldozers come from Cottington Council, Ford walks into a bar and they call him Ix, there are jewelled crabs on Vogsphere, Zaphod snacks on Starbix and steals the Heart of Gold from Damoran. There’s a great attention to detail throughout.

But it’s not funny.

You know this, but I’ll spell it out all the same. Jokes have two components – a set up and a payoff. Both have to be present, in that order, for the joke to work. I know that, you know that. The makers of this movie don’t. It’s not just that old favourite jokes are cut off before they actually become jokes (‘it was in a cellar!’ Arthur declares, for all the world like it’s a punchline and not just a perfectly reasonable place for planning applications to be located), it’s that almost everything that’s meant to be a joke doesn’t get enough build up or the payoff is gabbled out. It’s cut together in a way that makes almost every effort at comic timing stilted, and there’s little rapport between the actors.

‘Perhaps,’ someone said within earshot of me as we all came out the cinema, ‘it wasn’t meant to be a comedy’. Yeah. The thing is … that’s precisely what it’s meant to be. It fell flat with the audience I saw it with – an evening one on the opening weekend, so people who presumably were keen to be there. A few light chuckles, but mostly stony silence. Some of the new one-liners work, but the emphasis on plot over laughs is … an odd decision. To then set up an all-new quest story and not resolve it is even more peculiar. And this isn’t untried material, this has been through the greatest focus group and testing process of the lot – it’s been out in the real world, making millions of people laugh, in the UK and US, for decades.

This is funny stuff. But only, it seems, on paper. And audio tape. And vinyl. And video tape. Not on film.

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By Lance Parkin

Lance Parkin writes lots of things, including a biography of Alan Moore that's due out late next year. Find out more at his website.

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