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Sunday, May 01, 2005
The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy
Bringing a popular novel to the big screen is a precarious task--especially if the story in question has been around for a number of years. Die hard fans of the book will cry foul if you don't include every scene, every nuance and every character from the beloved novel. But if you don't make it accessible to the general public, who's going to go and see the movie?

There's a way to do it. The Lord of the Rings trilogy showed that. It paid respect to the source material by including all the major, important elements of the story, allowing the general public to see and enjoy the films all while having just enough of the world Tolkein had built in his novels to keep the most obssessive Tolkein fans happy. (There are some who probably hated the films, but were going to on principle no matter how good they were for daring to compress or elminate tangents not necessary to the main storyline.)

The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy is another such story. The story has been around since the late 70s when it was a series of radio show, then a series of novels, then a TV show and even a stage show. The movie has been in development limbo for years as studio after studio just couldn't quite get it right enough for author and creator Douglas Adams. Finally Adams worked out a script for the movie version of his popular story (all the versions have subtle differences) and it seemed as if, at long last, Hitchhiker's fans would get the movie we'd long been dreaming of.

Unfortunately, The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy doesn't take a page from Peter Jackson's magnificent Lord of the Rings trilogy. It keeps the basic plot of the novel/radio play/TV show but doesn't include enough of the brilliant wit that was Douglas Adams to make long-time fans happy, nor is it entirely accessible if you've never read a word of Douglas Adams original stories. In short, it's a movie that is trying awfully hard to be everything to everyone and not really ending up pleasing anyone in the end.

It's interesting to note that all versions of the popular Hitchhiker's story start from the same point--on the day his home is to be torn down to make way for a new by-pass, Arthur Dent discovers his best friend, Ford Prefect is an alien and that the Earth has been scheduled for demoltion to make way for a new hyperspace by-pass. Ford helps Arthur hitch a ride on board the alien ships and escape the planet's destruction. Through a series of adventures, the two meet up with Zaphod Beeblebrox, the president of the galaxy who's stolen a ship, Trilian, a girl Arthur met at a party once and who got stolen away by Zaphod and Marvin, the parnoid, depressed androids.

From the basic plotline, there are a lot of wholesale changes. Zaphod still has two heads but instead of them being on display at all times, one lives on top of the other. Also, while we get to hear entries from the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy (a book with all useful galactic knowledge), the connection of Ford working for the Guide and being on Earth to research it is not as well establshed.

One of the big changes from previous versions to now is the romantic triangle between Arthur, Trillian and Zaphod is played up a bit more here. I'm not quite sure who to blame for this as the credits say that the screenplay was written by Douglas Adams and someone else. I can only assume this was put in after Adam's untimely death in order to give the movie a bit more broad appeal. Of course, this is at the expense of of a lot of Adam's dry witty humor that is dropped.

Then, there are wholesale new plotlines added. The Vogons play a bigger role (which they do in later books of the series) and we get a sidetrip to the Vogon homeworld. It's not the most necessary of trips as it really doesn't do much to advance the plot .In fact, I found the explanation for how they get from the earth blowing up to the mythical planet of Magrathea far more likely in the books than it was here.

Honestly, the movie is trying too hard. It doesn't keep enough of what made the books so unique and fun to read. There are some good jokes in this movie, but the pacing is off. Adams wrote his novels as a series of events and witty observations that happend to be strung together by this fluid and ever changing plot. The movie throws all this out by having the character arc of Arthur loving Trillian and realizing she's the one thing that matters to him most and vice versa. And yes, there is a connection between the destruction of Earth, white mice and the meaning of life, but it's not nearly as funny, witty or entertaining as in the movie.

Now, that's not to say there isn't some fun in there for long time fans of Adam's work. If you watch, you'll see a cameo by the TV show's Marvin the Paranoid Android. The movie's version of Marvin is great, getting all the good lines that are left. Also, it's voiced by Alan Rickman, which is a plus. The Hitchhiker's original theme is in there when the audience is first introduced to the book. And Zoeey Dashill is very good as Trillian, though she's not the blonde we heard described in the novels and saw on the TV show.

What doesn't gel is the new character written in to be played by John Malkovich. He's in the movie for precisely one scene and it adds nothing to the plot. It also leads to a huge plot thread left dangling. Also Mos Def just doesn't quite convince as Ford Prefect. He's trying too hard to be cool in the movie and it just doesnt' quite work.

In short, this was a movie I'd looked forward to for a long time but came away ultimately disappointed. And I wanted to like it. I didn't want every word kept in simply because I don't have six hours to spend in a theater. But what I wanted was something that exposed more people to what it was about Douglas Adam's books that was so special and why I take such pleasure in reading them. If I'd not read Adams before, I'd come away, scratching my head and wondering what all the fuss was about.

Hitchhiker's wants badly to be loved. But in the end, I can only sort of like it and hope that if it makes enough money to warrant a sequel, that they get it right next time.

posted by Michael Hickerson at 5/01/2005 08:04:00 PM | |
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