DVD Review: The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy

Taking material that was a success in one media and moving it to another isn’t always easy. We’ve had two recent instances that most everybody would consider a success – moving the Harry Potter books to movies, and The Lord of the Rings trilogy. Of course, there are also resounding flops ( such as the movie version of Dune, or Robert Redford as The Great Gatsby.)

Last year another movie tried to make the leap, with the release of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Of course, this came with a twist, for the source material has already made multiple jumps. Douglas Adams originally wrote THHGTTG as radio plays for the BBC. Then it made a jump to books, TV, the stage and even computer games. (A text game was released by Infocom, the people who brought us Zork.). How would it survive the jump to the big screen?

I’m a fan of the books, and also played the computer game. (I’ve seen a few episodes of the British TV version, but wasn’t a fan.) As it came time for the movie’s release, I kept on thinking of a line from another space movie, “I’ve got a bad feeling about this.” It wasn’t that I was afraid that the visual effects of the movie couldn’t keep up with the ones conjured up by my imagination. After all, the CGI in The Lord of the Rings had cured me of that worry (although instead of CGI, many of the aliens in this movie were actually puppets put together by Jim Henson’s company.)

I was more worried that the essential strengths of THHGTTG wouldn’t survive. Those strengths were the absurdist humor mixed with the mind-boggling philosophical conundrums that the late Adams sprinkled liberally through his work, the kind that made you say “Whoa” (in a Keanu Reeve sort of voice), back up and re-read a paragraph or chapter. At least in my view, my worries weren’t misplaced. While this wasn’t a horrible movie (it wasn’t Dune, after all), it never caught on as a big hit with the broader public. In fact, it left our local movie house before I could talk someone into going with me to see it, so my first view of it was actually from the DVD.

There are two kinds of people who may watch the movie. The first group are already fans,  if not fanatics, of the material, while the second group are those coming to it fresh. Since I’m a member of the first group, I recruited my 17 year old daughter to represent the second group.

As a fan, I’m profoundly ambivalent – in fact, in some ways this review is one big shrug of my shoulders. In fact, it’s been over two months since Netflix sent the movie, and I’m still struggling to write the review.

In a film adaptation, there are always going to be people upset because the book isn’t followed exactly. These are the people upset because there are no house elves in Goblet of Fire, or Tom Bombadil was left out of The Fellowship of the Ring. In one way, there’s less reason to complain here, because there is no “canonical” version of THHGTTG. In fact, there are even book versions that are different from one another; and after all, the book itself is an adaptation of a radio play. Even so, there are considerable differences, with parts of the later books from the series added in here, other things left out, and large new subplots added, including the John Malkovich character.

The biggest difference may be the role of Trillian. In the book, our rather bewildered protagonist, Arthur Dent, does a certain amount of pining for Trillian, but the movie becomes much more a boy meets girl, boy loses girl (to a two-headed alien), boy wins girl plot. The rather large assortment of aliens also gets telescoped into one species, the Vorgons. I’m not really complaining about either of the changes, for the former gives a bigger role to the very appealing Zooey Deschanel, and in the latter case the Vorgons were also presented very well.

The Point of View gun, while not a part of any of the books, is a device that seems to come from the imagination of Douglas Adams. Adams, after all, was in California working on the movie adaptation when he met his untimely death in 2001. On the other hand, Malkovich’s character Humma Kavula, nor the Vice President, played by Anna Chancellor, are additions that don’t seem to be as well-done.

Another way I always judge an adaptation is to match the actors in the cast to mental image I have of them from reading a book. Here, I feel that Martin Freeman as Arthur Dent is a bulls-eye, just the right tone of Everyman bewilderment. I never really had a firm vision of Ford Prefect, the alien, so I can’t quibble with the casting of Mos Def one way or the other; at least Def doesn’t disappoint the way Sam Rockwell does, not necessarily in appearance, but in the way he acts. I just never pictured Zaphrod Beeblebrox yelling and jumping around as much as Rockwell did. On the other hand, the voice of Alan Rickman is perfect for Marvin the Paranoid Android (and believe me, there’s a lot of underlying resentment around our house towards Rickman over the whole Dumbledore thing, so this is no small acknowledgement.) Speaking of voices, Stephen Fry (of Fry and Laurie) does a good job as the voice of the Hitchhiker’s Guide, the handheld computer/encyclopedia device for which the book and movie are named. Another computer voice is supplied by Helen Mirren.

From a fan’s point of view, then, I think my ambivalence might just be because a movie doesn’t let you stop and think the way a book can. And these books just have too many juicy, thought-provoking concepts that get lost in a movie. (But at least it wasn’t Dune.)

How about if you weren’t a fan? The movie held my daughter’s interest – there’s enough physical comedy and silliness, but she also caught many of the more advanced scientific jokes and puns. “You have to pay attention to it” was her ultimate judgment, although it won’t be a movie that she’ll watch over and over. (Possibly that’s because neither Orlando Bloom nor Daniel Radcliffe is in it.).

Finally, what do you get extra on the DVD version? First, the menu system for the DVD’s options mimics that of the Hitchhiker’s Guide interface in the movie, which is a nice touch. There is the almost obligatory “Making of..” mini-documentary, some deleted scenes, a couple of “really” deleted scenes of the actors goofing around, and a sing-along version of the song “So Long and Thanks for All the Fish”, which is actually a title of one of the later books in this series. There are two additional audio commentaries, one by the director Garth Jennings, accompanied by Freeman and the actor Bill Nighy, who plays one of the smaller roles in the movie, Slaterbartfast. The second commentary features the executive producer Robbie Stamp and Sean Solle, a colleague of Douglas Adams. This second commentary works mostly to show how much Adams was involved in the adaptation.

Overall, my ambivalence probably comes from the fact that, while this isn’t a bad movie, I realize that it comes from a great book, and thus it ultimately comes up short. (But at least it isn’t Dune.).