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May, 2005 : Essay:

Novel Approach

How Douglas Adams Got Defanged by Hollywood

Adapting novels for film is never an easy job, and itís made doubly difficult when the novel in question—say, Douglas Adamsí The Hitchhikerís Guide to the Galaxy—gets its juice as much from the authorís unique voice and deliberately nonconformist style as it does from plot and character. The elan of the prose and how it takes shape on the page are simply not aspects of a novel that can be transferred to a visual medium, unless one trains a camera on someone reading the book, which would hardly make for a cinematic experience.

There are a great number of things wrong with the new Hollywood adaptation of The Hitchhikerís Guide to the Galaxy, and they all stem from the script. (The FX are fine, for instance, and some are even breathtaking; an excellent little Monty Python-style showtune sung by dolphins opens the film; and the cast is extraordinary, but without a hardy blueprint, they can do little more than flail about helplessly, which is indeed what they do.) Adams famously likened the process by which a Hollywood movie gets to the screen as "trying to grill a steak by having a succession of people come into the room and breathe on it,"1 and though he eventually relented and got close to finishing a script (quite an achievement for a man who considered deadlines amusing suggestions) upon which screenwriter Karey Kirkpatrick expanded, itís hard to imagine that what ended up on the screen would have pleased the author.

Adamsís satire has been severely truncated by the film, not because many of the Guide entries that were the meat of Adamsís askance view of the world didnít make it into the film, but because the uniquely Adams-y elements that did make it are so weirdly mangled that they will make no sense whatsoever to those not already familiar with Adamsís novel. And what is on the screen is presented with little appreciation for Adamsís eccentric way of telling a story.

Two very specific examples can serve as a metaphor for the failure of the script as a whole. The first is tied up in either a deep misunderstanding of how Adamsís played with cause and effect in his fiction, or in an unwillingness to be adventurous enough before a mainstream American audience to risk them failing to understand that preposterousness in the plotline was deliberate. I speak, of course, of the Infinite Improbability Drive, which, in the film, serves as little more than the visual equivalent a one-liner, allowing the starship Heart of Gold to morph into a flower or Douglas Adamsís own head as it slams into normal space before stabilizing as a starship. In the novel, the very nature of the Infinite Improbability Drive turns it into a sendup of the often tortured plot machinations bad writers resort to in order to get their characters where they need to be in order for the stuff the author needs to happen to them can happen. The Infinite Improbabilty Drive became a way for Adams to dispense with the literary equivalent of ďall that tedious mucking about hyperspaceĒ and cut right to the chase: Have Arthur plug a random and otherwise useless phone number into the Heart of Goldís computer, and wham! Adamsís characters are precisely where he needs them to be for his next bit of fabulous fluffery.

But not here. The Infinite Improbabilty Drive can be seen in many other metaphoric ways as well, of course, as, for instance, a meditation on the underlying weirdness and logic of the universe. That attitude is embodied in not only the fundamental interconnectedness of the triangular relationship between Arthur, Zaphod, and Trillian, but in how Adams lets the audience discover that relationship. In the novel, you may recall, tidbits of it are slipped in gradually in a way that does not indicate they will be connected until the very moment that Arthur, the last man from planet Earth, immediately after being introduced to ex-Galactic President Zaphod Beeblebrox from Betelgeuse V, snaps, ďWeíve met.Ē Not only is that hilariously absurd, but itís an indication of how Adamsís universe is going to constantly knock the breath out of you and the feet from under you with its sense and nonsense.

Yes, in the film, Arthur and Ford are rescued by the Heart of Gold at an Improbability equal to that of the phone number of the Islington flat at which Arthur met Tricia McMillan only to see her wooed away by Zaphod ďPhilĒ Beeblebrox. But the bizarre connectedness of the lives and fortunes of all three of them is lost because the ďjokeĒ in the film about Arthurís would-be new girlfriend going off with an alien has long been deployed and dismissed—that is, in fact, the totality of the joke. When the punchline to what is perhaps the central bit of metaphysical humor is revealed in the very beginning of the film, all reason for the joke to be told in the first place is gone. In this instance (and in many others in the film) the Adams-y pieces may all be there, but the sense of how they fit together is gone—there is no cohesion in any of it.

This deflating of the Zaphod-Arthur-Trillian relationship is particularly inexplicable because the film unfortunately turns the triangle of interconnectedness into an actual romantic triangle. Removing Arthurís (and our) shock and indignation at the infinitely improbable coincidence of his meeting again Tricia and ďPhilĒ robs this triangle of energy it desperately needed if it were going to work for the story or characters. Which it does not do, perhaps needless to say.)

