Tuesday, April 26, 2005

"The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy," the movie - Don't Panic!

Being both an entertainment journalist and a movie buff, I relish the opportunity to see advance screenings of new films, even when I know that the piece of cinema I will be seeing has little chance of being known as a work of art, or even of cinema ("Battlefield Earth," anyone? Still waiting for that sequel!) But the big-screen version of Douglas Adams' "The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Universe" held special ranking inside my hot little head, 'cause it was probably my favorite novel of the 1980s. I even wrote a very successful (A-) book report on the tome when I was a sophomore in high school. I relished Adams' melding of science-fiction, comedy and a hint of satire; I found his work on "Hitchhiker" and the other four books of the trilogy (don't ask) to be very clever and very British, even if his last offering in the series, "Mostly Harmless," was a bit too dark for my taste. (The best one? The fourth, "So Long and Thanks for All the Fish," though you'd better read the first three before you tackle that one else nothing will make sense.)

It had long been Douglas Adams' dream to convert his most famous book, which actually began as a BBC radio series, into a major motion picture. He worked for years on the screenplay, literally up to the day he died, at the age of 49, in 2001 of a massive heart attack while working out in his Southern California home. (Adams probably appreciated the irony of that, maybe even silently chortling to himself as he was whisked up to the Pearly Gates.) People as diverse as Dan Aykroyd, Bill Murray and Jim Carrey had been mentioned to take on major roles in whatever flick resulted, rumors that must have caused consternation to die-hard fans of the English-based story - much in the same way devotees of "Bridget Jones' Diary" may have cringed when Texas Renee Zellweger landed that veddy British part. But, as the smoke clears, we now have a "Hitchhiker" for the masses with a cast that straddles the line between the English and American coasts, but is still based firmly in the British countryside - at least, before the Earth is destroyed by a group of very ugly intergalactic demolition artists.

Don't worry, for those of your who aren't familiar with the "Hitchhiker" saga - I didn't give anything anyway. The destruction of the Earth takes place within the first 30 pages of the book - or, in Hollywood math, the first 10 minutes of the film. That's how things get started - on the worst Thursday ever, as Everyman Arthur Dent goes from trying to prevent his house from being flattened in favor of yet another highway bypass to being hurdled across the galaxy, homeless in every way possible, and helped only by his best friend Ford Prefect, who actually is an alien and traveling correspondent for "The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy," the most popular book in the universe. What Arthur confronts, dressed in his pajamas, are experiences beyond his imagining - a permanently depressed robot; a two-headed, three-armed gigolo/thief who happens to be president of the galaxy; and the cute girl whom Arthur failed to pick up at a recent costume party. Oh, he also discovers who really runs things in the universe and what the answer the ultimate question of life is. And why towels are so important.

All of this is spelled out in vividly delightful detail by Adams in his book, which is dense with puns and funny dialogue and even funnier passages from "The Hitchhiker's Guide" about poetry, ballpoints and whether God really exists. There are many who feared that this would be unfilmable in this format, or that the mucky-mucks in Tinseltown would find a way to, well, muck up what they considered to be sacred text from Adams. You know, the way they've altered just about every book that's ever been turned into a movie. And, in fact, the movie is not exactly the book that Adams wrote. But that's OK in its own way. For one thing, remember that Adams wrote much of this screenplay, though Karey Kirkpatrick did some revisions on the final draft. And Adams himself was known for extensive revisions of his work. The novel, for example, has a lot that wasn't on the original radio series, and the resulting BBC television series takes out stuff from both the book and the radio show and adds still new stuff. What we end up with in the movie is, I'd say, about 70 percent of what was in the book, with some brand-new stuff (including the ending), a pumping-up of the romantic tension between Arthur (played by "Office" alum Martin Freeman) and the aforementioned girl Trillian (Zooey Deschanel, maybe the best name for an actor today), and a couple of references to later "Hitchhiker" novels. It does not go as nuts, as say, Sydney Pollack did with "The Firm," where he basically redid the entire second half of John Grisham's novel to give Tom Cruise an excuse to run around downtown Memphis like a maniac. (Not that it didn't work for cinematic purposes. But I digress.)

As for the casting, Adams was on record that the only character who had to remain British for the film was Arthur himself (what, did you think I meant the American version of "The Office"'? Silly rabbits!) Thus, Mos Def plays Ford Prefect, and the hilarious Sam Rockwell plays President Zaphod Beeblebrox, complete with second head and third arm. But the essence of the overall movie remains British, from the voice talent (Stephen Fry, Alan Rickman and Helen Mirren, for example) to the overall sense of humor. Ironically, that may be a drawback to how "Hitchhiker's" does on this side of the swamp, as a lot of English comedy movies struggles to find a footing here unless the title contains the words "Monty Python" somewhere. And an inside knowledge of the book is very helpful to getting some of the bits, which could go a long way towards promoting literacy, if you think about it. But the filmed vision of Douglas Adams' most lasting creation is not the unmitigated disaster it was rumored to be. I liked it, and I hope you will, too. And if you don't, well, there's always "Battlefield Earth."

3 stars

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