Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Retro Review: The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy

 I'm sure there are bigger fans of Douglas Adams than the Cap'n. I don't claim to be anybody or anything's "biggest fan" but I was really looking forward to The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy: The Movie Adaptation of the Novel Based on the Radio Show Which was Also a BBC Series (also Part One of Five* in a Trilogy). After Adams sudden and unexpected death in 2001, the long-in-development film version seemed like it was destined never to be. Directors had been attached, casts came and went, writers had tinkered with the screenplay Adams completed before passing, but it looked like another science fiction film we wouldn't see.

 And then director Jay Roach dropped out, Spike Jonze was approached and turned it down, but recommended Hammer and Tongs (Garth Jennings and Nick Goldsmith), and the film suddenly went ahead. Using a script by Adams and Karey Kirkpatrick and a cast including Arthur Freeman (The Office), Sam Rockwell (Confessions of a Dangerous Mind), Mos Def (Bamboozled), Bill Nighy (Shaun of the Dead), Zooey Deschanel (All the Real Girls), and the duo of Warwick Davis (Return of the Jedi) and Alan Rickman (Die Hard) as Marvin the Paranoid Android. Oh, and Stephen Fry (Wilde) as the voice of the Guide.

 At that point, I'd already read all of the books, listened to the radio versions and had seen the television versions many times (it was one of the first Betamax recordings I remember Dad made, from a PBS airing). I was something of a Guide fanatic, and I remember reading The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy and The Restaurant at the End of the Universe** again before the film came out. Whether or not that was the best decision or not is debatable: the series has a history of continually evolving as it moves from one medium to another.

 As April 29th, 2005 approached, I was optimistic. The trailers were promising, even if a series of negative reviews tore the film apart for misunderstanding the source material gave me trepidations. I went to see it with my at-the-time roommate (Professor Murder) and a friend of ours who had an affinity for The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. Coincidentally - and I mean completely - the boyfriend of a friend who joined us brought a towel. I'd be tempted to pretend that his not knowing the significance of bringing one was a joke, but he was genuinely confused at why we thought it was funny he had one. We went to see The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy at... I think the Carousel. I have the ticket somewhere in storage, so I might update this if it was The Grande. We sat down, ready for anything, and the film began.

 And I hated it.

 To be fair, I didn't hate it at first: I really liked Fry as the voice of the Guide, and I got a kick out of "So Long and Thanks for All the Fish," the musical number that opens the film, complete with dolphin song and dance. I liked Arthur Dent (Freeman) and Ford Prefect (Mos Def), and the introduction of Trillian (Deschanel) and Zaphod Beeblebrox (Rockwell) seemed to go well enough. In fact, I'd say I was okay with the movie up through the Vogon ship, all the way until the Heart of Gold picks up Arthur and Ford. Then things got dicey.

 For the life of me, I don't understand why Rockwell decided to play Zaphod as George W. Bush, an acting choice that immediately pulled me out of the film. It's not just that it doesn't make sense for Zaphod (who isn't stupid so much as too cool to notice what he's doing), but that there was some strange, unexplained but implied political commentary about what Zaphod was doing vis a vis the current President.

 I had a myriad of problems with the movie from that point forward, from the "Improbability Drive" being used as a "random" button that meant everything would be uniformly the same strange things (couches, yarn, etc), something the series managed to carry off in a consistent way with the book. I thought that the script by Adams and Kirkpatrick (and I assumed, many "ghost rewrites" and notes from producers) made decisions that fundamentally misunderstood why they happen in the book, all the way down to the last line of the film. You know, the one that totally loses the point of the "Restaurant at the End of the Universe."

 Instead of going one-by-one down a laundry list of nitpicks, I thought it would be healthier to come back to the film (which I haven't seen in its entirety since 2006-ish) with a fresh perspective. So when I watched it again last weekend, I came in with the mind that Adams made some of the changes knowing that the film couldn't be the series or the book or the radio broadcast. I decided to take on good faith that the script represented what Adams wanted to see on the screen (including his edict that the nationality of any character was up for grabs EXCEPT for Arthur, who had to be English), and try to view it as a film, then as an adaptation.

 So how does The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy work in that context?

 To be honest, I was a lot kinder to the film this time. It might be age, it might be the distance between expectations and knowing what the movie was, or it might just be that I was more open to the experience than when I was a grouchy twenty-six year old. It's probably a lot of those things - you have to remember that a month later, I was extolling Revenge of the Sith as "the Star Wars movie I had been waiting for" out of the prequels. I mean, have you seen Revenge of the Sith lately? It's the least worst of the prequels, which makes it a wart on the nose of Return of the Jedi, another Star Wars movie I don't exactly love. Anyway, Hitchhiker's.