A simpler example of how the mere presence of particles of Adams does not add up to a cohesive whole concerns two of what are probably his most beloved tropes: towels, and the Ravenous Bugblatter Beast of Traal. Both are present in the film, and neither will mean anything to anyone who has not read Adamsís novel. The film Ford makes a big deal of presenting the film Arthur with a towel as they are about to embark upon their interstellar journeying, but the film Ford at no point endeavors to explain what the towel might be useful for; indeed, other characters at later points are seen with towels wrapped round their head as if theyíve just had a shampoo, but for no reason thatís obvious even if you have read Adams. The towel is mere flavor. And—as with the loss of Arthurís getting off on the wrong foot with Zaphod—it is especially inscrutable when the perfect moment for the introduction of at least one good reason to carry a towel galactically presents itself.

There comes—in the mostly pointless padding out that occurs in the middle of the film, where irrelevant new characters and situations are introduced, fail to be explored or exploited, and are immediately forgotten—a moment during which one of the principal characters is being deliberately dangled over a cage containing one particularly hungry Ravenous Bugblatter Beast of Traal. (In order to maintain some suspense for the reader who may not yet have seen the film, I will refrain from revealing who is threatened with being fed to the Beast. Devoted fans of Adams will at this point likely be suffering from an increasing level of stress to which I am loathe to add; and since it matters not one whit to my argument who may or may not become Ravenous Bugblatter Beast of Traal kibble, I feel comfortable withholding this information.) No details have been offered to the movieís audience about the special stupidity of the Beast—itís so dumb that it thinks that if you canít see it, it canít see you—but we readers all know that to rescue this person would involve merely throwing him or her a towel to wrap round his or her head. Instead, of course, a very convoluted Rube Goldberg plot thread is arrayed to effect the rescue (and without that bit of trivia about the Beast, it becomes merely another standard sci-fi BEM; the joke of the Beast is completely lost). Some attempt is made to give the scheme an Adams flavor, but it ends up, as does nearly every attempt to make this film feel like something Douglas Adams would have written, utterly misfiring.

If you keep a carefull watch, though, during this Rube Goldberg, not-Douglas Adams sequence, youíll spot the original Marvin the Paranoid Android, from the 1980s BBC miniseries. One can only wonder what kind of torture this must be for him.


1. [Back]

Copyright © 2005, MaryAnn Johanson. All Rights Reserved.

About MaryAnn Johanson

MaryAnn Johanson is one of the most popular and most respected film critics publishing online—Time magazine likes her "snarky, well-informed commentary [and] breezy style," and Variety calls her "one of online's finest" film critics. She keeps a weather eye on Hollywood at The Flick Filosopher.


May 2, 22:01 by Bluejack
What do you think of the new Hitchhiker's Guide?

For MaryAnn Johanson's take on it, here's a link to the article.
May 3, 10:18 by twosheds
I was on the Nebula chat line a few days ago, and no one had anything good to say about it. Is it really that disappointing, or do SFF people tend to be perfectionists? Think I'll see it this weekend.
May 3, 13:07 by Bluejack
Personally, I have heard good things about it, both from fans and the general public. I was skeptical looking at some of the promotional materials, but I'll see it and form my own opinion I guess. Of course, I'll be thinking about MaryAnn's perspective as I do so, now!
May 4, 08:01 by Joy Ralph
I'm also finding it curious, I've seen a number of positive mentions, and a number of more critical or negative reactions as well. Oddly I have yet to find much of a pattern underlying whether people care for it or not. Very interesting.

I know when I first read the book, I completely didn't get it - couldn't understand why my brother who loaned it to me thought it was so funny. I re-read it a few years later and almost hurt myself laughing. Maybe it has to catch you at the right moment.
May 6, 08:21 by John Clements
I didn't think the movie sucked, but it definitely had some problems, many of course fundamental. The book's strength was its language, and while the film was able to translate some of that in the book scenes, it was lost in some of the dialogue. The first-timer director was slack in his stagecraft, as many of the lines were delivered off-beat and thus came off weak. A Python as technical adviser might have prevented this. While a lot of the visual aspects were compelling, the story is a play with concepts through the vehicle of language. The world-building sphere in the book was a moment of true wonder, and while the film was nice, it was hurried.
Another aspect ignored (Disney has had enough problems with the christo-fascists) was Douglas' atheism.
It's been a while since I read the book, but I'm sure that not all the earthlings were returned to life. It felt like a cop-out in any case.
All stories (or the good ones) are a journey through a sequence of events that are somewhat improbable. Those stories which don't have a lot of these events are merely anecdotes of real life, and don't always make for good reading. If there are an infinite number of universes, then there are an infinite number of stories in which highly improbable events occur, at least from the viewpoint of a fixed universe. If there is only one universe, then there are probably a few stories in which highly improbable events occur. THGTTG is such a story.
May 6, 23:02 by Michael-Xavier Maelstrom
T.A.G in on a -- Time is an illusion, review-criteria time doubly-so -- Tangent.

