Looking back at 2005's The Hitchhiker's Guide To The Galaxy

Feature Mark Harrison 3 Jan 2013 - 06:35

The 2005 adaptation of The Hitchhiker's Guide To The Galaxy divided fans. Mark takes a look back...

In 2005, director Garth Jennings and producer Nick Goldsmith, better known collectively as Hammer and Tongs, finally brought Disney's long-gestating film version of The Hitchhiker's Guide To The Galaxy to the big screen. This has made a lot of people very angry and been widely regarded as a bad move. But as this article will contend, on the subject of the 2005 cinematic adaptation of the same name, The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy would have this to say: mostly harmless.

This is not a popular opinion amongst those fans who have derided the film ever since its release, but we don't intend to persuade people that they were wrong about this version of the beloved Douglas Adams story. But it was liked by some, including this writer, and so it's worth re-evaluating.

The basic story follows Earthman Arthur Dent on the day that both his house and his planet are demolished in quick succession. Rescued by his extraterrestrial friend, Ford Prefect, he thumbs a ride into the vast, huge, mind-boggling big-ness of space, and things only get stranger from there.

The film places more narrative emphasis on the hunt for the Ultimate Question that goes with the Ultimate Answer to Life, The Universe and Everything, and so Arthur and Ford are brought aboard a ship that's been hijacked by Galactic President Zaphod Beeblebrox, in the course of hunting for the legendary planet of Magrathea.

Along the way, they tangle with bureaucratic Vogons, the pontiff of a bizarre religion, and the impending sense of randomness and dislocation that comes with travelling on a ship of infinite probability, without any home to which you can return. It's not a story that lends itself to an easy summary, which is perhaps the main reason why it took so long to get to the big screen anyway.

David Hughes' book, The Greatest Sci-Fi Movies Never Made, is an essential read for sci-fi movie fans, and it contains a suitably comprehensive account of the project's development from the late 1970s, through to the finished film. It details how Adams was approached first by an unnamed movie producer, and secondly by television network ABC, to make a version of the story Stateside. Adams turned down both offers, because the producer wanted to make “Star Wars with jokes”, and his experience with ABC "was like every horror story you've ever heard."

Terry Jones, Ivan Reitman and Rob Reiner all had a run at the material, clashing to various degrees with Adams' conviction in the story. In his inimitable fashion, the author described this period of development thusly: "The Hollywood process is like trying to grill a steak by having a succession of people coming into the room and breathing on it."

Nevertheless, you can see the seeds that eventually germinated into the Hammer and Tongs version. Ivan Reitman originated the idea of making Ford appear to be American, to give American audiences someone to identify with, and it was thought that Bill Murray as the first choice for the role. According to producer Robbie Stamp, Adams approved of any changes in nationality, except for Arthur, who quite rightly remained English no matter what.

Adams came back into the fold shortly before his death in 2001, when director Jay Roach was using his clout from the success of Austin Powers and Meet The Parents to get the film into shape. The production was ready to go at Disney, with the hopes of casting Hugh Laurie as Arthur and Jim Carrey as Zaphod, when Adams passed away, just after his 50th birthday.

Development continued under Roach's supervision, even though he eventually took a producing credit and hired Garth Jennings to direct. The film opened strongly at the US box office, beating out the sequel to XXX for the top spot in its opening weekend, and ultimately went on to gross over $100 million worldwide; not a mega-hit, but for a film without any huge stars behind it, not a bad return.

There was just one big problem. The hardcore of fans didn't really take to it. That's not to say that they hated it unanimously, because that would just lend credence to the usual elitist fanboy polemic, whereby anyone who disagrees with a popular consensus isn't really a fan at all. As any fan of the pan-galactic gargle blaster will be aware, the effect of getting into fanboy arguments on the Internet is roughly like having your brain smashed out by a slice of lemon, wrapped around a large gold brick.

Speaking personally, I became a fan of Hitchhiker's Guide in 2004, and by the time the film was released, I had devoured the books and the radio adaptations. When I first saw the film, it was actually my favourite of that year. My praise of it has been tempered by later viewings, but it remains that not every fan was either disappointed or outraged by the film.

It seems like an appropriate time to look back on the film, not just because we've just escaped another of those pesky predicted apocalypses, but because it was Disney's take on a much-loved sci-fi property. With Star Wars Episode VII on the way, it may well help to check ourselves and look at this one from a different perspective.

