Over the course of nearly three decades, “The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy” has been many things. It began as a radio drama — a terrifically sharp, satirical sci-fi piece about the destruction of the Earth because of a bureaucratic snafu, and all the fun that came next. It was the story of the last surviving human, mild-mannered Englishman Arthur Dent, who’s rescued from the demolition of Earth by his friend Ford Prefect, who as it turns out is not really an out-of-work actor but an alien researcher for the galactic encyclopedia that gives the series its title, and who thus knows how to hitch a ride off the doomed planet on a passing spaceship.
The radio series was a smash hit on its debut in 1977, making a star (or at least a popular cult author) out of its creator, Douglas Adams, and spawning “Hitchhiker” adaptations in nearly every form imaginable — books, two stage plays, a TV series, a computer game, even a beach towel.
Just about the only thing “Hitchhiker” hadn’t been turned into was a feature film, which became a lifelong quest for Adams, who spent nearly 20 years trying to get a film project off the ground before his untimely death from a heart attack in 2001. Ironically, that tragic event seemed to break the Hollywood dam, leading to the movie starring Martin Freeman, Mos Def and Sam Rockwell that arrives on screens Friday.
No matter which form it took, the series was beloved by fans for Adams’ deft comic touch, blending irreverent parody of science-fiction clichés with incisive philosophical humor: One of the most memorable jokes involved Deep Thought, a superintelligent computer designed to calculate the answer to life, the universe and everything. It thought about it, and returned the answer “42” and the suggestion that somebody should really figure out what the question is.
Adams was a rare talent, a highly improbable blend of intelligent optimism and clear-eyed cynicism. Like all great satirists, he could use words like machine-gun fire to attack stupidity and venality, and yet he wrote with the grace of a P.G. Wodehouse, his deceptively frothy and light style masking an existential awareness and a sense of humanism. Most important, he was very funny.
Will Adams fans support the film?What Disney (which is releasing the film) is currently hoping right now, though, is that Adams’ style of humor will travel beyond his fanbase — which, though it numbers in the millions, is only a fraction of what’s needed for the film to break even. And we’ll find out on Friday whether the mainstream filmgoers who made “Men In Black” a hit will embrace this film.
Nevertheless, fan support is still an important engine for creating the word-of-mouth that gets people into theaters on the all-important opening weekend. It can make or break a movie: “The Lord Of The Rings” trilogy enjoyed its benefits, while “Catwoman” suffered a quick death at its hands. And if “Hitchhiker’s” does poorly at the box office this weekend, it might have a lot to do with just one disgruntled fan: M.J. Simpson, author of “Hitchhiker: A Biography Of Douglas Adams” and longtime proprietor of the Adams fan website planetmagrathea.com. In early April, he wrote a scathing review based on an unfinished (but nearly complete) rough cut of the film, and posted it to his website.
With the devotion to minutiae of the true hardcore fan, Simpson enumerated point-for-point deviations from the novels, suggesting that the filmmakers had cut the heart out of Adams’ humor in favor of what he felt was formulaic and stereotypically nonsensical Hollywood product. Because his review came out half a month before most critics had even had a chance to see the film, it was virtually alone, and soon became the focal point for a fanbase eager for details about the film. His review polarized the Internet, sparking hundreds if not thousands of weblog and bulletin-board posts.
The reaction was so intense that Simpson, perhaps overreacting, shut down his website except for the guestbook and a message washing his hands of the entire affair, ending with the sweeping declaration that “as of now I will never write another word, in print or on-line, about Douglas Adams or ‘The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy’.” It’s easy to shake your head at some of his nitpicks (is the planet called “Viltvodle” or “Viltvodle VI”?), but if you were looking for information on the movie in early April, his critique was nearly impossible to miss, and raised doubts that proved difficult to dismiss. On planetmagrathea.com’s guestbook, responses seems about evenly split between sharp criticism of Simpson and other people thanking him for warning them away from the movie. (Having seen the movie myself, I am inclined to agree with Simpson.)
Each version adds its own details to the storyIt would be unfair, though, to get hung up on whether the film stays true to the “real” “Hitchhiker.” There is no such thing. Whether TV, books or radio, no version is absolutely definitive, though the novels probably come closest. Though the radio series came first, it often felt rushed and disjointed, in part because Adams was still writing scripts hours before the actors recorded them — and sometimes while they were recording them. Each incarnation added and altered characters, jokes and entire plotlines. Partly that’s just what’s necessary to recreate a story in a new medium, but Adams was also an inveterate tinkerer never afraid to rewrite in favor of a new (and usually better) idea. Each iteration added new elements to the complete mental picture of “Hitchhiker” — for instance, the idea that Arthur never gets a chance to change out of the robe and pajamas he was wearing when he left Earth, so emblematic of his nature as an unprepared refugee in a strange and hostile universe, wasn’t established until the TV series. The only thing that matters is whether the new version is a good story on its own merits. (A point that Simpson, to his credit, also makes.)
Hollywood prefers its action-comedies in the “Men In Black” mode, an irreverent sci-fi spoof driven largely by its big, splashy action scenes. But “Hitchhiker” is a deliberate inversion of that model — the freewheeling, often-drunk Ford Prefect, for instance, was invented to poke fun at the Flash Gordon-style square-jawed hero by presenting a guy who didn’t care one bit about saving the universe, but just wanted a good party and a large Pan Galactic Gargle Blaster. And the plots Adams dreamed up generally reflected the same meandering interest in the journey instead of the destination. Sure, the characters were often driven to seek out the answers to life’s big philosophical questions, but with Adams’ satirical and existentialist mindset guiding things, those answers usually turned out to be apocryphal, or at least wildly inaccurate.
Having said that, even Adams thought that for “Hitchhiker” to work as a film, some fairly big changes were needed. Most of what is new in the film (like Humma Kavula, a creepy religious fanatic played by John Malkovich) were his ideas, though the script went through at least one major revision after his death. Given how often the series has been adapted and re-adapted, it’s easy to see wisdom in the idea that the movie should be more than a retread of the same thing one more time. Especially since some of Adams’ best jokes are so much a product of their time: One of his most well-remembered lines was Arthur’s complaint that “I seem to be having tremendous difficulty with my lifestyle,” a lament that seems much more late-’70s than mid-2000s. And hitchhiking itself, once an instant countercultural referent for Adams to draw on, is virtually nonexistent these days.
And even if a film turns its source material inside-out, that doesn’t spell disaster. “The Princess Bride,” to take another example, flipped its mood drastically in the transition from William Goldman’s novel to the big screen by removing a key subplot, making the story much less dark. Despite the differences, both versions work in their own way — and if not for the film, I probably wouldn’t have discovered the book, which has since become a favorite of mine. In the same way, perhaps the greatest thing the “Hitchhiker” film could do would be to spark renewed interest in its predecessors. And it’s worth mentioning that another Adams revival is also underway — the BBC’s new round of “Hitchhiker” radio dramas based on his last three novels, featuring the original cast. It’s a big galaxy out there — “Hitchhiker’s” travels are likely far from over.