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Films
by Kathi Maio

Of Mice And Long-Awaited Movies

GEORGE Lucas is a lucky man. Not only does he get complete control over the movies he makes, followed by a guarantee of a box office and merchandizing bonanza, he also has precious few people second-guessing him. Oh, there are a few critics who grouse a bit about his recent prequel Star Wars trilogy, but most of the Lucas zealots are happy just to get a new movie every three years or so. They wouldn't dare question the great man or what he does with his own characters.

Alas, the same cannot be said for the filmmakers who have the audacity to adapt a greatly beloved fictional work that is not of their own original devising. Fanatics who worship at the altar of the original author will nitpick and challenge every alteration—even before a film is released. And in such a situation, adapters face an especially tricky damned if you do/damned if you don't scenario.

If they wander too far afield of the original, the built-in fan base will denounce the film and stay away in droves. Conversely, if they are too slavish in their faithfulness to the original and lose sight of what makes an entertaining and cohesive movie for today's viewers, moviegoers unfamiliar with the source material will leave the theater grumbling and scratching their heads—sure to tell their buddies to avoid at all costs the pathetic excuse for a feature film they just endured.

The men behind the recent "Hollywood" version of Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy found themselves in just such a precarious position. They faced the daunting challenge of finally bringing to cineplex audiences one of the most cherished science fiction stories of the late twentieth century—a book that came in number four on a BBC survey of the UK's best loved novels (above all the Harry Potter novels, not to mention War and Peace and David Copperfield).

It didn't help that the book's author, Douglas Adams, had died at the young age of forty-nine while toiling in the vineyards of LaLaLand, trying to adapt his own story for the big screen (as he had been, on and off, for twenty years). His premature death insured Mr. Douglas's beatification as a minor deity, or at the very least a martyr and patron saint of absurdist sf.

Messing with his stuff took a certain amount of chutzpah!

Personally, I never quite understood what all the anticipatory angst was about. Unlike the respondents to the BBC poll, I never held Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy in higher esteem than To Kill a Mockingbird or Tess of the D'Urbervilles. To me, Douglas's novel was inspired piffle—occasionally brilliant, but more often disjointed and unfocused. Perhaps I just didn't do enough mind-altering substances at a formative age.

And I failed to see how anyone could take a purist's jaundiced view of any adaptation, no matter what form it took. Adams did the first draft before his death, after all. And, besides, the author himself had probably lost track of the "pure" version of his story. He had been reworking it himself for decades.

Discounting that first drunken vision in a field in Austria, Hitchhiker's first appeared as a Monty Python-ish radio series in 1978. Then came the novel, a double-LP version, a second radio series, a second book, a television series, a computer game, and so on. Adams was a master at mining his own material over and over and over again.

It's impossible to say how he would feel about this new film adaptation, of course. And as I write this, there's not even any way of knowing how the majority of Hitchhiker's fans will respond to it. Although I have already heard words like "disaster" bandied about by early Adamsian screeners.

Disaster? Not in my book! I'd say congratulations are due all around.

First off, the biggest danger was in making this studio film too American for its British source. This was nicely avoided. Although American Jay Roach (the Austin Powers flicks and Meet the Parents/Fockers) originally got the nod to direct, when he had to bow out he suggested Spike Jonze, who in turn suggested two British lads who had done some very creative work in commercials and music videos. Their company was called Hammer & Tongs, and their names were Garth Jennings and Nick Goldsmith.

This directing/producing team certainly brought an Anglo sensibility (as well as youthful exuberance) to the project. And this was reinforced with some apt casting.

Oh, there are Americans in the cast. But just enough to keep the movie mildly multicultural and U.S. audience-friendly. The key piece of casting was that of the mild-mannered, befuddled, and very British hero, Arthur Dent. Some talk was made of Hugh Grant in the role. (Dear me, that would have been a disaster!) Instead, the role went to a moon-faced young man little known in the U.S. except to fans of the original British comedy series, The Office. Actor Martin Freeman knows how to play farcical comedy and still maintain a whole array of very serious and realistic emotions like fear, anger, and total bafflement. And he looks adorably lumpy in his bathrobe.

Other casting choices were equally interesting. Mos Def, an African-American actor and hip hop musician, got the role of Arthur's alien pal and roving contributor to the titular galactic guide(e-)book, Ford Prefect. Zooey Deschanel plays the bright but, as always, underwritten female earthling, Trillian (nee Tricia McMillan). Ms. Deschanel's spunky waif look works well in the part. And then there is Sam Rockwell who tackles the over-the-top role of galactic prez and exuberant spaceship hijacker, Zaphod Beeblebrox. He plays it suitably maniacally as a cross between a sleazy stupid American politician (I could say who I think he had in mind, but feel free to name your own choice here) and a preening glam-rock star.

