Where do you start with “The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy”? Do you talk about its place in the great tradition of pomposity-puncturing, absurdity worshipping British Sci-Fi? Do you try to decode the almost dizzying cross-continuity which exists between differing versions of the story? Do you mumble something about always needing your towel and then move on?
It’s a tale which has seen iterations on radio, as an increasingly inaccurately numbered trilogy of novels, a fondly remembered BBC TV series, stage plays, comic books, a beloved PC game and this most recent of adaptations in 2005.
There’s something about it, a unique selling point which survives translation to different forms of media, in different decades and manages to appeal to generations who weren’t even a blip in their parents DNA when Douglas Adams began writing the BBC radio show in the 1970s. It’s always potent, slightly counter-culture, wonderfully humane and surprisingly moving.
At its core, “The Hitchiker’s Guide To The Galaxy” is a simple tale of friendship, intergalactic travel, planetary strife, adventure, universally translating fish and invaluable towels. The tone and humour of the stories is quintessentially British, but manages to be reasonably accessible and doesn’t require a hard-won degree in science fiction arcana to be able to understand it – it’s a common misconception, I think, that the “Hitchhikers” series requires the audience to do a lot of heavy lifting to follow things.
The story’s hero Arthur Dent is very much an Every Bloke and, therefore, an audience identification figure. He’s a not terribly successful, unlucky in love but generally decent. Arthur’s previously unadventurous and stultifying path through life is rudely interrupted one morning by his best friend Ford Prefect who rocks up just in time to save him from the planet Earth being demolished to make way for an interstellar bypass (on that last point, I’m sure that some would say ‘not before time’…).
In the film, which I’m primarily basing this post on, Dent is played by Martin Freeman, an English comic actor most recently seen in Steven Moffat’s update of “Sherlock” but still perhaps best known for his role in Ricky Gervais’ doc-com, “The Office”. I say ‘perhaps’ here as I’ve never seen “The Office”, in either the Gervais original or the American Steve Carell-fronted version. Seeing this film was really the first major exposure that I can recall having to Martin Freeman, and I feel that he made a difficult role his own.
‘Difficult’ in this context as to a certain generation of Brits, Arthur Dent is Simon Jones, from the BBC TV adaptation. He’s so ingrained in my consciousness that I tend to hear his voice, or David Dixon as Ford, when I go back to reading the Douglas Adams books.
Freeman captures Dent’s bemusement at the incomprehensible world that he’s forced to leave and his wonder at the wider galaxy that he finds himself hurtling through. He’s not an actor who mugs desperately to wring laughs where none exist but one who finds the funny in quiet moments and expertly conveys Arthur’s slightly creepy neediness when he meets the proverbial dream girl who got away, Trillian and tries to win her back.
A tough job normally but one which is made exponentially difficult by the fact that Trillian is travelling in the presence of errant Galactic president and twin-headed alpha male Zaphod Beeblebrox (Sam Rockwell, channelling equal parts David Lee Roth and Bugs Bunny). He’s the kind of guy that will seduce your girl/boyfriend, steal your spaceship, kidnap himself and generally do his best to destroy your life, sometimes for kicks, mostly because he’s bored and hey, that seems like kind of fun thing to do. Pan-cosmic sociopath or excessively fun dude – I’ve never made up on that one.
Arthur, then, is roaming the galaxy in the company of a gang of weird-beards, a depressed automaton, the girl of his dreams and knocking heads with the Vogon race who initially destroyed his planet. Along the way, there’s a bit with a galactic religious cult leader (John Malkovich) which isn’t in the books (and doesn’t really go anywhere – perhaps a set-up for the sequels which should have followed this film?) and a visit to the smartest machine in the universe, Deep Thought (voiced by Helen Mirren).
My favourite bit in this adaptation?
Yep, Bill Nighy plays Slartibartfast – slightly hippy-ish builder of the Earth and other planets (So, Bill Nighy and a quiet big-up to Atheism in the same scene? No, I can’t think why I like this part of “Hitchhikers” so much…) and takes Arthur Dent to his shop floor…
…which results in one of the more underrated bits of (literal) world-building in recent science fiction cinema.
It’s this part of the film which has my favourite moment in the film – and possibly in pop culture – which hinges around Slartibartfast’s philosophical approach to some of existence’s more difficult-to-grasp vagaries:
“Perhaps I’m old and tired, but I think that the chances of finding out what’s actually going on are so absurdly remote that the only thing to do is to say, “Hang the sense of it,” and keep yourself busy. I’d much rather be happy than right any day.”
Those, my friends, are words to live by. There’s nothing to look forward to after this comparatively short life ends, much as we might want to believe there is. There’s only the here, the now and how we treat each other whilst we’re fumbling around for meaning in a world which resolutely defies any attempts to understand it. And that’s what this movie gets so right, in my opinion – though this film was in development for decades, with countless script drafts and iterations discarded to time, so much of Douglas Adams’ singular voice and humanity survived the process and made it through to the final film.
Though the film wasn’t successful enough to justify Disney subsidiary Touchstone Pictures green-lighting further adaptations of the novel series, director Garth Jennings and his producing partner Nick Goldsmith can be justifiably proud of what they achieved here.
The span is galactic, but the characters are very human. The story zips about all over the place but never really loses focus. Changes are made to the core story but the story’s concerns and truths are not jettisoned to make things more accessible to a mainstream audience.
I love this version still, and was more than happy to watch it again as I wrote this piece. Here’s hoping that some upstart film maker manages to build on this foundation in the future and revive the stories for a new generation – I really, really want to be able to see Disaster Area rock out on-screen one day…