I respect your/Mary-Ann Johanson's view, but much like Simpson's (one of Adams' biographers) ultimately I can't agree with what I see as an disproportionate-reaction based slagging of the film.

As a long-sitting Adams fan I do understand where it is sourced 'owever. I spent 5 days in self-analysis attempting to discern how this film effected me before commiting to a review of it.

Largely because the first 3 days were spent attempting to come to terms with my own apparently oxymoronic reaction, where I distinctly recall laughing out loud and otherwise enjoying the film, and yet was also, curiously, pissed-off at the film for offenses I felt it committed against Douglas Adams.

(If this all seems terribly epic, particularly for a review, please keep in mind I am one who grew up with Douglas Adams HHG, it is very important to my very psyche that I properly review this film)

(oh brother - Ed)

Go Away Ed.

When I realized (on day 3) this oxymoronic-distaste was un-fair to the movie as it was an emotional reaction based not on what was on screen, but rather on what wasn't, I then spent the last 2 days constantly re-contextualizing the movie that was on the screen.

und I come down 'ere:

My Review, for what it's worth.


I laughed my heads off.


At Zaphod.

Who I found excessively simultaneously gut-busting; megalomaniacal and froopy.

(TAG loving MEGALOMANIA, wot a surprise - Ed)

Yes, That however may be more of an personal taste than for example one (or at least this one - Ed) could comfortably claim as an universal absolute reaction to Zaphod.

I find that our Western audiences are (astoundingly - Ed) not as keen on megalomania.

For some odd reason.

(must have something to do with how badly the prole masses behave when faced with superior beings right TAG? -Ed)


(MU-AHA - Ed)

Go Away Ed.

All this to say, it is *possible* that Zaphod may aggravate more audience members than he gut-busts, which, I suspect, would seriously dampen the brightest extra-solar star of this variation on HHG, but imo, if you "get" (he means "like" -Ed) Zaphod (as politician rock star schizo hipster lounge lizard gameshow-host multiple-penis-sporting tight-shorts-wearing-so-you-can-check intellectually-suspect Megalomaniac) and more importantly aren't the sort to be turned-off by rampaging displays of megalomania (heathens - Ed) then I feel comfortable in saying you will lose your five dollar bucket of Mountain Dew out your proboscis ..every..bloody..single..time, Zaphod opens his mouths. :-D

I know I did, and often both during and more tellingly, once again, after ee'd made his latest appearance.

Comes back at you, (like a slightly odd-tasting lunch -Ed) ee does.

If there are to be followups, Zaphod (Sam Rockwell - Ed) is imo integral to the cohesion of a film series!

If 'owever over-the-top is not one's cup of brownian motion, then one ought love Alan Rickman as Marvin the manically-depressed paranoid robot. Who comes off far more wry and witty than manically-depressed, than we're used to having Marvin come off as, and yet it works extremely well.

Ford (Mos Def -Ed) is as non-commital and difficult to phase as we've come to expect, or would be if what we'd come to expect was about 4 times as unflappable as we'd previously encountered.

It's an interesting more laid-back comedic interpretation (of the alien that named himself after a car in order to blend in to human society -Ed) ergo he werks, but in a different way. I prefer the original (Dixon's -Ed) BBC portrayal, which I consider the quintessential Ford, but I don't 'ave any complaints over Mos Def's interpretation, he does feel like Ford, or a GPP version of Ford.

and when he finally does show some sort of sane emotion (beyond that of a shrug) in the form of a ... well, that would telling.. ee's not even on screen, you just hear him., and I lost it (again - Ed) for a solid 5 minutes of laughing, on Def's delivery.

