Page to Screen: The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (2005)

The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy
based on The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams

I’ve mentioned compulsive watchability before in my review for Guy Ritchie’s Sherlock Holmes. There are just some movies I never get tired of watching. While Sherlock Holmes is a fantastic movie on all levels, some of my other favorites that fit into this category aren’t… The Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest, anyone? The 2005 film adaptation of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy is one of these, but it’s neither as mindblowingly amazing as Sherlock Holmes or as all-over-the-place as the second Pirates of the Caribbean film—instead, it’s, well, solid, and probably my favorite version of the story.

The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy begins on a very bad day for Arthur Dent; he’s just recently learned that his house is going to be knocked down to make room for a bypass. But it’s an even worse day for the Earth, as it is scheduled to be demolished for much the same reason, but on a galactic scale. And humanity doesn’t even know. Luckily, Arthur Dent’s friend, Ford Prefect, isn’t human—he’s an alien researcher for The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, an extremely useful and practical resource for seeing the universe for less than thirty Altairian dollars a day. Ford rescues Arthur and the two begin hitchhiking across the universe, eventually running into Zaphod Beeblebrox, the fugitive Galactic President, and Trillian, Zaphod’s girlfriend and the last Earthwoman in the universe.

This adaptation is lovingly and well cast—Martin Freeman as Arthur Dent, of course, is fantastic and Mos Def’s take on Ford Prefect is lovely, but I’ve always been supremely taken with Sam Rockwell’s Zaphod Beeblebrox, who takes the space hipster to weird and hilarious territory. If only the special effects for his second head and third arm were better… Zooey Deschanel’s Trillian is affable and honestly just weird, and I love the film for doing that. This adaptation has been accused of putting the traditional Hitchhiker’s story in Hollywood drag (although Addams was always fine with Arthur being the only British character and added a “villain”), but instead of making Trillian and Arthur a standard hero couple, they’re both significantly flawed—she’s so out there that she finds herself with men just as (if not more) out there than she is, and Arthur is, well, boring. In a nice way, of course. And that’s ultimately why they’re perfect for each other, since they can balance each other out. Bill Nighy’s Slartibartfast, while a small part, is a fantastic one, to the point that my mother believes his character is supposed to be a particularly wry incarnation of God. And John Malkovich is in it, which makes any movie better for me, especially when he’s actually giving a crap. (Oh, The Man in the Iron Mask.)

Like most versions of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, it takes the initial premise and runs with it. But what I like here is that there’s more of a narrative spine to it here than in the book. Arthur and Trillian both deal with the destruction of the Earth in pretty human and realistic ways, and Arthur’s attempts to actually connect with Trillian are lovely. On top of that, Zaphod and Ford have a little more to offer here; while it’s played for laughs, Zaphod’s breakdown when he finds out that Deep Thought doesn’t have anything that could help him is funny because it’s exactly how someone like Zaphod would act. Character development, who’d have thought? Yes, there’s still all the cleverness and wit of the book (the subplot involving Malkovich’s character is essentially just a way to have “bless you” as a punchline), but there’s more heft here—while it’s still not on the level of some of my favorite works of fiction, it’s still an improvement on the original text. It’s less of a frame to hang jokes off of and more the story of Arthur learning his place in the cosmos and becoming a better person for it.

It’s also a visually unique film; the universe is ultimately our world on a bigger scale. There’s something gloriously mundane about it all—when our three leading men decide to bluff their way to Trillian, they end up ambushing a lone employee at his desk. (The rest of the rescue involves paperwork, which Arthur is good at.) While I’m disappointed by the effects for Zaphod (which are rendered useless halfway through the film, when his extra accoutrements are taken as collateral), they’re still good and work around the actor in inventive ways. The production team also committed to realism on the set—the main alien force, the Vogons, were all done by the Jim Henson Company, and they’re fantastically designed, as well as real in a way that CGI characters rarely are. Even the slickest and hippest sets and characters are a little retro, Zaphod and the Heart of Gold itself being chief among them. And I haven’t even touched on the way the Improbability Drive is done, which is just fantastic stuff. If you like off-kilter sci-fi, especially design-wise, this is definitely worth a look.

Bottom line: The much-maligned 2005 adaptation of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy adds some narrative heft to a story that sorely needs it, boasts a stellar and off-kilter cast, and a very unique look to its sci-fi proceedings. Well worth a watch.

I rented this DVD from Netflix.

5 thoughts on “Page to Screen: The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (2005)

  1. I am actually just about done with the first book of Hitchhikers Guide for the first time, but I saw the movie back when it came out and I agree. Although I find it odd (and I’m sure just an oversight) that you completely failed to mention Alan Rickman as Marvin. I mean, it is played straight from the book, but Alan Rickman nailed our depressed robot so well that I cannot help but hear his voice when I read it. Of course, no one really cares about Marvin. Isn’t it dreadful? Imagine…

    • I enjoyed his interpretation, but I’m a little more impressed with Warwick Davis wearing that suit than Rickman’s performance. He’s, of course, part of what makes the film so good, but the four leads (ensemble members?) are so wonderful that he can get lost in the shuffle.

  2. I wasn’t a huge fan of the film, actually, but I agree about its narrative structure. I think the main problem with Adams’ radio series (the first incarnation of HHGTTG) was that he was writing it on the fly, week by week, and didn’t, I think, have a real sense of where the show was going. He seemed to try to tidy it up for the book, but didn’t really succeed. I’ve only read the book once, though I am a huge fan of the radio series (the first two, anyway – they’re so very inventive).

    Oh, and though I love Rickman, his Marvin sounded more exasperated than depressed – I prefer Stephen Moore.

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