Saturday, April 30, 2005

REVIEW: The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy

Beginning it's life at various permutations as a radio play, an epic BBC miniseries, a "trilogy" of five novels and a text-based adventure computer game fondly remembered by those of us prone to having fond memories of text-based adventure computer games, Douglas Adams' popular science ficition comedy now arrives as a feature film. Though vastly enjoyable and excellently entertaining, the film succeeds in a curious manner: In finding a way to faithfully adapt the book to a film despite the long-held belief that the material was unadaptable to the medium, the filmmakers have essentially proved correct the long-held belief that the material was unadaptable to the medium. I'd like to think that the late Adams, who's tales included one where God proved Himself to be nonexistant, would find that terribly amusing.

To be sure, a lot of popular books, especially those in the scifi/fantasy canon, are frequently said to be "impossible" to make films out of. Usually, those saying such are exaggerating, and misusing the word "impossible" as a substitution for "very, very difficult." It turned out, for example, that it was not impossible to film "The Lord of The Rings," but merely an extremely complex undertaking requiring undreamed-of technological wizardry and a director of singular vision and skill. In terms of narrative, Tolkien's tomes were written (very intentionally) in the manner of historical-record, and thus in terms of a workable screenplay were as "adaptable" as any event of history.

The real "impossible" adaptations, rather, are those materials where narrative either doesn't exist in any recognizable form or where the narrative is so cerebral and/or internalized that it can only really work properly by reading it. Frank Herbert's inner-monologue-saturated "Dune" had to be gutted and reshaped from the ground up for David Lynch to make a working film of it, and the result has still managed to annoy lots of hardcore fans and perplex lots of non-fans to this day. (A recent TV-miniseries version, obsessively faithful to the novels, was further and final proof that the material was just NEVER mean to work as a film exactly-translated.) We'll probably never see functional films of "Finnegan's Wake" or "The Catcher in the Rye" for the same reasons.

So too it is with "Hitchhikers," where the narrative turns on a relatively "routine" (for the genre) quest-through-space adventure and the "meat" of the comedy lies in Adams' very British musings on all the interstellar oddities the heroes encounter AND in the endless supply of dryly-absurd outer-space anecdotes supplied by the titular "Guide," a sort of e-book Encyclopedia for spacefaring stowaways. Thusly, turning any story that relies so heavily on divergence and inner-musings into a straightforward narrative brings with it the requirment to strip away much of Adams' signature tangents and the risk that in doing so one may also strip away any reason to tell the story in the first place.

The "main" story arrives onscreen mostly-intact: Sad-sack English-everyman Arthur Dent is spirited off the planet (and away from his pitiable crusade to stop his house from being demolished to make way for a bypass) by his pal Ford Prefect moments before the Earth itself is demolished by the alien Vogons... also to make way for a bypass. Prefect turns out not to be human, but rather an interstellar hitchhiker himself charged with compiling data for The Guide, and he and Arthur are soon semi-unwelcome visitors aboard the spaceship Heart of Gold and innadvertently caught up in the mad quest of Zapphod Beeblebrox, the fugitive President of The Galaxy who's seeking "the question to the ultimate answer" alongside Trillian, the last (female) survivor of Earth.

And that's pretty-much the whole of the "story." Like I said, the whole exercise is really a rung on which Adams could hang a series of tangential tirades about "life, the universe and everything." The film preserves a fair sampling of these nuggets, including some choice samples from The Guide and a succession of oddball bits involving dolphins, sofas (my favorite) and a sperm whale. For book fans, other material hasn't so much been excised as it has been changed in execution. Ford Prefect's devotion to towels remains, but none of his ultra-sensible rationale for such is presented; thus the gag becomes a kicky non-sequitor for newcomers and a winking inside joke for the fans. A fair compromise, I'd wager.

Some fans with have MORE difficulty, though, with the way the film has engineered the story to more comfortably fit a traditional adventure-film narrative: The film adds expanded supervilliany (expanded, that is, from a few of Adams' universal-oddities) to throw Trillian into danger, amps up a love story between Arthur and Trillian, puts a new twist on Zapphod's secondary head and crafts a more wide-scale climax. I dealt with this, and found it to work well enough, others likely won't.

What finally makes much of the difference is a well-assembled cast of character performers, with special note needing to be made of Sam Rockwell as a re-imagined American-huckster version of Zapphod and Warwick Davis (body) and Alan Rickman (voice) doing double-duty as a fantastic Marvin the depressed robot.

The eventual truth is that it's difficult to say whether this new twist on the story is "as good" or "not as good" as any of the myriad other twists (each retelling has had it's additions and subtractions, after all) but at least in the opinion of this reviewer the film succeeds as a faithful translation of Adams' offbeat spirit if not entirely as a faithful adaptation of Adams' actual material. Those looking to see a 100% visualization of "The Hitchhiker's Guide to The Galaxy" won't find it here, but those hoping to find a very clever little film based-on "The Hitchhiker's Guide to The Galaxy" will probably leave smiling.


1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I went into this film feeling skeptical, as I am a huge fan of the books, and left feeling more than satisfied. I was afraid of what they would do to it, what they would leave out/add in to make it work as a film, and while I had some petty grievances, I think this is probably as close to a perfect movie version of the Guide as is possible. The dolphin sequence pleased me to no end, though I was dissapointed that the word 'fish' was left out when Ford told Arthur to "put this in your ear". Overall, it was absolutely worth watching.