- A towel is maybe the most useful thing a traveler can possess.
- Vogon poetry is the third worst in the universe.
- The answer to the Ultimate Question of Life, the Universe and Everything is 42.
These silly quips and many, MANY more were born from British writer Douglas Adams’ “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy,” an extremely popular series that began in 1978 as a BBC radio program before taking on new life in book form. The most well-known of his five-part trilogy (yes, you read that right) is the one that bear the series name, which was published in 1979. It follows the misadventures of Arthur Dent, the most ordinary of people who winds up traveling through space in his bathrobe with a ragtag bunch in search of the Ultimate Question.
Caryn Rupert tackled the book in her Series Sunday, but fortunately, Adams’ masterpiece has been adapted many times, most recently in a 2005 movie. It had something of a geek’s all-star cast, with Martin Freeman (aka Bilbo Baggins in “The Hobbit”), Zooey Deschanel (star of Fox’s “The New Girl”) as Earth girl Trillian and Alan Rickman (Snape from “Harry Potter”) as the voice of the clinically depressed robot Marvin. Adams also helped write the script and made a small appearance in the film. Sadly, it was his final project, as he died of a heart attack before it was finished.
Adams’ sporadic sense of humor and almost stream-of-consciousness storytelling makes it hard to turn “Hitchhiker’s Guide” into a typical movie. The plot itself is fairly simple: Aliens destroy the Earth to build a hyperspace bypass, Arthur and his band of not-so-merry men (and Trillian) use a spaceship powered by improbability to get to the lost planet of Magrathea, which in the olden days built luxury planets, they learn Earth’s greater purpose, and Arthur narrowly saves his brain from being taken by the mice who funded the original Earth project. In between are mostly witty asides, some spectacularly silly dialogue and a few choice introspective moments, but never enough that one can take them too seriously.
The movie follows more of a traditional Hollywood arc, though with plenty of homages to the source material, and there are several scenes that are not part of the book. The movie builds a romantic relationship between Arthur and Trillian that was never really there in the books, though it certainly wasn’t out of the realm of possibility. There’s a good 20 minutes to half an hour in the middle that wasn’t part of the book, where the starship Heart of Gold makes a pit stop at the temple of Zaphod’s opponent in the presidential election, Trillian gets kidnapped by Vogons and the crew has to go to Vogsphere to save her. The sequence gets a few laughs (as well as a charming cameo by the Marvin from the old TV series), but ultimately it all feels like padding and forced character development.
The characters take a different shape in the movie, as well. Every one gets a twist from how Adams laid them out. Some changes, such as Arthur learning to be more assertive and taking charge, work just fine. Some, such as Sam Rockwell playing Zaphod as a pure idiot instead of a man with intelligence who is just too wrapped up in ego to use it, pay off at times but always seem to be missing something. Arthur’s friend Ford Prefect falls into this category, too, mostly because it seems like Mos Def is trying too hard most of the time — something he doesn’t have to do Mos Def, as seen in his appearances on Chappelle’s Show, is pretty funny. It also feels weird that three of the four main characters are American in an adaptation of a British standard. There is plenty of British influence in the other roles, but having Arthur and Marvin as the only British accents aboard the Heart of Gold just seems off.
With that said, the movie does offer a lot of good in the lore of the Hitchhiker’s Guide series. I really liked how the Vogons and their ships were portrayed, really playing up their bureaucratic tendencies. Ford uses his towel in many different ways throughout the movie, something that gives any fan of the series a good smile, at least. Freeman, Rickman and Bill Nighy as fjord aficionado Slartibartfast are perfect fits. And the climax, while vastly different from the book’s, is hilarious and charming in its own right. Plus, it leaves the audience with a tease of the next book, “The Restaurant at the End of the Universe,” which I am dying to see converted to the big screen (but will probably not happen).