June 2005

Liz Miller

hollywood madam

Don't Panic -- It Could Have Been Worse

Over the past month, three different voices have told me in four different media that "The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy is a wholly remarkable book." Oddly, this wasn't always an opinion I shared; I read Douglas Adams's rambunctious tale of God-disproving fish, fjord artists, and bug-eyed aliens several times, but it never really took hold of me. I could always blame this on high expectations (Adams being a near-deity among my family and friends) or the overwhelming scale of the story. For, honestly, do there need to be SIX books? I've read them all, and I'm inclined to think not. If only because I can barely remember the titles of the later installments, let alone what happens in each.

But last month, when I went to see the recent Hammer & Tongs-directed adaptation (starring my secret boyfriend Martin Freeman) I found myself more than pleasantly surprised. Sure, it wasn't the best movie I'd ever seen -- the plot felt thin, even though they'd added some substantial subplots, and while well-intentioned, the Arthur/Trillian romance simply didn't work. But in the current climate, times being what they are, studios demanding a romance and character change for the protagonist, the movie was far better than I'd expected -- and clearly made by people who loved the source material. Which is something almost miraculous.

And the thing to remember is this -- it could have been much, much worse.

For those unaware, Hitchhiker did not originate as a novel -- its first incarnation on this Earth was as a BBC Radio dramatization written by Adams in 1978. It was then adapted by Adams into a series of novels, which he began writing in 1979, while the BBC adapted the radio programs into a television miniseries in 1981.

The radio version reveals why so much of the book is written as it is -- an emphasis on dialogue, with the Guide inserts providing the essential bits of narration that would normally be contributed by a standard booming Orson Welles-esque voice. Seeing the words on the page, in fact, reduces the impact somewhat -- you lose the rich voices of Simon Jones, Peter Jones, and Susan Sheridan, whose interpretation of Trillian is a delight for the ears. The radio series covers the events later chronicled in HGTTG and The Restaurant at the End of the Universe; it suffers from the same sprawl of the books, but does contain all the key facets of the story (though there's quite a bit of shuffling about -- the discussion of towels doesn't make an appearance until Episode 7).

It's the radio series, not the novels, which the 1981 miniseries is based upon, and they had approximately the same budget. Technically, picking on the miniseries isn't quite fair -- they clearly had no money, little time, and technology ill-equipped for the task of bringing the story to life. But I'm not a very nice person, and I had to watch the damn thing, so give me a minute here. The set design, crafted with the same level of sophistication found in a fifth grader's home movie (but with more styrofoam), regularly threatens to topple onto the actors costumed in green body paint, tin foil and sparkles. The many excerpts from the HGTTG are diagramed on the screen, rarely with the full text; only occasionally are these inserts narrated by voice-over or even accompanied by sound -- the BBC seemingly concerned for the ability of viewers to both look at pictures and listen to audio. Sandra Dickinson, who plays Trillian and makes Victoria Jackson sound sultry, is pretty much just boobs in a pleather halter. And those who bitched about Sam Rockwell's second head being concealed beneath the first have clearly never borne witness to the monstrosity that is the BBC Zaphod's papier-mache second head, mounted on his shoulder as part of a "pantomime horse." And despite all attempts to make it look like an actual head, it's papier-mache. Papier-mache that someone tried to morph into a puppet-like device, meaning that as Zaphod prances across the screen, the mouth of the second head wobbles, ever so slightly, like a stroke victim begging for more pudding.

But beyond its technical failings, the miniseries also suffers from the same bloat that kept me from fully engaging with the novels, all those years ago. And this is why the movie, for me, stands out as an adaptation. According to producer Robbie Stamp: "The script we shot was very much based on the last draft that Douglas wrote... All the substantive new ideas in the movie... are brand new Douglas ideas written especially for the movie by him... Douglas was always up for reinventing [HGTTG] in each of its different incarnations and he knew that working harder on some character development and some of the key relationships was an integral part of turning [HGTTG] into a movie" (via Slashdot). And, with the blessing of its creator, the film maintains the series' trademark wit while also holding together as a tightly constructed narrative.

And then it goes a step further. For when I was watching the movie, something came through for me in a way that six hours of radio, three hours of television, and countless hours of reading never quite managed. At the core of this story, in all versions, there's a beautiful crumb of an idea -- a planet of life constructed to discern the ultimate reason for living, every bit of it vitally important to the program. An incredibly human and humane notion, the scope of which was never clear for me until I watched Martin Freeman and Bill Nighy zoom over digitally rendered landscapes.

Perhaps this makes me one of the people I normally loathe -- the type who skims Reader's Digest, watches the movie adaptation instead of reading the assigned chapters. But I honestly don't care. I've always known the story of Hitchhiker was, but I didn't know what it meant until recently. And of all the interpretations of the story that exist out there, this flawed little film is the one that helped me understand.

Which is why nothing felt more fitting than the last shot of the film, the Heart of Gold jumping through all possible incarnations, including the smiling face of the man who brought this strange little story to life.

I get it now, Doug. And I'm sorry I didn't before.