I am one of those slavish devotees of Douglas Adams’ Hitchhker Trilogy who can, as a result of manic bouts of reading (the books), watching (the BBC television series) and listening (to the original incarnation produced by BBC radio) recite vast swaths of text. It’s a skill that provokes delight in some, consternation in others, and a puzzled sort of indifference in most. It is, however, a skill that did not serve me well as I watched the long anticipated cinematic version.
It all starts out so well, the toe-tapping mock show tune in which the dolphin explain why they left the Earth, followed by our introduction to Arthur Dent (Martin Freeman plunging heroically into the realms of the rumpled and bemused), failing to make it down his own stairs unscathed and blithely unaware as he burns his toast for the last time, this it is, in fact, the last time. Soon he will be swept away in his pajamas and bathrobe from certain death by his best pal, Ford Prefect (a perhaps too laid-back Mos Def), who, as it turns out, isn’t from Guildford, but rather from a small planet in the vicinity of Betelgeuse.
It’s not the changes that irk. Adams tweaked the story line every time he adapted this tale of misadventures, towels, and cranky androids. And every time Adams did a re-write, it got funnier, the social commentary just a little more wicked. The irritation here stems from the unaccountable trimming of key lines. It doesn’t hone the humor to a finer edge, nor does it distill it into something shorter but more potent. It just kills it, rendering what was once witty and smart into something that is a shell of its former self. It’s not just the fact that this Arthur Dent doesn’t spend the film repeating the tag line “So this is it, we’re going to die,” it’s not just that he is no longer on a pathological search for a cup of tea that tastes like the ones he used to have on Earth before it was destroyed to make way for a hyperspace freeway. No, it’s the egregious editing of things that had no reason for being meddled with. Thing like the super computer Deep Thought no longer toys with both the audience and its builders who have waited seven-and-a-half million years for the answer to life, the universe, and everything by drawing out the reply with sulky reproaches before divulging it. Deep Thought (voice of Helen Mirren) just spits it out, ejecting all the fun with it.
Adams worked on the screenplay, screenplays, actually, before his untimely death, but the writing credit is shared, and I want to believe that what happened wasn’t his doing. Call it idol worship. Go ahead.
The characters until now have always been exquisitely self-absorbed, never dreaming of distracting their audience by engaging them emotionally. All the better to enjoy the nimbleness of Adams’ verbal acuity and equally agile imagination. This time out, instead of righteous indignation played as camp melodrama, there is a genuine tenderness to Arthur’s feelings for Tricia McMillan (Zoey Deschanel), the woman who dumped him at a party in favor of the guy who said he was from another planet (he was). There are even heart-to-hearts between them. To work as farce, there is no room for tenderness in this universe. It puts a screeching halt to the already shaky proceedings while adding nothing but the hope that it will be over soon and the story can proceed on its antic, anarchic way.
Now that I’ve kvetched about what this film is not, here are some things that it is. Visually delightful for starters. Deep Thought is a giant abstract head propped on equally abstract arms as though deep in, well, thought. The factory floor of the Magrathea’s planet-building enterprise is properly vast and Bill Nighy as the designer of fiddly bits around fjords is nicely arch and starchy. There is a new, Adams-created character, Humma Kavula (John Malkovich), who is an odd collection of fiddly bits and attitude. The guide itself is an actual book, albeit one with one screen that instructs and delights with kitschy retro animations to illustrate the wondrous digressions (though not enough of them) about Babel fish and such. Its voice, it still speaks, is the wonderfully supercilious tones of Stephen Fry. And there are still flashes of the old style, particularly when all the pieces fall together and it becomes apparent that this Zaphod Beeblebrox (Sam Rockwell in an inspired fit of clueless narcissism) is none other than George W. Bush, only with a bit more panache. And, to return to my harping on it, why was the reference deleted about Beeblebrox being the best bang since the big one? Because this is a Disney film?
THE HITCHHIKER’S GUIDE TO THE GALAXY was 23 years in the making. I’d have waited a couple more for something that made me laugh, and think, as hard as the other versions did.