Just a Film

Almost the first thing I wrote on this blog, almost a year ago, was a small piece about the beginning of filming of the Hitch-Hiker’s Guide.

Almost a year later, spare a thought for the film itself, because it’s become the locus of so much baggage and anger that it’s no longer just a film. Haven’t seen it yet, so a review will have to wait until next week, but whether it’s any good or not is really quite irrelevant.

It is, in a perverse kind of way, entirely Adams’s fault. If he’d not relentlessly pursued the Guide through every medium he could conceive of, culminating in the cooking-steak-by-breathing-on-it extended development hell of the film, then his life, legacy and memory would have been diffused across a larger, more varied body of work. That his body of work is actually larger and more varied than most people realise isn’t the point. What they know is the Guide.

As usual, we keep on making the mistake (and maybe Adams did this too) of seeing film as somehow a medium for the ages, for posterity, in a way that radio, television or (god help us if this is true even in some cases) books aren’t. Coupled with the knowledge that Adams had been chasing the film for so long, and the slightly nauseating notion that the chase contributed to the depression and stress which killed him, this spectacularly unhelpfully gives the film an iconic status, a representational symbolism of Adams’s life, work, and death.

If the film is bad, and to the extent that it’s perceived to be bad, it’s capable of evoking anger that Adams’s work hasn’t been faithfully reproduced. Never mind that the Guide is quite uncinematic as a piece of writing — Adams was a writer of very precise linguistic dalliance, not sweeping imagery, which is why it works so well on radio and in print. Never mind that the film’s screenplay is (I believe) almost entirely Adams, with some jiggery-pokery from Karey Kirkpatrick to get the pieces in place. Never mind those things, because if it’s perceived not to work, then the film becomes the location of anger that he’s not around any more, that so much of his life and death went to feeding this thing that’s perceived, finally, to not be worthy.

If the film is good, and to the extent that it’s perceived to be good, it’s also capable of evoking anger that Adams is gone: anger that he didn’t get to see it made; anger that he died so young. And perhaps also some anger that, good as it might be, it wasn’t worth the cost of creating yet another remix of essentially the same stuff.

Something else, too. Michael Bywater’s piece for the Independent (damn its subscription service already) is filled with a controlled but seething rage that Adams is gone, and that the man he knew has essentially been supplanted in the public consciousness by the writer of the Guide:

I was never a close personal friend of Douglas Adams, author of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, techno-guru, would-be über-geek, visionary, educator of the masses still sunk in the Dark Age of Faith and Superstition… none of those. I was never a close personal friend of that man.

It was another one, of the same name: a big lumbering chap, who had too many guitars, none of which he could play, and a vast array of synthesisers and keyboards on which he produced, after a year’s effort, three minutes of the sort of music you’d expect to hear in an affable lift.

A man who liked fast cars, though he wasn’t a very good driver, and enjoyed food, though it once took him two days to cook a ratatouille, following three recipes simultaneously. A man — and this is rare, and probably why we got along — not of ambition (alarmingly free of it, actually), but of enthusiasm.

That’s the Douglas Adams I knew, and knowing him was important to me, but I’m damned if it was important about me, and if I thought that, on my gravestone, it was going to say: “Here lies Michael Bywater; he knew Douglas Adams, you know” I would top myself now, on a blazing pyre of the publicity material that still issues from the poor dead bastard’s literary estate, and those who are still making a more or less (more in some cases, very much less in others) honest bob out of his efforts.

The supplanting happened many years ago, of course, but Adams’s absence now makes it complete and irreversible, and it seems that that’s the source of Bywater’s understandable rage, particularly now that the film — whether good, bad, or a pile of foetid dingo’s kidneys — has finally ‘lensed’, as particularly fuckwitty Hollywood types might say.

The film seems to be something of a genuine end to, well, to something, though that something might be different for different people. I’m not sure if Bywater actually means what he says here, but the message is completely sincere:

But this I do know: this is the last I, for one, will write, either about Douglas Adams or about his work. Film, schmilm. He was my friend. He’s dead. I’m not. I miss him. The end.

What brought Adams biographer MJ Simpson to a similar point might have been quite different, but the film once again serves as the focus of turmoil, and his words echo Bywater’s from across the canyon between friend and fan:

I may occasionally lurk on Hitchhiker’s Guide-related sites or forums if I’m bored, but as of now I will never write another word, in print or on-line, about Douglas Adams or The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.

Such emotion about a film that’s constructed from material which is characteristically light on emotion? (Bywater nails it: ‘Which, of course, there wasn’t in the original radio series, the television series, or the books. What there was, was intellectual depth.’) It’s not about the film, of course. It’s about Adams, and how much he’s still missed. The film has been unfinished business, perhaps, before the completion of which there couldn’t for some be an end (or a beginning) to processing the shock of his early death.

So, when I see the film next week, I’m going to try to remember that it’s just a film, and it doesn’t need to carry the weight of a whole life, whether because it’s a crystalline celebration of that life, or a reminder of its messy, unfulfilled end. Just a film.

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