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May 13, 2006 |

By Phillip Stephens | Film | May 13, 2006 |

Fans have been waiting 20 years for someone to finally translate Douglas Adams’ beloved science fiction satire The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy to the big screen after incarnations as a BBC radio series and a television show. Adams himself spent several years trying to convince Hollywood to make the film and was working on the script at the time of his death in 2001. The project bounced from Columbia Pictures to Disney, with both studios unable to iron out disagreements over Adams’ vision of the film and its budget. Luckily, the film was picked up again by Hammer and Tongs, a production company from Adams’ homeland, a move that probably saved the film and spared audiences the world over from a mawkish Hollywood spectacle with big names and small consequence. The American big-studio machines aren’t as famous for capturing the quirky, distinctively British humor of the Hitchhiker books as they are, for say, blowing up shit.

Things looked good. The cast assembled, including Mos Def, Sam Rockwell, Zooey Deschanel, Martin Freeman, Bill Nighy, and Alan Rickman — all notable for their lack of schmaltz and/or egotism. Freeman (of “The Office” fame) is especially well-suited as the beleaguered protagonist Arthur Dent. The visuals recreating the fantastical landscapes described in the story are phenomenal and engaging. For the most part, it all works out very well, but in this latest version of Douglas Adams’ classic work, much still gets lost in translation. That isn’t to say the film isn’t a good one, but rather that it doesn’t succeed as a transmission of the good-natured comic spirit of the original work.

Our story begins with Arthur Dent, a nonchalant and rather put-upon Englishman who wakes up one morning to find that city planners are on the cusp of demolishing his house to build a bypass through its vicinity. In the midst of this, his good friend Ford Prefect (Def) reveals to Arthur that he is actually a bohemian extra-terrestrial and that the Earth itself is scheduled to be razed by a fleet of aliens called Vogons, who wish to build an interstellar bypass through Earth. Arthur and Ford escape by “hitchhiking” aboard a Vogon ship and then subsequently by embarking on a misadventure with galactic scoundrel Zaphod Beeblebrox (Rockwell), Arthur’s former paramour, Trillian (Deschanel), and the depressed android, Marvin (voiced by Rickman).

Hitchhiker’s is at its best when sticking to the comedic intent of the novel; for instance, the characters’ encounters with the Vogons — an officious, bureaucratic race whose only concern is for soulless procedure — captures the book’s penchant for mockery and satire to a tee. Similarly, Stephen Fry’s Hitchhiker’s Guide voice-over narrations (which often come straight from Adams’ prose) are the funniest bits in the film, which seems natural since the book itself relies so heavily on tangential jokes and musings.

Whether to make the story accessible to those unfamiliar with the books, or simply to mold it into a more conventional narrative, the screenplay discards far too much of the original story in favor of a couple of subplots dealing with the romance between Arthur and Trillian. There’s also an unusual episode involving Zaphod’s rival (played deliciously by John Malkovich) that seems to serve no purpose whatsoever. Considering the immense popularity of the subject material, it seems inexplicable that the filmmakers would let themselves get sidetracked like that. Half of the charm of the novels lies in their weaving of simple, straightforward characters with deceptively deep philosophical queries, so why try to schmaltz it up with a feeble love story?

Nevertheless, it’s fortunate that Adams’ classic has finally been channeled onto the big screen, even if the end product is bound to leave longtime fans a little disappointed and newcomers a bit jejune. Audiences who happen upon Hitchhiker’s will, to a person, find plenty of visual effects to be awed by and plenty of jokes over which to chuckle. And if you leave the theater convinced you haven’t gotten your money’s worth, hey, I’ve got a great book to recommend!

Phillip Stephens is a movie critic for Pajiba.

Film | May 13, 2006 |

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