Mostly Charmless(The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy: The Movie)
The first time I heard they were making a movie out of the Hitchhiker’sGuide to the Galaxy, my instant thought was: Will I hate it, or will I HATE it? Movie versions of books (especially brilliant books; more average books, like the Harry Potter Series or Stephen King novels lend themselves more easily to competent movie-making) are usually grossly inferior – witness the grotesque travesty of the second and third Lord of the Rings movies. And making a movie that does justice to a book whose very essence is in the trivial details (remember the recipe forthe Pan-galactic Gargle Blaster?), is about as improbable as, say, turning a couple of missiles into a bowl of petunias and a large whale.
Not of course that successful (read enjoyable) movies have to do full justice to the book they’re based on. While the occasional movie may manage to stay true to both the plot and spirit of the book (see Kubrick’s Clockwork Orange, or Truffaut’s Fahrenheit 451), more often than not good movie versions survive by pruning down the plot and the language, while managing to hold on to the spirit of the book (a good example is Ang Lee’s Sense and Sensibility – you lose a lot of Austen’s incredible language, but the pleasure of watching Emma Thompson and Kate Winslet together on the screen more or less makes up for it). In extreme cases, movie versions of great books can be so loosely based on the underlying text as to be completely unrecognisable (witness Troy,which, aside from a few coincidences of nomenclature has almost nothing to do with Homer’s epic) – this does not necessarily make for a goodmovie, but it has the benefit of leaving the book unsullied, so that one is liable to be more forgiving.
Not so with Hitchhiker’s. For all the low expectations I brought to the movie, I found that I had grossly underestimated the horrors of the movie and was forced to watch, with almost masochistic fascination(rather like someone at a Vogon poetry recital) as the film plumbed lower and lower depths. In an effort to make the movie more box-officeworthy and accessible to American demographics (meaning, presumably,the sort of teenage girls who listen to Britney Spears and dream about the Miss America pageant), the makers of the movie have chosen to not only leave out some of the more brilliant parts of the book (to take a single instance, there is no explanation given in the movie for whyit’s so important to always take your towel with you; I could cry into mine) but also to add new characters, plots and settings – thus completely mauling both the letter and spirit of the book. So we nowhave a movie where Trillian looks dreamily into the distance at the mention of Arthur’s name, and says in a voice worthy of a Danielle Steel novel that she might have lost “the only man she could ever love”. Or where the power of True Love (rather than general twerpiness) is what enables Arthur to overcome his foes. And Beeblebrox – that most lovable of misguided rulers becomes a cross between professional fashion victim and failing rock star – a total caricature of the incredible character who populates Douglas Adams’ pages. And as for Ford Prefect, it’s like the makers of the movie felt they’d done enough by casting Mos Def in the part, and that they really didn’t need him to act or anything.
Not that the movie is a complete wash-out. The actual Guide is well imagined, Stephen Fry’s voice as narrator adds a touch of much needed class, Bill Nighy does a good job as Slartibartfast, Zooey Deschaneldoes an adequate job as Trillian (or what passes for Trillian in the movie) and Marvin (voiced by Alan Rickman) comes across well. It’s just that if you’re a serious Hitchhiker’s fan, by the end of the movie you pretty much subscribe to Marvin’s point of view anyway. (I should say here that if you’ve never actually read the Hitchhiker’s Guide, you’ll probably enjoy the movie – but since this means you’re some lowly form of protoplasm who has no right to exist at all, your opinion can hardly be considered relevant).
The overall effect, then, is one of wanton sacrilege. It’s as though Mel Gibson had decided to make the Passion of the Christ with Mary Magdelene as an ass-kicking dominatrix (think Trinity in the Matrix), who ends up seducing Pontius Pilate and gets him to condemn Christ to be crucified in a bout of inspired foreplay. It’s not that the movie isn’t imaginative (though much of the new material lacks the breezy punchiness of the original), it’s just that it corrupts and destroys all the essential wisdom that lies at the very heart of the Hitchhiker’s guide, the very soul of what makes the book so special to so many of us (even 42 loses it’s meaning in this movie – becoming a sort of side-gag that has to be somehow got through). Sins of omission one expected, but at least what they did put into the movie could have been true to the original. And if all they wanted to do was make another chick-flick, why not use some other script – why Hitchhiker’s? If some species of puppy love is really what’s going to make the world go round after it’s destroyed and rebuilt on Magrathea, then there is, clearly, reason to panic.
Bottomline, if you love and revere the Hitchhiker’s Guide to theGalaxy, don’t watch this movie. Or if you do watch it (Hitchhiker’s fans are notoriously contrarian; at least the human fans, and I’m pretty sure you’re not going to catch any dolphins watching this movie) be prepared to come out feeling vaguely homicidal and with the general sense that if this is what the world has really come to, then maybe theVogons had the right idea all along.