A faithful tour guide
Film version of famous sci-fi trilogy as faithful to the source as it is fun
It is perfect synchronicity for HGTTG to make it to the screen—finally—within a couple of weeks of a certain other sci-fi series coming to a conclusion.
With the box office success of the first Stars Wars way back in 1977, the BBC approached British writer Douglas Adams to pen a radio show with a sci-fi theme. That show, a modest success, was followed by an LP, more radio shows, a Beeb TV series and five novelizations of what came to be known as the increasingly misnamed Hitchhiker’s Trilogy.
This was considered a cult phenomenon, and Hollywood came a courtin'. On his death in 2001 at age 49, Adams left behind an unfinished screenplay (meaning it needed to be trimmed down from 200 to 120 pages).
Screenwriter Karey Kirkpatrick (Chicken Run) and director Garth Jennings have succeeded with a well-crafted adaptation of that script that remains true to the first of the five novels with remarkable fidelity. Equally impressive is that the film remains tonally true to the prose of Adam’s writing, not just his dialogue.
For the uninitiated: Milquetoast Brit Arthur Dent (Martin Freeman) is having a bad day. The local council has dropped by unannounced to level his house in order to make way for a bypass, and best friend Ford Prefect (Mos Def) has come out of the closet to announce that he is fact an alien from a system near Betelgeuse—and that another bug-ugly race of aliens known as the Vogons are arriving in 10 minutes to demolish Earth to make way for an intergalactic bypass. The duo hitches a ride on the Vogon vessel, as the planet explodes into vapor behind them.
In short order they find themselves ejected into space, only to be immediately picked up by another vessel known as the Heart of Gold. The ship is captained by the president of the galaxy, Zaphod Beeblebrox (Sam Rockwell, chewing the scenery as a manic incarnation of another president), and crewed by Earth expat Trillion (Zooey Deschanel) and Marvin the Paranoid Android (voiced to perfection by Alan Rickman).
The spaceship itself is fueled by a device known as the Improbability Drive, explaining (sort of) the pair’s fortuitous rescue, although when the drive is engaged very peculiar things happen to the occupants (and whatever else happens to be nearby). The guide in their quest to find the question of Life, the Universe, and Everything (they already have the answer: 42) is the eponymous Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, an intergalactic Frommer’s that has the reassuring words “Don’t Panic!” emblazoned on the cover. The guide is also a useful resource for the audience, providing convenient animated definitions and backstory when needed.
To synopsize the proceedings in such a short space would be nigh impossible; the film isn’t so much a linear narrative as a series of scenarios held together by the premise. One’s appreciation of same would rest on his or her appreciation of British humor, which points to the film’s underlying weakness: Those who dig this sort of thing have most likely already read the books—probably more than once—lending an overly familiar feel to the effort. Fortunately, numerous new details are added to the mix (a horde of Vogon warriors being foiled by a small picket fence and a towel is a crack-up).
Of course, the faithful may take umbrage that certain favorite vignettes have been omitted, but the ones cherry-picked for the film condense into a remarkably faithful realization of the comedic voice of Douglas Adams. (And a note: Don’t exit when the credits begin to roll.)