17 May 2005

Mostly Charmless

B. and I went to see the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy film on Friday. I haven't commented on it yet, because its effect was really rather difficult to express in words.

It is, frankly, pretty miserable. Given the scintillating brilliance of the source material, to make a film which is not only not a good adaptation but also not a good film takes that special blend of crass stupidity and arrogant disrespect for talent which is Hollywood's peculiar genius. Not that I'm saying it's a bad film -- in fact there are a number of extremely funny bits, mostly in the form of sight gags. There are also some truly awful bits. It's a spectacularly uneven film, as well as a spectacularly average one, in which almost everything that made the other versions of Hitchhiker so distinctive and successful has been painstakingly compressed into formulaic mush.

The Arthur & Trillian love story is obviously the worst offender here, but it's audible in every rewritten line: Adams' neatness of phrasing, his razor-sharp deployment of words, has been scrawled over by what sounds like a committee of accountants. Marvin, formerly a precision-launch system for packages of targeted contempt, has been turned into a moody-but-cute sitcom teenager. It's... eugh.

Now, I realise that this version of the story was never going to be faithful to the original, even if a clear consensus could be achieved on what "the original" is. Each new version of Hitchhiker -- the radio series, the books, the TV series, the game -- has improvised jazzily around the same central themes, tinkering with the story, tweaking the characters, replacing Trillian with a completely new character of the same name, taking out whole episodes and elaborating throwaway lines into entire new subplots to replace them.

Nor was Douglas Adams always in complete control of this process, before his tragically early death in 2001: the novel aside, all of these media are collaborative, and even the novels had editors. The fact that Adams' involvement in the film was prematurely cut short has, I'm sure, affected it adversely -- but Jane Austen died generations before the cinema was even conceived of, and people are making excellent adaptions of her work. There was every potential for the Hitchhiker film to be good.

Instead it's a sorry mess. Some funny, and reasonably Adamsesque, new sequences (the church of the Great Green Arkelseizure, the Magrathean factory floor) jostle for position with truncated and blanded-over versions of familiar material (everything up to the arrival on the Heart of Gold), bog-standard B.B.C.-style sketch-comedy (most of the Vogsphere material), entirely pointless and unfunny material apparently intended to bolt on a sense of danger (Zaphod's psychotic second head, the dimensional transit points on Magrathea), arse-clenchingly dire Hollywood sweetener (Arthur's ghastly speech about how Trillian is his ultimate question), bizarrely overdeveloped surreal throwaways which might have seemed at home in the original radio series but would later have been consigned to deserved oblivion (the idea swatters), inspired visual comedy and a mildly catchy song about fish.

So much about this film is, to quote the literary incarnation of Ford Prefect, "Wrong, wrong, wrong". The whole Arthur-Trillian thing sums it up, really. The keynote, the very cornerstone of Arthur Dent's character is that he is not the kind of man for whom things go right. He can't nip off to the pub without someone demolishing first his house and then his planet. The idea that someone as attractive as the cinematic Trillian would seriously consider a relationship with him is so far out of character for Arthur as to put him in another genre of story altogether... which is presumably what the film-makers were trying, on the sly, to do, the idea of originality (even thirty-year-old originality) being enough to send them into a panic.

I honestly couldn't recommend the film to anybody likely to be reading this. The clever sight-gags are perhaps good enough to make it not a complete waste of two hours for someone who's never previously experienced Hitchhiker in any form. (There are such people, I understand: explorers run across them from time to time in places like Papua New Guinea.) For someone who remembers it from their youth, it's frankly a depressing experience to endure how very poorly it lives up to the spirit of its famed original.

On which note, I'm off to see Revenge of the Sith on Thursday. I'll let you know how that goes.

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