There’s a simple reason this movie has taken so long to make, and it’s this: while Douglas Adams’ classic The Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy is a hilarious book, it’s a rubbish novel. I mean that in the nicest possible way – it’s one of my favourite books, but it’s barely a story at all – more a set of dead-eye, deadpan observations on the absurdity of life, and particularly the British way of life, revolving very loosely around a chap in a dressing-gown. While that’s great fodder for a comedy read, it’s no basis for a coherent, 90 minute motion picture, especially one having the American market in mind.
It’s a matter of record that Douglas Adams realised there was no story, but not until it was too late to fix it (about halfway through book two). From that point onwards made several attempts to pull everything back into a single coherent, archetypal story but totally failed, and in the process ruined the remaining three and a half books themselves, none of which are funny, let alone a good story.
A film-maker has a choice, therefore: stick with the material and film something which is not so much a screenplay as an extended, themed version of Saturday Night Live, or do some significant damage to the source material – “zap straight off to its major data banks and reprogram it with a very large axe”, if you will – and make a story out of it.
The first option will in equal measure thrill and infuriate the party faithful, but bore the rest of the population; the second will most likely infuriate the party faithful, but at least has a chance with everyone else. Since the Hitch-Hiker’s Guide is now twenty years old, there is probably a whole generation who, so far in their lives, have missed it altogether, so you can hardly blame director Garth Jennings for choosing option two.
What instead we should do is take our hats off to him: he’s fashioned a great story but preserved surprising amounts of the source; his innovations are sympathetic and in a couple of cases (the point-of-view gun and the face-slapping devices on the Vogsphere) are a match for the original material; the wonderful production design thoroughly captures the loveable Britishness of Adams’ story (the Vogons hover somewhere between the schoolmasters of ’70s Pink Floyd and the sort of bureaucrats whom you might find behind the desks of some Ministry of Monty Python’s devising), and on top of all that he’s coaxed some wonderful performances out of the cast. Martin Freeman captures Arthur Dent’s everyman perfectly and has real chemistry with Zooey Deschanel’s Trillian; John Malkovich, Bill Nighy, Bill Bailey and both the original Arthur Dent and Marvin from the BBC TV series make hilarious cameos, as does the smiling face of the late creator himself, Douglas Adams, as the very last shot of the movie. That was a splendid touch.
The less forgiving purists are bound to gripe about what’s missing; but on the whole I’m the more forgiving sort of purist. Perhaps there is something sinister in the conspicuous omission the Babel Fish “proof” for the non-existence of God – was that a Disney-required edit or just my perfectly normal paranoia? – and I was a bit sad my favourite exchange in all of Douglas Adams’ writing was omitted (Arthur: “It’s at times like this, when I’m trapped in a Vogon airlock with a man from Betelgeuse, and about to die from asphyxiation in deep space that I really wish I’d listened to what my mother told me when I was young.” Ford: “Why? What did she say?” Arthur: “I don’t know, I didn’t listen”), but overall this was an extremely enjoyable, touching experience and I can’t think of a better way to have rounded off an otherwise trying Thursday.
Thursdays. I never could get the hang of Thursdays.