The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy
Believe it or not, I have never read Mr. Adams’ wildly popular books. My understanding is that the whole Hitchhiker phenomenon was born from a BBC radio series, which I never heard, later became 4 or 5 books, a TV mini-series which I never viewed, a record album which I never spun, several stage adaptations which I never attended, and a video game which I never viddied.
I only became aware of it all when I began to see people wandering around science fiction conventions in bathrobes and slippers, and carrying towels. I thought they got lost on the way to the pool. I picked up the book, read a few pages, didn’t laugh, and put it down. Maybe I was in a bad mood, maybe I took SF a lot more seriously in those days, or maybe it just wasn’t my brand of humor. But it makes me the perfect audience to judge this film solely as a film, with no reference at all to how well it captured the book. I know almost nothing about the book except the business about needing a towel, and the phrase DON’T PANIC!
So I drive into the theater with Lee, eat half my Subway sandwich, watch a few dumb commercials and half a dozen noisy, jerky trailers, and settle back, my mind a blank slate, ready to be entertained.
I was underwhelmed. Seriously let down. Now I’m going to have to read the book, if only to discover whether A) this is a terrible adaptation of the book everyone loves so much, or B) the book was really awful, stupid, and obvious.
The movie opens lusciously, with leaping dolphins, who, we learn, are one of the three intelligent species on the planet. (A faint bell is ringing in my mind. I’ll deal with that later.) Then we meet Arthur Dent, played as a clueless everyman by Martin Freeman, who played an everyman with more clues than the rest of the cast on the wonderful British TV series The Office. The Earth is destroyed. Arthur survives, and begins a bewildering odyssey. Bewildering to me as well as him, unfortunately. Buttons are pushed. Odd things result. More buttons are pushed. The action is interrupted for animated disquisitions on what we’re seeing that are meant to be ironic. More buttons are pushed. Forms are filled out. Vast vistas are revealed to be goggled at. Things are brightly colored and brand new, unless they are gray and depressing and funky. Earth is re-created, boy gets girl, the end.
None of it worked for me. Okay, I tell a lie, I liked the idea of the POV gun. You shoot someone with it and they instantly understand where you’re coming from. That was a new one for me.
Nothing else was. Big ideas are discussed in a hopefully humorous way. The galaxy is a vast bureaucracy. Humans aren’t very important on the galactic scale. Groovy! But … been there, done that. In fact, I’ve written that. Several times. In fact … (Ah ha! The bell’s ringing again!) I wrote a whole series of stories and novels beginning in 1974, at least 4 years before THGTTG, whose premise was that aquatic mammals were the only intelligent species on Earth.
When we met the world-builder, one Slartibartfast, the bell was ringing again. In 1968 I read a novel by the great Robert Sheckley called Dimension of Miracles that dealt with just about every theme in this movie, from planet construction crews to wild improbabilities coming to pass through quantum randomness. Plus much, much more. As I recall, it also had an everyman caught up in events beyond his comprehension, but I don’t think he brought a towel. Bob has been writing biting satires like that since the 1950s. I have a copy on order from Amazon right now, so I can enjoy it again and compare it to Adams when I read THGTTG.
Now, I’m not saying Adams stole from me or from Bob or from anybody else. Nobody “steals” things in science fiction, not really, or in literature in general. We borrow. We use ideas that are out there. If we waited for a truly original idea, there would be precious little SF, I promise you. Truly new ideas come along only a few times in a century, such as the theory of relativity, the idea that Pauly Shore is funny, or the mind-boggling concept that a life-long loser and stumble-tongued idiot from Texas could be cleaned up and sold to the American people as presidential timber.
David Gerrold has written of how he inadvertently used an idea in “The Trouble With Tribbles” that bore a striking resemblance to something in Robert A. Heinlein’s The Rolling Stones. Heinlein said no harm, no foul, he stole it from Ellis Parker Butler’s “Pigs is Pigs,” (which Walt Disney also borrowed, though he paid for the rights) who stole it from Noah, who got it directly from God, who probably picked it up in the remainder bin at His local CreatorMart. And I’ll have to wait to see if Adams handled these ideas better than Bob or I. In a book like THGTTG style is everything. Wit rules. I’m perfectly prepared to discover that Adams took ideas that Bob and I had used and created the masterpiece that Bob and I and others failed to deliver on.
But not the movie. The movie is a mess. Sam Rockwell as President of the Galaxy Zaphod Beeblebrox, and the voice of Alan Rickman as Marvin the depressed robot were two of the most annoying characters I’ve ever encountered in a movie. I gritted my teeth every time they spoke. Poor Arthur Dent never managed to generate an instant of sympathy. Zooey Deschanel is cute as a button and not much else.
People are comparing this to Monty Python, saying it’s all peculiarly British humour. Beeblebrox! There is no bigger fan of the peculiarly British humour of John Cleese, Michael Palin, Terry Jones, Graham Chapman, Eric Idle, and their peculiarly American colleague, Terry Gilliam, than I. THGTTG doesn’t even come close. The people who made this peculiar piece of shit are not qualified to hand the slapsticks and pig bladders and cream pies to Monty Python.
And what’s the deal with the towels? A small detail but an annoying one. Arthur never uses the towel for anything. I’ve hitchhiked thousands of miles, and I never felt the lack of a towel. I’ll tell you what I’d bring if I only had a moment to grab stuff before the Earth was destroyed. I’d bring a Swiss Army knife. I’d bring duct tape. You can never have enough duct tape. (I’m currently reading a book titled A Short History of Nearly Everything, 544 pages long, that endeavors to explain the formation of the universe, galaxies, the Solar System, and the Earth, etc. Duct tape is mentioned on page 11 as instrumental in discovering the radiation left over from the Big Bang, so you can see how handy it is!) I’d try to grab some warm clothing. A ball-point pen or a pencil. Hitchhiking is fun! The only scary-making thing is in the first few minutes, while you’re trying to figure out if the driver really wants to take you where you’re going or if he only wants to suck your dick.
Hitchhiker Redux …
I have now read The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and re-read Dimension of Miracles by Robert Sheckley. Bob’s book was just as good as I remembered it, so good in fact that I checked out Mindswap, a similar novel, to read again, too.
My verdict on H2G2, the movie? Simple. These guys really blew it. The book is very funny, I wish I’d read it years ago. Not often laugh-out-loud funny, like Donald Westlake’s books are, but wickedly funny, ironic, biting, and satirical. Some parts of it are indeed Pythonesque, or Montyistic, or Flying Circusish, or whatever. The producers or Adams himself (he’s listed as co-writer) carefully hunted out those parts and excised them. They went for spectacle, and overblown silliness, and managed to miss everything appealing about the book. Shame on them. It is just possible that this book should never have been made into a movie, anyway, especially in this era of gigantic CGI movies with no heart. Even if so, shame on them.
Yes! They do play that song at the drive-in in San Luis Obispo, with the same partially-fossilized strip of film with dancing popcorn boxes and soft drinks and candy that they were showing at the Don Drive-in in Port Arthur, Texas, in 1963 when Calvin, Jan, Phil and I would pile into the old 53 Hudson for a dusk-to-dawn 5-movie marathon! It’s like going into a time warp!