NOW PLAYING: The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy

Posted: Monday, May 02, 2005

"The best laid plans of mice," mutters Slartibartfast, knowingly.

"...and men, " adds Arthur, helpfully.


"...and men. The best laid plans of mice and men. That's how the saying goes."

"Oh, men," chuckled Slartibartfast. "I don't imagine they had anything to do with it..."

If only.

The movie review that you are currently reading goes out across the Peninsula to a wide and diverse audience, the members of which can be divided into one of two groups: those who know that the mice in question (see pithy conversation above) are actually hyper-intelligent pan-dimensional beings on the verge of the greatest philosophical revelation of all time, and those who don't. Those who don't probably think, like poor Arthur, that the above quotation is in reference to a John Steinbeck novel about the futility of man's meticulous schemes and machinations compared to the overwhelming power of nature and the whims of God, and not about pan-dimensional beings at all, which is just silly. On the other hand, the Steinbeck quote is a perfect metaphor for the terrific mess that is the film version of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, much to the chagrin of all of us who were in the know as regarding the true nature of mice (and men).

I really wanted this movie to be good. I don't think I knew exactly how much I wanted that, until, under a cloud of depression, I exited the theater with my equally dejected wife this weekend. The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy is, without a doubt, one of my favorite books of all time, and kicks off the very best, bar none, five-book trilogy in the history of publishing. It is dry and witty, zany and out of control, philosophical and contemplative, and very, very British. This film version, the film version that fans have been requesting for the better part of two decades, captures much of the content, but almost none of the spirit of that fantastic original novel.

As a story, the Guide would have been a daunting one to tackle. The Earth is destroyed in the first few pages, and things just get crazier from there. There's a two-headed President of the Galaxy, aliens that kill by reading poetry, a spaceship that runs on the power of advanced statistics, and the aforementioned hyper-intelligent pan-dimensional mice people. As a film, the creative team make a concerted effort to get the story right. We follow our hero, the dazed, slightly bland Brit Arthur, as he narrowly escapes the destruction of Earth with his friend Ford, a traveling correspondent for the ultimate travel guide, The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. From there he takes a ride on the stolen starship Heart of Gold where we meet Zaphod Beeblebrox, President of the Galaxy and grand larsonist, and his consort, Trillian, a girl from Earth who, coincidentally, had rejected Arthur some weeks earlier. And then they all go on grand adventures, and it's bright and colorful and looks great, and is utterly empty. The heart of the novel, its philosophical contemplation, its narrative rambling on the nature of life, the universe, and everything, is simply gone, leaving in its place a braying and gratingly silly rush from one wacky situation to the next, until, by the end, the audience is left numbly wondering what the hell they just sat through.

Maybe, despite the colorful characters and beautifully imagined landscapes of the novel, my wife is right, and some books just shouldn't be adapted for the screen. To be honest, the story, situationally, is secondary to the narrative. That is to say, the adventures of Arthur and friends is less a stand alone entity than a vehicle to allow the Guide to ruminate philosophically on the nature of the universe. Without the philosophy, without the rumination, the literally portrayed antics of the characters seem idiotic and random. The parts of the movie that work, aside from the destruction of Earth which, though a little rushed, is handled well, are the bits where the Guide is actually speaking directly to the audience. These are funny and well animated in a stylish, instruction-manual style, and do capture the heart and soul of the book. But these probably comprise half of the text of the novel, and a mere fifteen minutes or so of screen-time; not nearly enough to pull the film out of its nosedive. I left the theater feeling thoroughly depressed and, though I won't give this film my worst grade ever, I am recommending that people avoid it, especially if you haven't read the book. To miss out on the joyous experience of the novel because of the bad taste left by a misguided and deeply flawed film adaptation would be a crime to make the destruction of Earth look like peanuts. Grade: D+

The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy is rated PG for zany sci-fi action.

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