From Book to Screen: The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy
Dear fans of Douglas Adams’ Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy: this is a disclaimer. I am not, as the kids say these days, an O.G. Hitchhiker fan. I know the faction is strong, and in a small way, I think I would count myself among your number. I have indeed read the entirety of the five-book trilogy, albeit almost a decade ago. To be honest, it was the movie that inspired me to look into the books because I enjoyed it so much and wanted to learn more. In this sense I believe that the 2005 film adaptation starring Martin Freeman, Mos Def (now Yasiin Bey), Sam Rockwell and Zooey Deschanel did a wonderful service to the series, and in particular, the first, original book. I believe the film captures the tone and spirit of the book as I remember it – a humorous, satirical look at space and space travel that doesn’t forget the wonder and awe of seeing the stars. So even though most fans might tell me I did it in the wrong order, I think the important thing to remember is that the series no less affected me.
Ask any James Bond fan who their favorite actor to fill the spy shoes is, and, for the most part, you’ll probably get Sean Connery. I personally believe, along with many others, that the first person you see in the role is your favorite. Holding to that way of thinking, I think Martin Freeman did a fabulous job of bringing Arthur Dent to life on the screen. He brings a self-conscious nervousness that still allows the wonder of a man witnessing things he’s never even imagined to shine through. He is incredibly likeable and believable, and through his perspective, the audience shares his sense of amazement throughout the film. After I originally saw the movie, I, of course, rented and watched the miniseries starring Simon Jones as Arthur Dent, but much as Roger Moore didn’t do anything for me as James Bond, neither did Simon Jones – he’s just not my Arthur Dent.
Other performances in the film are equally entertaining. I loved Sam Rockwell’s manic energy as Zaphod Beeblebrox and Mos Def as the easy-going Ford Prefect. And, of course, I can’t go without mentioning Alan Rickman as the voice of the depressed Marvin.
As far as the story goes, it needs mentioning that I am aware that the film’s plot is not a literal translation of the novel. I am also aware that it was not intended as such. Douglas Adams himself worked through the story himself, as it was in development for over a decade before it was actually made. That being said, I think it’s important to focus on the spirit of the remake as opposed to the content of the remake. Throughout the film, the plot actually hovers pretty closely to the source material without relying too heavily on it. For example, near the beginning of the film, Arthur is arguing with a construction manager over the demolition of his home. In the novel, this construction manager is plagued with images of pillaging and violence throughout his entire life – unknown to him, he is a distant descendant of Genghis Khan. In the film, this explanation is excised, but as the camera shows the man’s face, the sounds of war can be faintly heard in the background. There are many other examples of small changes that appear throughout the film, but its basic plot remains. After the film’s release I heard several people admonish the director Garth Jennings for not creating a more accurate and true-to-the-book film, but to me, the fact the Douglas Adams had his hand in, and ultimately gave his approval for, the film’s story tells me that it is as close to the book as we’re going to get. In Douglas Adams We Trust.
More than the plot, the spirit that pervades the film is what I choose to focus on. Forget the small changes to the story. Whenever I compare a film to the book (*ahem* that I read), I always question whether the tone and spirit of the book were translated to the film. This can go both ways – whereas I greatly enjoyed George Roy Hill’s take on Kurt Vonnegut’s (life-changing) Slaughterhouse-Five, I was somewhat underwhelmed by Zack Snyder’s Watchmen. Both examples above have elements that are difficult to portray on film. It’s kind of hard to explain away an enormous squid manifesting from nothing or juxtapose Tales of the Black Freighter throughout a film without the film suffering somehow, and likewise it’s hard to translate Vonnegut’s constant use of the phrase “So it goes.” into a film. However, where The Watchmen chooses to focus more on the action as opposed to the more important issues of the source material, Slaughterhouse-Five creates an atmosphere that serves as an elegy, almost as if the movie itself is repeating “So it goes.”
In Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, the tone of the film doesn’t suffer very much in its translation from the book. What always impressed me about the book, and for that matter the entire series, was that it explained amazing coincidences and the wonders of traveling through space as though it was just a normal part of life. Take, for example, the scene on the Vogon ship where Arthur and Ford are about to be jettisoned into space to die. In the last few seconds, Ford calmly explains that they’re going to die. Ford then sees some sort of gadget on the wall and quickly runs over to it to examine the object, hoping that it will save them. Upon examining the object, Ford sees it will be no help, and his hopes are immediately dashed. He responds by shrugging “Yep, we’re gonna die.” Another favorite element of mine is that, just as in the book, the Earth is destroyed within the first third of the movie. Something that would be a threat for the entire movie in other films happened so casually so early in this film. These two examples, and countless others, seem to portray the book’s guiding principle: Don’t Panic.
Despite the film’s relatively lackluster performance, the HHGTTG fanbase is strong. They may quibble over whether it’s the best version of the book that it could have been, but I think most will agree that it is probably the best version that we are likely to ever get. The performances are absolutely top-notch and the spirit of the movie combined with its interpretation of the source material make this a must-see for fans of the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy series and even for fans of sci-fi looking for something a little different. Whatever you do, however, don’t forget your towel.
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