Imperialism. Marks and Spencer’s. The Queen. Shakespeare. Snobbery. Spotted dick.
English culture has offered a lot to the world over the years. Among its most noteworthy cultural contributions is its sense of humor. Marked by quirky sarcasm and subtlety, it is bloody hilarious and serves as a dear friend to all of those nerdy, socially awkward students who find most contemporary pop humor to be somewhat beneath them. Clearly, I’m no stranger to this mentality and, given the nature of the Harvard student body, I don’t think I’m alone here.
Although Monty Python is the first example of British humor to spring to most people’s minds, another much-loved manifestation is Douglas Adams’ “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy,” the ludicrous and endearingly funny story of Arthur Dent, one poor lost Earthling haplessly finding his way through the Universe after escaping the Earth shortly before its destruction to make way for an interstellar bypass.
Originally a radio play, “Hitchhiker’s” then moved on to become an increasingly inaccurately named trilogy of five novels, a BBC television series, and, most recently, a feature film. What the radio play and books had in common, and what the movie lacks, is a heavy emphasis on brilliantly witty dialogue and narration. As a result of this work’s adaptation to film—a visual medium—the ingeniously witty dialogue and narration necessarily move out of the spotlight in order to share the stage with the element of the moving image.
As it was originally written, “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” was not well-suited for the silver screen. Adams’ much-loved quirky humor based itself much more on rhythm, pacing, and idiosyncratic description than it did on any sort of visual comedy. Although his witty prose certainly evokes no shortage of silly imagery, the comedy invariably manifests itself more in the style and delivery of the description, than it does in the image itself. While, when deployed in a written or auditory medium, this style is used to hilarious effect, it simply wouldn’t work in the movies.
Adams spent many years of his life unsuccessfully attempting to adapt his chief d’oeuvre into a screenplay for probably just this reason. How do you convert a work that relies so heavily on cleverly turned phrases and that perfect tone of British sarcasm into a movie without making it either a boringly photographed set of witty talking heads or an unfunny visual representation of all of Adams’ verbose descriptions?
Adams died before he could find an answer to that “Ultimate Question” and it has fallen to others to pick up the torch where he left off. The new question, then, is whether Adams would approve of the final product.
Those who would say yes could justify their choice by highlighting the visual feast made up by the film’s creative and amusing representations of “The Hitchhiker’s Guide,” a sort of compact, computerized “Let’s Go” guide to the cosmos, describing the diversity and oddities of the fictionalized universe of Douglas Adams. Those who would say no could point to all of the solid gold verbal exchanges and descriptions that the filmmakers excised from the original work. Both would be right.
All of this is to say that the movie is good, but it’s not the book. Martin Freeman (Tim from the original version of “The Office”) is the perfect casting choice for the character of Arthur Dent. His versatile facial features and weary body language perfectly embody the consistently cowardly and exasperated Englishman who really only wants a cup of tea but ends up finding love and playing a major role in the Universe’s political affairs. Alan Rickman (“Dogma”) supplies the perfect tone of voice for Marvin the clinically depressed robot and Sam Rockwell (“Confessions of a Dangerous Mind”) helps to bring the character of Zaphod Beeblebrox—the brash, unintelligent President of the Universe—some contemporary significance by making him seem ever so slightly, well, Texan.
Along with Ford Prefect (Mos Def) and Trillian (Zooey Deschanel), the characters take off across the Universe in a stolen spaceship, getting into all sorts of trouble along the way.
Go see this movie; it’s fun and funny, both for those familiar with the Universe according to Douglas Adams and those who are not. For those who are, just don’t expect it to be overly faithful to the original Adamsian atmosphere of the radioplay and novels. Adaptation is a hard game to play and its products often differ radically from the original. In the case of “The Hitchhiker’s Guide,” the shift from novel to movie has left the narrative fairly well intact, but the style and tone are irrevocably changed. There are both merits and demerits to this modification, but for true Douglas Adams aficionados—to quote somewhat inappropriately the wonderfully named character of Slartibartfast—“It may disturb you. It scares the willies out of me.”
—Staff writer Steven N. Jacobs can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.