Zooey Deschanel's Trillian and Martin Freeman's Arthur are also interesting, they don't seem to me, to work as well as Simon Jones and Sandra Dickinson do on their respective own, but _together_, they 'ave incredible symbiotic chemistry, and as this variation just so 'appens to center on a romance between Arthur and Trillian, it werks, and works well. Or rather isn't given the opportunity not to.

Lucky save that one, if you ask me.

Why? myself, I prefer Arthur depicted as both beseiged and with less confidence (and more average brains than he's ever credited for) and Trillian with more uber-brains (than her peroxided head, skimpy outfits, and ditzy voce' generate the impression of) but as I say, the new Arthur and Trillian have better sympatico chemistry _together_ and are far more believable _as a couple_ than ever the original BBC actors were.

(though they are not better, as individual character interpretations of Arthur and Trillian, if you see my meaning)

Stephen Fry I thought delivered the lines as well as someone copping Peter Jones original voce-del-book enunciation could reasonably be expected to do.

if I had a criticism here it'd be that maybe he's a bit too hurried or perhaps a bit too rehearsed. I'd slow down the pace and stick to the original verbiage, the content is more important than the enunciation pattern.

It felt a bit like he was (ordered to -Ed) Speed through the dialogue in order to maintain an artificial rythmic vocal pattern that matched the zany pace of the movie. Which in turn de-emphasizes the value of the words. It's a bit like speedreading Shakespeare, you _can_ do it, but it oughtn't be your first choice.

Bottom line, there's no one that can replace Peter Jones, but if there were Stephen Fry would be it. Just wish they'd take more time with it.

The Vogons were spectacular, I found them very Monty Python and specifically very very Terry Gilliam in design and demeanor. One of the few places in the film where you would absolutely not require knowledge of the original materia to get wot they're all about or what's going on.

Overall Criticisms?

You *might* otherwise require an IQ of 2000 to figure out what's going on if you haven't heard and seen the original BBC Radio and TV HHG series. There's very little exposition in the film, we jump from scene to scene, and you might require a Babel Fish upgraded to incorporate not simply language translation but laser-fast comprehension, as well, in order to 'ave much of an idea wot's going on.

I say, *might*.

I couldn't say for sure. I've seen the orignal HHGs, ergo, it's an postulate, for all I know what's going on is as obvious to those of us who have read and seen HHG as it is to those who 'aven't.

That is for others to decide.

If there was one point in space-time that really cements this film as a worthy Adams variant, it is the scene on Magrathea where Arthur and Slartibartfast are visiting you-know-wot Mark II. And not because the FX were spectacular, though they were.

But rather because, that scene struck me as a perfect visual representation of _precisely_ what it is that Douglas Adams (words) do to the readers mind.

Much like Adams' command of linguistics and its neurological effect on the mind of the reader, that scene blows your perspective wide open, you are no longer the ant being looked down upon, you are now the (ant - Ed) looking down upon your previous (ant -Ed) self.

It's pure expanded awareness, put to screen.

That moment is, imo, a picture perfect, visual metaphor for, and tribute to, Douglas Adams genius.

Anyway, imo, overall an enjoyable version of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, not without its flaws most of which very likely attributable to a first time Director's lack of experience in fine-tuning, but it seemed to me his heart was in the right place and he pulled it off, because while this film could easily have utterly failed to work on so many levels, it for lack of a better term "lucks out" at just the right moments, to make it a pleasing HHG entry.

A bit lighter than we're used to, I might classify it as a readers-digest version, but fun all the same and a great introduction to the HHG for a new generation.

und Zaphod, I don't much care if the electoral populi did mistakenly think they were voting for you as worst dressed alien sentient being (not so sure about the sentient part - Ed), *I'd* vote for you for Galactic President anyday.

Because, we all know we're gonna get screwed by whoever we vote for, so it may as well be by a bloke who really knows how to hit your G spot.

(with his 2 penises - Ed)


HHG The Movie: Recommended for slightly insane people with a good sense of humour.


Michael Xavier Maelstrom/The Avante Guardian/TAG (and Ed - Ed)
Montreal, Quebec, Canada, Earth, Sometimes.
May 7, 14:22 by Bluejack
Wow, thanks Michael.

I'm off to see the film this afternoon. I can't promise so thorough a response, but I'll post something after I've had time to digest.
May 10, 18:02 by Bluejack
Okay, well, I've seen it. I've digested it. Basic response? As with "TAG" -- I laughed.

I can fully sympathize with Johanson's criticisms, and if called upon could probably add or elaborate with some of my own, but the bottom line is, I did think it was pretty funny.