This film is another in a long, long line of adaptations of the source material - aside from the radio series and the books, the story has been told in a computer game, a stage show, a BBC TV series and even a set of towels. Even if Disney's version of a story in which God is said to have accidentally destroyed himself with logic isn't your preferred version, the finished film isn't the abomination that some have touted since its release.

It's a more “zany” version of the story than many fans might like, but it still captures more of the weird and wonderful tone than many would have you believe. Although the aforementioned sequence with God didn't make the final cut, it was actually animated, and can be seen on the DVD. So many of the jokes are preserved verbatim, and re-staged in fresh ways, (the scene with the whale and the flower pot made particularly enjoyable by Bill Bailey's vocals) that it does seem odd when the film diverges.

For instance, a scene that condenses Arthur's odyssey to find the council's planning department to the much less funny line “I had to go down to a cellar!” feels abashed by Adams' original words, a feeling that is uncharacteristic of the rest of the film. Crucially, it never feels like the changes are borne out of studio interference, but out of a desire to make this version distinctive from all of the others.

"The script we shot was very much based on the last draft that Douglas wrote," said Stamp, in an interview with Slashdot. "All the substantive new ideas in the movie […] are brand new Douglas ideas written especially for the movie by him." This included the Vogsphere, Humma Kavula, and even the embellished romantic relationship between Arthur and Trillian.

There's also a lot to be said for the cast of the film. With Martin Freeman having gone on to essay the roles of Dr John Watson and, most recently, Bilbo Baggins, this first run at an iconic British literary hero is perhaps the best performance in the film. He's got the exasperated everyman thing down, and it's tough to think of many suitable actors at the time who would've done a better job.

Not that the casting was note-perfect, of course. Mos Def is miscast as Ford, and Sam Rockwell's Zaphod seems to have traces left over from when Jim Carrey was considered for the part - although Rockwell is as watchable as ever, the character's also way over-the-top and far from his best work. Still, Zooey Deschanel does a fine job as Trillian, in a version of the story that pitches her as the only other survivor of Earth's destruction as much as a romantic lead.

There's also a truly superb voice cast. Alan Rickman as Marvin the paranoid android! Stephen Fry as the voice of the Guide! Helen Mirren as Deep Thought! Thomas Lennon as Eddie the computer! The League of Gentlemen as the Vogons! This film has one of the best voice casts going, and it's sorely underrated for that alone.

There's also a very good musical score. Hammer and Tongs set the tone right at the start of the film with an entirely unexpected Busby Berkeley-style musical number called So Long And Thanks For All The Fish, which accompanies the dolphins' exit from planet Earth. If it lost you there, then fair enough, but the song, along with Neil Hannon's lounge-style reprise and Joey Talbot's score, makes a fine accompaniment for the film.

Likewise, the production design, which some could dismiss as 'toyetic', doesn't just make the film distinctive from other versions of Hitchhiker's, but from pretty much every other sci-fi film too. The animation of the Guide entries is enjoyable, the creature effects are very impressive, and it's also fun to watch the surreal transmogrifications that are dreamt up from the Infinite Improbability Drive.

But alas, even the film's cheeky sequel hook provoked ire. Yeah, we know that the Restaurant at the End of the Universe is at the chronological End, rather than the geographical End. But considering all of the good qualities that have been listed, and the solid foundation that they constructed in this adaptation, it shouldn't take an Infinite Improbability Drive to find another fan who would have liked to see Hammer and Tongs make that dinner date in a sequel.

Whatever your opinion of this film's quality, it is not, by any means, the cookie-cutter Disney-fied version of the story that was feared. While Adams wouldn't have tripped over any of the problems with wide-eyed reverence for his work if he had been able to see the script to fruition, the end result is a deeply unusual film, more than buzzwords like 'quirky' or 'zany' can encapsulate, with moments of real brilliance that are sadly overlooked: the Point of View Gun is a particular favourite of mine.

Only after 20 years of development, and fighting to preserve this much of the essence, could it turn out as unusual as it did, and yet it seems that most consider its greatest failing to be its difference from the source. Granted, Bill Murray is a much better actor than Mos Def, but just imagine if his Ford Prefect had been part of something that was little more than “Star Wars with jokes.”

Not that “It could have been worse” is a defence, because the relative merits of the film we got speak for themselves.

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