Oh No, Not Again

Not the least of the problems facing any film adaptation of the Hitch-Hiker’s Guide (I prefer it with the hyphen, so there) is this, and it’s a big one: Adams’s structural skill was something very Pythonesque, or maybe Carrollian; it was for elaborate, precise, whimsical play with words and ideas, and not, very very much not, for plot. Since film necessarily prefers plot, the room it occupies squishing everything else up, or out, the significant task with Adams’s work is to introduce enough larger-scale plot that everything holds together and seems of a piece, whilst not squishing the smaller-scale precision into a nothingness. Though the film doesn’t always succeed, it does enough — and, importantly, it does enough at the beginning and the end, where it’s felt most keenly. It’s easy to get into a balance-sheet stocktaking of an adaptation such as this one, the good stuff on one side, the bad on the other, then to apply a cold actuarial eye. Bah to that. Frankly, I had a great time, and I want to see it again.

Let me get this out of the way, then. The last line of the foreword of the HHGTTG book is:

It begins with a house.

The last line of the analogous foreword of the film is, instead:

It begins with a man.

That’s a slightly baffling bit of quibbling, but it’s also a basic structural mistake. Beginning with a house emphasises the elegant congruence, somewhat underplayed in the film, between the demolition of Arthur’s house and the demolition of the Earth, for similarly pointless and bureaucratic reasons. It’s also a neat linguistic harmonic to the visual pulling of focus from the universal to the personal which has become a filmic grammar standby. It’s also — and this is most important — a signpost of the best bit of structural design that’s new to the film. Not only does the film begin with Arthur’s house; it also ends with it. This is exactly right for many reasons. Arthur having ventured down the rabbit-hole for most of the film, suddenly all of the other protagonists are dragged down his: Zaphod is baffled by his tiny caravan; the vogons are thwarted by a garden gate. The mundanity of Earth is given a new, rather wonderful life, all of which is kicked up to eleven by the fact that we know this Earth (like the last) was constructed. Paradoxically it seems to make it all the more precious. And Arthur, having returned to the potential of home, if not home itself, can see that he’s outgrown it, that there’s more out there. The film begins with the house, and ends with it.

The film does indeed have an extremely saggy middle, during which the ramshackle plot obliterates any particular rhythm. The restructuring and complication of the steps from Arthur and Ford’s rescue by the Heart of Gold, through to their arrival at Magrathea, are breathlessly messy. Too much plot, too many ideas not quite given enough time to work. The Deep Thought back-story, the Answer, the Question, and the Earth’s role in all of that, are terribly unfocused. The rescue of Trillian from Vogon bureaucracy is a characteristically Adams theme, but it’s not given time to breathe. This is not a particularly short film, yet often it does seem too rushed. The introduced Humma Kavula character is a pointless diversion. (It’s pretty dumb to be too hard on a film for having too many ideas. I haven’t missed that that was the point of the shovel minefield on Vogsphere.)

But things recover quite triumphantly once we do finally hit Magrathea. Playing with the Earth’s purpose and history (the cause of most comparisons between Adams and Kurt Vonnegut, I guess) was always Adams at his best. The sequence in which Bill Nighy as Slartibartfast gives Arthur a swooping tour of the reconstructed Earth is funny, happy, and oddly moving. It reminded me of the bravura beacon-lighting sequence in Return of the King. No matter that the Earth is a construction, and no matter that it was constructed for greedy, shallow (albeit pan-dimensional) mice, it’s still home.

Casting turned out phenomenally well, on the whole. Zooey Deschanel was never going to have much to play with, but those big round eyes make the thinnest of romantic sub-plots just about believable. I didn’t particularly mind the boy-finds-girl-again conceit. It’s entirely consistent with Arthur’s romance with Fenchurch in So Long and Thanks for All the Fish, so I poke in the eye anyone who says it doesn’t fit. Simon Jones was always more Douglas, but Martin Freeman does the job admirably. I was always a big fan of David Dixon as Ford, but give Mos Def another film and he’d be right too — the idea of a black American rapper being mistaken for someone from Guildford is actually a pretty good gag. My only gripe is with Alan Rickman as Marvin, who just didn’t work for me. Maybe the slight Black Country twang. Marvin should be comically over-depressed, rather than just darkly cynical. Marvin is Eeyore, wanting affection but driving people away. If Stephen Moore would have taken the job and they didn’t offer it to him, then that’s the only big-name casting fuck-up.

I’d anticipated this film as an interesting exercise in demonstrating its unfilmability. People would watch it, remember Adams, be driven back to the books and the radio series, and that’d be that. Minus several million for good thinking, yeah? There’s plenty of room for sequels here, particularly since this one seems to be making some money. I’d love to see the darkness at the end of Restaurant at the End of the Universe played really dark. I’d love to see the scene in So Long and Thanks for All the Fish where Fenchurch shows Arthur she can fly, which is one of my very favourite bits of writing. Oh, and more catchy show tunes sung by dolphins, please.

Finally, I promised myself I wouldn’t gripe because My Favourite Bit Was Left Out, but, what the hell:

“You know,” said Arthur, “it’s at times like this, when I’m trapped in a Vogon airlock with a man from Betelgeuse, and about to die of asphyxiation in deep space, that I really wish I’d listened to what my mother told me when I was young.”
“Why, what did she tell you?”
“I don’t know, I didn’t listen.”

That’s every bit as good as Carroll’s tortoise gag. So: Gripe.


  • I’ve been saving up this entry for when I’ve watched the film, and technically I shouldn’t have read it. Because it’s turned out to be the first film I’ve ever walked out of because it was so boring. (Brain the size of a planet – and I’m spending my Saturday afternoon watching THIS?)

    Looking for the radio show now, to wash all the bad taste out.

  • Vic: I’m not too surprised that you didn’t like it, but I am surprised that you didn’t stay. I can’t believe you’ve not seen lots of films that you found more boring. Whatever flaws this has, I’d not imagined that boringness was one of them.

    I do think you might have cheered up a bit by the end. The middle is very messy, and the film does get a bit lost for a while. But even while it’s getting lost, there’s lots going on. That’s actually characteristically Adams. I don’t have any patience with anyone who doesn’t like the film because they think it was somehow perverted from how Adams wanted it to be; it’s really his film, and what doesn’t work about it are the things he was always crap at.

    Maybe there was some sort of gap between what you expected the film to be like (other than ‘not boring’) and how it was? I know that lots of fans don’t like it because they know the material so well, so any deviations seem like a sort of violence.

    Anyhow. You could do worse than go here for the (original) radio series. Isn’t the BBC also rerunning the TV version? Adams was very grouchy about it, but I always thought it had tons of charm.

    (PS. Is it the first film you’ve walked out of because it was boring? Or was it because it was boring that it’s the first film you’ve walked out of?)

  • It was the first film I’ve walked out of, ever. I’ve seen worse, of course, but not in the cinema; turning the TV off, I don’t feel cheated out of a treat. The act of going to the cinema has always been a treat, though; I don’t really go unless I feel the film really needs to be seen on a big screen.

    The scenes that did me in were the ones in the middle, which you picked up as being a mess. When I caught myself not caring one bit what would be happening in the next shot, I decided it was time to go.

    Oh, yeah: Trillian annoyed me, because she was incoherent. She spoke as though her mouth was full of porridge all the time. When she got kidnapped, I thought – oooh, if I go now, I can pretend they never get her back. 🙂

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