Star Wars with Jokes: The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy Movie

“Hitchhiker’s by its very nature has always been twisty and turny, and going off into every direction. A film demands a certain shape and discipline that the material just isn’t inclined to fit into.” – Douglas Adams.

In 2005, a miracle occurred. The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy defied its nature and became a film.

The Guide had already created nebulous pathways across various mediums; it had been adapted from the original radio series into literature, comic books, video games, and yes, even towels but for twenty years, it had eluded that most prized of cultural treasure, a movie adaptation.

Considering The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy is Douglas Adam’s definitive work, there really isn’t a definitive version of it. Each adaptation was not a literal one, more an exploration of this vast, open-ended, witty universe that Adams had concocted. The broad outlines stayed relatively the same, but the journey to those points was altered for each medium. For a writer in possession of such a universe as Adams, he’s surprisingly unfaithful to his own creation; the Guide is more an organic, evolving entity with better jokes.

For those keeping score, the movie is the ninth version of that universe and perhaps the most derided of the lot.

For me though, my favourite was the radio series – although, I was first introduced to Adams’ witty creation via the 1981 television adaptation, then the book, and then the radio play – so in a sense, I got the best of both worlds. I had the original, definitive cast but I also had what the book provided too; the space to imagine new worlds for that cast in a canvas created by the sparseness of the radio production. I could let a familiar voice tell their tale in a new landscape.

So for the movie, which was based upon Douglas Adams’ last of many drafts on its arduous journey to the screen – his untimely death in 2001 meant that he wasn’t able to see this labour of love make it to the silver screen (although as I type that, I can almost imagine Adams concocting another perfectly judged line about nobody ever really dying at the correct time, always too early or too late in some cases), the task to unite all of these adaptations in a way that pleased both die-hard fans and newcomers, while obeying the strictures of conventional narratives… Well, the feeling for those involved was probably akin to drinking a pan-galactic gargle blaster – like having your brain smashed out by a slice of lemon, wrapped around a large gold brick.

Fittingly for a beloved book that opens with the destruction of the entire planet, the history of the Guide’s journey to the big screen begins with the destruction of the book, namely, Douglas Adams ‘Star Wars with jokes’ furore.

As noted in David Hughes’ essential The Greatest Sci-Fi Movies Never Made, Douglas Adams was first approached in the 1970s by an unnamed American producer and then secondly by the television network, ABC to make a version of the story for the US. Adams turned both offers down, calling his experience with ABC ‘like every horror movie you’ve ever seen’.

The movie was first optioned in 1982 by producers Ivan Reitman, Joe Medjuck, and Michael C. Gross. Douglas Adams wrote three drafts for them per his contract. During this time, Medjuck and Gross were considering Bill Murray or Dan Aykroyd to play Ford Prefect. If that sounds a lot like an embryonic meeting of the men behind Ghostbusters, well, guess what: Aykroyd then sent them his idea for Ghostbusters and they did that movie instead.

It’s a Hollywood tale as old as time – someone options a property, proclaiming ‘we love everything about it, it’s brilliant. Now change everything’ and for someone as caustic and irreverent as Douglas Adams, it only served to strengthen his conviction in the project, leading to Adams to describe the development process as ‘like trying to grill a steak by having a succession of people coming into the room and breathing on it’.

However, Adams wasn’t entirely inflexible and some of the ideas from this period found their way into the final product, such as Ivan Reitman’s notion to make Ford Prefect American, thus giving American audiences someone to identify with.

The project didn’t really get moving until shortly before Adams’ death in 2001. Fresh from the success of Austin Powers and Meet the Parents, director Jay Roach used his newly minted box office clout to shepherd the project; Adams had been commissioned to write another draft of the script; and Roach, after deciding not to direct, was rumoured to have offered the director’s chair to Being John Malkovich helmer Spike Jonze. Everything was about to go at Disney, with the hopes of casting Hugh Laurie as Arthur Dent and Jim Carrey as Zaphod Beeblebrox when Adams passed away, just after his 50th birthday.

Roach and producer and long-time friend of Douglas Adams, Robbie Stamp didn’t want to let the project die with its creator – they felt compelled to bring Douglas’ life work to the big screen and hired Chicken Run writer Karey Kirkpatrick to complete a rewrite of Adams last draft, which, according to Neil Gaiman’s biography of Adams, Don’t Panic, was submitted shortly before he died.

Whether, during those years of development, Adams was right to concede some details and not others is entirely down to your opinion of the final movie, and something that the then-incoming Kirkpatrick had to wrestle with. As an outsider, it might be easy to lay the blame at Kirkpatrick’s feet for the final project’s rather uneven tone and diluted jokes but, you feel, the compromises had been decades in the making.

Working from what he calls Adams’ ‘blueprint’ for what he was or wasn’t prepared to keep, Kirkpatrick was hired to make The Guide work as a film, which as Adams himself said above in that rather handy quote, is something The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy fights at every turn; the process then, as he notes in official blog for the movie, became more about re-creating than creating – a pouring over of the myriad materials in order to capture Adams’ spirit in the words he left behind.

Perhaps this is the reason why the adaptation is, to paraphrase Adams, widely regarded as a bad move; how can you remain slavishly devoted to material that its own creator was want to alter and change as he saw fit, dependent on the medium it was being produced for? By recreating his voice, are you missing the point?

However, back here on Earth 2, there’s the small matter of pleasing a studio too and for all the good intentions contained within that script, you can’t help but feel that the film was hamstrung by a lot of interference.

After Roach decided not to helm the project and, on the recommendation of Spike Jonze, he approached director Gareth Jennings and producer Nick Goldsmith aka Hammer and Tongs (then producers of some of the most visually inventive music videos including Blur’s Coffee + TV), to bring their sensibility to the material.

However, that amalgamation of Adams’ satire and Jennings’ own visual flair (the one thing you cannot say about this movie is that it lacks imagination), comes across as forced and unnecessarily zany.

Comedy needs to be effortless, you shouldn’t see the joke approaching until it hits you between the eyes; the problem here is that we’ve already heard most of the jokes, so, instead, the visuals tend to embellish the lead into the joke.

Take the opening song. It’s based around one of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy’s oft-quoted lines, the famous Dolphin kiss off, ‘So long and thanks for all the fish’. It’s a fantastic punchline that’s somehow blown out of all proportion into a porpoise-based musical number that’s inventive but it’s less funny than simply having someone simply speak those eight words.

It feels like someone trying to sell Adams as a madcap satirist and, during the final film, it gives the impression that his work was something that might make you titter in a supermarket queue – a sort of quiet, ultimately harmless piece of satire – rather than the barrage of comedy hand grenades that Adams was want to lob at anything authoritarian.

There’s much to recommend in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy: Martin Freeman gives a great performance as Arthur Dent, Alan Rickman brings a beautifully designed Marvin the Paranoid Android to life and the Point of View Gun is a film-only invention that’s a favourite of mine; but, in trying to stay faithful to the material and Douglas Adams’ own point of view, the film, as admirable as it may have been, may have missed the point entirely.