 Here are some thoughts from re-watching the film:

 - I understand now why they went the way they did with Zaphod's extra arm and head, even if the head doesn't really work in execution. The arm is fine, and I get that it was a problem in the series too, but it's evident that having Humma Kavula (John Malkovich) take them away as "collateral" in exchange for the location of Deep Thought was an easy way to write it out of the rest of the film. The fact that they're never mentioned again supports that. If it was such a headache, why not take them out entirely? Yes, it's a defining character trait of Beeblebrox, but creating a Guide entry about how Zaphod made that up to sound "cooler" or had them removed or something would have saved the futility of their presence in the film.

 - Speaking of Humma Kavula, the character invented by Adams for the purpose of the film, I still really like the idea. It's something you can attribute purely to Douglas Adams' fascination with the absurdity of religion, and the way he toys with the meaning of saying "Bless You" when someone sneezes was a clever touch. I wish Kavula figured more prominently into the story, but he was at least a welcome side trip in the story.

 -  The "Bush" thing is... I don't know. I'm aware that the film plays up the "dumb" side of Zaphod instead of how aloof he is, but I don't buy that Trillian would leave with someone that stupid, even if he promised her a trip to space. It's as though Zaphod is a different character in the "party" scene and then drops in IQ significantly by the next time we see him. That said, it didn't bother me as much this time. (To be fair, Rockwell was asked about it and indicated he based his voice on Bill Clinton, Elvis Presley, and Vince Vaughn, although I was not the only person who thought it sounded like George W. Bush).

 - As for the "Arthur / Trillian" love story, it still feels like something that came from studio "notes," but hey, why not? If it was going to be shoehorned into the film, the way it was is less obtrusive than it could have been.

 - For the life of me, I don't understand what Jennings and Goldsmith were thinking when they put the Marvin from the series in the Vogon waiting line. It's not THAT he's there - it provides a moment of laughter and recognition for fans - but the fact that the scene goes on for quite a while and you see him again and again from different angles, which ruins the enjoyment of an old friend. It's like seeing someone you haven't seen in a while when you go to get in line at the movies. You have a conversation catching up, but then you have to go to your place in line and look forward and see them all the way until you go inside. The thrill is momentary.

 - Compare that to the way they introduce the Guide, which is a clever homage to the series, complete with the music. It conveys how important The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy is in the world of the story while also reminding you of the film's place in the larger context of adaptations.

 - I also still really like Bill Nighy as Slartibartfast. And Stephen Fry as the Guide. And the Vogons in general. That is all I have to add to that.

 - This really bothered me at the time I saw it in 2005, but I guess now it's not so "on the nose" casting that I noticed Alan Rickman as the voice of Marvin. Yes, it may be a little too perfect matching of vocal tone to sarcastic android, and I guess I didn't get my "Marvin was humming ironically because he hated humans so much" that seemed to me to sum up the character. I do still hate that it's Marvin, of all the characters, who delivers the line "Not that anyone cares what I say, but the restaurant is at the *other* end of the Universe." before the ship changes direction. If, for some reason, you haven't read The Restaurant at the End of the Universe, I guess that wouldn't bother you. It still bothers me, because the direction of the ship wouldn't really figure into where (and when) the Restaurant is.

 So the end verdict is that with some time, some tempered expectations, and a few years of listening to the audio book (also read by Stephen Fry), I don't hate The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. It wasn't made to live up to my expectations, to be sure. I appreciate it for what it is, even if I still have some problems with decisions made in the film. If it's meant to reflect what Adams intended (as most sources online stress), then I'll give the benefit of the doubt that a script with two writers didn't have more involvement over the next three and a half years. It's unlikely, but fair enough. All told, I might watch it again from time to time, as I have the series, even if it doesn't have the same appeal the novel does. I was perhaps too harsh back then, but it did allow me to grow and to change the way I saw something, which is one of the things about films I so enjoy.

 * Now's as good a time to mention And Another Thing, Eoin Colfer's "sixth" Guide novel, which I have read and feel conflicted about. I do like it, and it was nice to see the characters again after the way Mostly Harmless ended. On the other hand, there was the nagging sensation that while I was enjoying And Another Thing, it was, at best, an imitation of Douglas Adams' writing style. If you haven't read it, I do recommend checking it out - I think the Guide entry at the beginning sets expectations appropriately.

 ** Guide nerds are already aware of this, but the BBC series actually covers both The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy and The Restaurant at the End of the Universe, ending with Arthur and Ford among the cavemen of the "new" Earth.

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