So we went to see The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy the other night.
Short version? Meh. A loving meh, don’t get me wrong, but a meh all the same.
Now, bear in mind that I’m a huge fan of Adams’s work, and have enjoyed the story in its many forms over the years, and have basically been waiting for somebody to make this movie since I was about 13. So I tried to go in without any expectations; that, of course, was impossible, but I did try. That counts for something, I think.
I don’t mind the changes or additions they made to the story. As I’ve said before, I expected there to be differences from what has gone on before because every version – radio show, book, TV show, computer game, etc. – is in some way different from everything that came before it. In fact, I think it’s a testament to Douglas Adams’s ability as a writer that the basic premise can undergo so many permutations over time and still be interesting. Given that the man was an affirmed Darwinist, you can’t help but wonder if such a process of literary evolution was at least a little bit planned. So I didn’t mind the extended presence of the Vogons, or the plot point about splitting of Zaphod’s brain amongst his two heads (in fact, these are adaptations of ideas from Adams’s later Hitchhiker books). The bits involving John Malkovich’s character added a nice touch of creepiness and menace to the proceedings, and the Arthur/Trillian/Zaphod love triangle, while probably unnecessary, was executed in a much better fashion than I expected it to be. In all, the various alterations and additions help add a bit of structure to what was, admittedly, more a collection of increasingly bizarre occurrences than an actual story.
As for the casting, I thought that all worked, too. Martin Freeman was a pitch-perfect Arthur Dent. Mos Def truly surprised me as Ford Prefect, bringing the right mix of alien aloofness and general befuddlement that made the character work so well on the page. Zooey Deschanel brought a bit of depth to the historically one-note Trillian, which is no small achievement (and she looked quite foxy in tiny shorts and knee-high argyle socks, I might add). Sam Rockwell stole the whole damn show as Zaphod Beeblebrox, and was there ever a better Marvin, the Paranoid Android, than Alan Rickman?
(Erin wants a toy Marvin of her very own, now, by the way. Do they make such things?)
So with all this working in the film’s favor, how did it all go so tragically meh? I blame director Garth Jennings. You’ve got a script co-written by the concept’s creator, a great cast at your disposal, and the backing of Disney, who probably wouldn’t mind a successful summer blockbuster. On paper, it can’t go wrong. But the film just drags in places, and slows to an almost complete stop in others. The manic pacing that made the other versions of the story so successful is sadly missing here. Instead of being the story of an ordinary shlub forced out of his humdrum life and into a series of wild, inexplicable events, we get the story of an ordinary shlub forced out of his humdrum life and into a series of should-be-wild but inexplicably humdrum events. With the resources at Jennings’s disposal, I find this inexcusable. It also really bugged me that the Malkovich character’s subplot (involving the POV gun) is left completely unresolved, and that one of the major plotpoints, the fact that the Earth is the computer constructed by Deep Thought to figure out The Question, is never explicitly stated in the film. The two people I saw this with, Erin and our friend Jill, have never been exposed to any prior version of the story, were quite shocked when I explained this to them. “Why didn’t they actually say that in the movie?” Jill asked, so obviously it wasn’t just me that missed the explanation. That’s just sloppy filmmaking, if you ask me.
In the end, maybe my expectations did get the best of me, but it just didn’t manage to come together in quite the way I was hoping it would. If I were the sort of person to grade such things, I’d give it a B: it was a respectable attempt, but it didn’t blow me away. Under a different director or studio, things might’ve been different, but at least what we did get was decent, if not particularly outstanding.
On a related note: All this talk about the Guide has made me want to go back and listen to the original radio show, which I haven't heard since high school (and even then, only in the form of the U.S. released records, which only had the first 6 episodes). Checking online, I see that the BBC CDs collecting the initial 2 series aren't in print here in the States. I could order 'em from Amazon UK or Auntie Beeb herself, but when you work in currency differences and international shipping, you're looking at close to $50, which is a whole damn lot for 2 cds. Anybody out there know where I can buy these stateside, or maybe, I don't know, own copies of the discs that they'd potentially be willing to copy for me (ahem, not that I condone such blatantly illegal actions, mind you, wink wink)? Comment or email me over at the address listed on the sidebar if you can help.