There are scene-stealing cameos worth noting, too. Amongst them, Bill Nighy (as world-builder Slartibartfast) and John Malkovich (as a cult leader written by Adams specifically for the movie). Still, my favorite performances in the film are by the non-humanoid characters. Warwick Davis provides movement and the magnificent Alan Rickman does the voice for chronically depressed robot, Marvin. There are large numbers of wonderfully creepy Vogons created by the puppetmasters at Jim Henson's Creature Shop. Lumpy, greenish and very tall, they are supposedly based on old portraits of magistrates, but they look more like an extreme version of Charles Laughton's Hunchback of Notre Dame to me. Whatever they resemble, they are a suitably disgusting manifestation of the total bureaucrat.

And then there is the guide itself. Although there is normally nothing more annoying than repeated voiceover narration in a film, such is not the case with the animated entries from the cosmic travel compendium that are interspersed throughout the movie. In combination with the cultured voice of actor Stephen Fry, these bits add greatly to the bizarre charm of the movie and do an excellent job of capturing the tone and content of Mr. Adams's writing voice, making him a vital presence in the film.

And what can you say about the plot of Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy? Surely you know it. Hapless hero is about to get his house unjustly demolished, but it doesn't matter because, as his alien pub-mate tells him, the planet as a whole is scheduled for demolition. Hitching a ride on one of the wrecker spaceships, the two have a series of mishaps and adventures with new and old friends before finding out that the "mostly harmless" planet of Earth had actually been one large computer meant to help propose the proper questions to match the answer to the great Question of Life, the Universe, and Everything. (The answer being forty-two.)

As befits a story that originated as a sketch comedy radio series, Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy is short on cohesiveness as a fully integrated plotline. It is a succession of sketches and bits strung together. Undoubtedly, one could argue that this structure (or lack thereof) perfectly reflects the capricious chaos of a cryptic universe. Yeah, but how do you make a movie out of that?

Adams himself struggled with that one. And after his death, that Herculean task was assigned to screenwriter Karey Kirkpatrick (who wrote one of my faves, Chicken Run). Kirkpatrick was handed Adams's rough script, and given access to his personal computer to cull the author's other ideas. Then, the scripter had to try to superimpose a tad more structure onto the tale without wrecking the daft energy of Adams's work.

All in all, I think he succeeded. The story does bog down somewhat in the center. And the finer philosophical details might whiz by too quickly for those viewers who know nothing of Adams and his work. And then there is the pumped up love story angle. This is one device that might stick in the craw of those purists alluded to earlier.

Yes, I know that if you look at the total Adams oeuvre, Trillian does not turn out to be Arthur's "One." But Adams himself seems to set up the love triangle between Arthur, Zaphod, and Trillian—before completely losing interest in it. So, it is perfectly logical that Kirkpatrick would use this particular subplot to tighten up his narrative structure.

There was, however, only so much tightening that could be done with a story that boings from here to there in the universe at will. And there was only so much director Jennings and his design teams could do to physically represent the wonders and weirdness of Adams's fractured universe. I liked the fact that the filmmakers didn't fall into action movie clichés. Nor did they try to rely too heavy on CGI. The somewhat cheesy FX—like Zaphod's pop-back second head—and quite retro set-piece orientation of the movie allowed the action to stay focused on the movie's colorful (and then some) characters. And playful touches like the opening musical extravaganza of a "So Long, and Thanks for All the Fish" song choreographed with dolphin footage set the right tone for an enjoyable, if totally frivolous, movie-going experience.

All in all, I was quite pleased with the not-too-Hollywood movie version of Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. Adams (fully deified in closing space scene) might have been, too. Adams zealots might be a bit disappointed, but maybe they will be happy that the movie was, at least, finally made.

Surely this film will further the quasi-religion of Douglas Adams as a cultural guru and sf icon. And although I have never been a worshipper, I must admit that I agree with Nick Webb, Mr. Adams's friend and official biographer. In his recent book, Wish You Were Here, Webb observes that "once you become sensitized to forty-two, you see it everywhere."

Case in point, when I was coming home after seeing Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, I was riding on a subway car that was (as per usual) littered with copy after copy of Boston's free daily newspaper, Metro. There, on every cover strewn throughout the car was a large color photograph of former president Bill Clinton staring down at a Celtics jersey presented to him at a fundraising dinner in Boston the night before. And in giant numerals on the jersey was the number 42.

Spooky!

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