It certainly seems clear that the film was made with a lot of affection for the books and the prior performances. Some of the additions were distracting and unnecessary, which is probably my biggest complaint. ("Is she the One?" brought on a spasm of Matrixaphobia, and it was all I could do to remain seated.) They worked so hard to either get every good joke into the film, or at least a *reference* to every good joke, that the whole affair was a bit of a jumble. Worse, many of those very fine jokes were present-but-ineffective in ways that made me wish they had saved them for the sequel (see below). It seems like they could have gotten more mileage out of Adams' original work by simplifying the plot, avoiding unnecessary insertions, and spending more time getting the actual humor right.

One thing I don't agree with Johanson on: the infinite improbability drive. I thought they did a fine job with it, managing to send up the Tardis and it's ilk in a way I never "got" before, and I thought the visuals of transitioning through improbabilities were hilarious. The string-version in particular.

I am also surprised that people haven't focussed more in the performances. We know that TAG loved Zaphod, but what about Slartibartfast? Brilliant, in my opinion. Absolutely brilliant performance. What about the mice? Nice job, mice! What about the priest guy? Well, I forgot his name. In fact, I forget whether he had any substantive role in the books (I haven't read them in, oh, fifteen years or so) -- I recall references to the religion, but I don't remember any central plot presence. Nonetheless, I thought he did a bang-up job, even if his plot thread disappeared mysteriously. At least people responded well to Rickman-as-Marvin. One of my complaints was that Marvin was under-utilized, given his potential.

Which brings me to my biggest fear: sequels. I thought this was a pretty funny movie, and I enjoyed watching it. I thought the books had a pretty sharp drop off in humor value. What can we expect from an almost inevitable sequel other than an even sharper drop off?
May 14, 01:23 by dsd
May 14, 10:35 by Bluejack
What kind of crappy site is that?
May 16, 08:14 by Joy Ralph
I went to see this with a friend yesterday, finally. I'm glad I did; I enjoyed myself. I find myself seconding the criticisms that I see as being able to be summed up under "the Americanizing of the Story" - the erosion of some of the class-related jabs, the recasting of Arthur and Trillian's relationship as a central motivating point (because the stars forfend that we have a story where the two main protagonists, if male and female, don't end up together in a hollywood film). I did like the I know how to queue bit, and the background cameo there.

I think part of what may have softened me to the "liberties" taken with things is how much more the film reminded me of the radio plays and the television show than of the print books. Honestly, the differences I noticed as a youngster in version between the book and the radio play versions of HHGttG (and about which I remember feeling at first notibily incensed) were the first time I was aware that changes of those sorts could be made at the authors' behest. That awareness was also my first inkling of the differences in the type of story (and story perspective) best served by print vs. audio/visual media, and of the difficulties inherent in translating from one medium to another. Now that I think about it, it was a pretty formative set of events and realizations.

Now of course I want to go and re-read all the books, to pick-up on and refine my opinion of the changes.
May 18, 05:52 by Mark Armstrong
Hi All,

I went to see this last week with a friend and some of his friends that I don't know very well, all of whom were unfamiliar with the book, the TV series or the radio play.

Whilst they laughed at the physical humour in the movie, and at Marvins antics, I'm afraid they came away rather confused and bemused.

Personally I enjoyed the ride, especially the part with Slartibartfast which was brilliantly conceived, but could see where a lot of newcomers could lose the plot.

This is a fans movie, but I don't think you could make it any other way.

Mark A
May 19, 09:24 by James Pfundstein
I thought some things were well done in the movie, especially (contra MaryAnn Johanson, I'm afraid) the Infinite Improbability Drive. It was nice to see/hear Simon Jones, the original and One True Arthur Dent (as the answering machine of Magrathea). Stephen Fry was a nice choice for the narrator, and Alan Rickman voiced Marvin well.

But I agree that the pacing and delivery was badly off and many of the best lines fell flat. "Time is an illusion, lunch-time... doubly so!" never fails to make me laugh. Except when Mos Def tossed the line off, during his strangely bland performance. The Vogon poetry reading, too, which should have killed, was deadly dull (not quite the same thing).

I thought the movie's biggest mistake was the attempt to give the story a warm gooey center. (Will Arthur and Trillian Find True Love?) This reminded me of the later Marx Brothers movies, where an obligatory pair of dopey young lovers was shoe-horned into the middle of the movie, and the Marxes had to help them to prove they were Good Guys. I say ugh to this.


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