Loading ...
Sorry, an error occurred while loading the content.

Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy

Expand Messages
  • Noel Vera
    Mostly toothless Noel Vera Garth Jennings The Hitchhiker s Guide to the Galaxy, is his reasonably faithful adaptation of Douglas Adams constantly mutating
    Message 1 of 1 , Jul 2, 2005
    • 0 Attachment
      Mostly toothless

      Noel Vera

      Garth Jennings' "The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy," is his
      reasonably faithful adaptation of Douglas Adams' constantly mutating
      series of stories (it was first a BBC radio play before it became a
      five-part 'trilogy,' then a TV serial and even a computer game),
      about one Arthur Dent, plucked from his ordinary British life just
      before the Earth is destroyed to make way for an interstellar
      bypass.
      Depending on who you talk to, people consider the original radio
      series to be the best incarnation of Adams' stories, and while I've
      only read the novels, I can imagine what they mean: Adams' abilities
      at description and metaphor are, to put it politely, largely
      functional (to describe the beauty of a song, he imagines Paul
      McCartney writing it, and guesses how much real estate can be bought
      from the royalties), and his characters work mostly at a cartoon
      level. But the dialogue, which can sound like two science-fiction
      writers kibitzing over a bottle of Scotch, has a spare charm, and
      the plot (such as it is) moves in so many directions only the
      freewheeling medium of radio (where the destruction of Earth can be
      conveyed with a few loud sound effects) can do it justice.

      Perhaps Jennings' smartest decision in adapting "Hitchhiker" was to
      follow that same kind of freewheeling attitude: in effect, not
      putting much time and effort into the special effects and adopting a
      big Hollywood-movie version of the low-budget look (plenty of CGI,
      but not too glossily executed) that the novels (and, presumably,
      radio and TV series) bring to mind. Thus you get the destruction of
      the Earth, over in a few minutes; an entire planet's demise being a
      hard act to follow, the rest of the movie feels like an overextended
      afterthought, which may be the picture's intention: Jennings, taking
      his cue from Adams, isn't worrying about it; he has other
      priorities, like the need to get a good cup of tea.

      A huge part of adapting Adams to the big screen is casting the right
      kind of actors to play his characters; fans have so many opinions
      (and casting suggestions) that pleasing everyone would be an
      impossible goal. To my eyes, the production does a (again)
      reasonable enough job. Martin Freeman (from the British TV
      comedy "The Office") as Adams' hero Arthur Dent fits the bill as a
      regular bloke thrown tealess but with towel in hand into a series of
      adventures--Freeman has the 'regular' quality down pat, but is never
      too regular that he's a dull spot onscreen (you're always feeling
      sorry for him--sorry he's lost the Earth, sorry he can't get good
      tea, sorry he's hopelessly in love with Trillian (Zooey Deschanel),
      a fellow transplanted Earthling). Deschanel is a sweet ingénue of a
      presence, and Mos Def is agreeable enough as Ford Prefect, Dent's
      alien neighbor, but both tend to be overshadowed by Sam Rockwell's
      loud Zaphod Beeblebrox, president of the Galaxy--Rockwell takes one
      part Brad Pitt, one part rock star and maybe two parts George Bush,
      Jr. ("I'm the president of the galaxy; I don't get a lot of time for
      reading"), works the mix as mightily as he can; the results are
      funny if at times wearying. Perhaps my favorite performance isn't a
      whole actor but a voice--the wonderfully morose Alan Rickman as
      Marvin the Paranoid Android. Rickman's delivery, coming out of
      Marvin's bulbous head (perched atop a small, paunchy robot body) is
      hilariously expressive, the very embodiment of Adams' pessimism
      ("Life?" Rickman says hopelessly, "Don't talk to me about life.").

      Throw in Bill Nighy as planet designer Slartibartfast, a cameo by
      John Malkovich as leader of a cult, and an ill-fated sperm whale
      (voice by Bill Bailey) who muses on the meaning of his all-too-short
      life, and you've got a nicely worked-out big-screen version of what
      at one point was considered an unadaptable series of comic science-
      fiction novels (I've already mentioned how the books are considered--
      and I agree on theory with the sentiment--a step down from radio).
      Jennings, unlike most directors who come from music videos and
      commercials, doesn't have a flashy visual style; he seems to take
      his cue from fellow music-video directors turned feature filmmakers
      Spike Jonze and Michel Gondry, whose unflashy styles helped flesh
      out the conceptually challenging scripts of Charlie Kaufman (Jonze
      with "Being John Malkovich" and "Adaptation," Gondry with "Human
      Nature" and "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind"). He seems to
      appreciate, as Jonze and Gondry have, that to fully realize the
      strangeness of a story like Kaufman's (and, to a lesser extent,
      Adams'), you need to ground your picture in as much realism as
      possible--the better to find purchase when you take a leap into the
      great unknown.

      I think I can say that this is an excellent adaptation of Adams to
      the big screen, if not the best possible (Jonze and Gondry might
      have done better). If for all that it's not an entirely satisfying
      bit of comic science-fiction filmmaking, the problem may reside with
      the source material. Reading the novels I found Adams too--I don't
      know, benign, maybe, too easygoing, despite starting out with the
      end of the world. Dent loses his home planet but the loss never
      seems traumatic; the fact that he's encountering all these grotesque
      aliens and can't get a good cup of tea seems to have left a more
      lasting impact on him. Adams comes from that tradition of comic
      science-fiction pioneered by writers like Kurt Vonnegut and John
      Sladek, where adventures are mostly picaresque, wild concepts pile
      up willy-nilly, and the overall tone is this side of dark (Adams'
      feels less dark than dim).

      Vonnegut has been known to end the world (most notably in "Cat's
      Cradle," arguably his masterpiece), but he's never blown it up, and
      never done so in the opening pages (he knows it's a difficult act to
      top). Adams has Vonnegut's absurdist tone, but avoids (wisely, I'd
      say) his more stridently humanist concerns, his need to baldly tell
      humanity what they're doing wrong and what they should be doing
      instead. Less wisely, he avoids expressing any concerns whatsoever
      (well, maybe for the odd cup of tea), and the notable lack of
      interest in any recognizable human goal or value robs his humor of
      substance, weight, urgency. Adams, in effect, reads and feels like a
      lightweight.

      The difference is more telling when you compare Adams to Sladek
      (perhaps my favorite of comic science-fiction writers). Sladek like
      Adams avoids Vonneguts' blatant preaching, but there's a darkness to
      his works, a feeling of malevolence present that, if anything, is
      more unsettling than either Adams' or Vonnegut's, because it's so
      subtle. Sladek's adventures are as picaresque as either of the two
      writers, but unlike Adams, who gives you the sense of working up a
      setpiece, playing with it a while, then abandoning it for the next
      one, there's a coherence to Sladek's novels that can be seen
      retroactively; each event only seems random, a far more difficult
      effect (I'd say Sladek--who's little known and woefully underrated,
      particularly in his own country--is a better writer overall, more
      evocative prose, more effective powers of characterization, than
      either Adams or Vonnegut). Yes, this is an excellent adaptation
      of "Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy;" I'm just wondering if, after
      all is said and done, that is enough.

      (First published in Businessworld, 6/24/05)

      (Comments? Email me at noelbotevera@...)
    Your message has been successfully submitted and would be delivered to recipients shortly.