The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy (2005) 109m
They pulled it off. It took twenty years of frustration for author Douglas Adams to bring his cult radio series/novel to the screen - so long, in fact, that he died before ever seeing it complete - but if it was this gestation period that was responsible for the finished product, then the wait was well founded. It had, of course, already been served up as a British television series (which Adams didn't like at all) but the tatty production values and effects were woefully incapable of presenting the wild conceits of the story, leaving fans of the book/radio show to fall back on their own imaginations instead. After all, how could anyone capture Adams' wild flights of fancy on film?
In any given paradigm, the world always seems to be divided into two types of people. In the case of HITCHHIKER, the world (the universe, and everything) is divided into fans of Douglas Adams, and those who have never read anything by the man. As far as movie marketing is concerned, this can be a tough or easy sell, depending on which half of the glass you prefer to look at: it's a risk to turn a quirky property into a mainstream blockbuster, but on the other hand it has a ready-made cult audience. Do you cater for fans or novices? Is it better to adapt a purely visual rendering of the source material, or to modify the story in ways more suitable for film narrative? In the case of the former, the film may adhere so doggedly to the original text that it becomes nothing more than a 'visual novel' (one criticism of the early HARRY POTTER films), in the case of the latter, devotees of the original will complain about liberties taken and how the movie 'ruined the book'.
There's no pat answer, but HITCHHIKER is able to circumvent this dilemma by two means. Firstly, the evolution of Adam's story through radio, print, interactive fiction and television has given him the opportunity to add or drop scenes within the framework of the plot, eliminating any preconception of a definitive text. Secondly, and more broadly, there is the matter of tone. The film version of HITCHHIKER succeeds in capturing the spirit, energy, and all-around general feeling of Adams' work, an achievement not so much of the writing (which follows all previous incarnations faithfully) as it is the acting and directing. It is an example of a case of the right people coming together so noticeably that you wonder how often such things can occur at all.
The Guide of the title is a travel book for intergalactic backpacking (its real but more Earthbound counterparts became all the rage after Adams' book hit the shelves), discovered by underachiever Arthur Dent (Martin Freeman, who wears his bathrobe as if he were born to it) when his friend Ford Prefect (Mos Def) declares himself to be an extraterrestrial and whisks them both off the planet seconds before it is destroyed. It follows suit that he will meet many outrageous personalities and be catapulted into a series of misadventures, and the pleasure of first-time viewers will be to see what imaginative and amusing turn the story will take next. The film is so laden with special effects that they're pretty much taken for granted, but when we're shown something new - e.g. the ride across the factory floor of a planet manufacturer - we sit up and take notice. Equally commendable is that first-time director Garth Jennings knows when to pull back - when the script calls for pan-dimensional beings to assume the guise of white mice, they're not conjured up with CGI, but are represented by a couple of real mice with discreet digital enhancement around their mouths. Why? Because it's funnier that way, and Jennings and his cast know that their film is a comedy first and a science-fiction FX movie second.
It's a great pity that Adams wasn't able to see his story finally served up on the screen. I'm dubious about the happily-sewn-up ending, which I suspect was a safety measure in the event that the box-office returns didn't guarantee a film of the book's sequel 'The Restaurant at the End of the Universe', but I'm sure the ecologically-spiritual Adams would have approved of the triumphant final scenes of life evolving and flourishing on Earth. Watch for an effectively ephemeral tribute flash on screen before the end credit 'For Douglas', one of many asides, references, Easter eggs and in-jokes scattered throughout the movie - so many, in fact, that it wouldn't surprise me if a Guide to the GUIDE didn't exist somewhere in the multiverse. Sounds suitably Adamsian to me.
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