The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy
Don't panic—just be very, very disappointed
The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy
Touchstone Pictures
Directed by Garth Jennings
USA/UK, 2005
This year is turning out to be a good one for genre fans at the movies. That is, in terms of being catered to as a target audience. Batman Begins; The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe; Fantastic Four; War of the Worlds; a little film called Revenge of the Sith. It's hard to remember the last time that our playground was considered prime real estate. And the film that leads this blitzkrieg? Possibly the most cultish of all: The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy.

Of all the adapted properties being released, The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy is probably the most malleable. Douglas Adams' story was originally a BBC radio series, a wry comedy that used science fiction as its playing field. The radio series was adapted into, among other things, a series of books, a TV series, and, strangely enough, back to radio, sort of. (For arcane copyright reasons, the first part of the series had to be re-recorded in order to be released as an LP; the storylines were collapsed and edited in the process.)

So unlike many other properties adapted from the annals of geekdom, The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy had a lot of wiggle room. Too bad it was so misused.

The first clue should have been the opening, in which a segment from later in the original stories (where it is briefly explained that humans are in fact the third most intelligent species on the planet, instead of the second, as was commonly assumed) is presented as a Monty Python-lite musical song-and-dance number. Frankly, it doesn't feel quite right, but it's just offbeat enough that you let it slide—especially since the movie then slides right into the same scene that has opened every version of the story, where the genial but hapless Arthur Dent awakens to discover in rapid succession that (a) his house is about to be demolished to make way for a bypass, (b) his best friend Ford Prefect is in fact an alien, and (c) the Earth is about to be demolished to make way for a hyperspace bypass. The movie follows through on the originals' cheeky denouement; just as Arthur's home is destroyed without a hope of rescue, so is the Earth. It's quick, it's final, and most importantly both actions are the result of mindless, unsympathetic bureaucracy.

Ford and Arthur escape certain death because Ford has hitched a lift on one of the Earth-demolishing spaceships. It's at this point that the bewildered Arthur learns about The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, an interstellar traveller's electronic reference book. It's also at this point that movie stops being any good.

Rightly or wrongly, genre fiction fans tend to carp on adaptations' faithfulness to their source material. These arguments tend to take on a religious fervour, often picking at minutiae that are removed or altered from the original. But condensing just about anything to fit the confines of a movie requires trimming; what matters is that the essence of the original is preserved. The trickiest part is identifying that essence.

And there lies the problem with The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. The movie had the leeway I mentioned earlier because it was adapted by its own creator repeatedly, with parts added and removed each time. But there were some consistent factors that defined it more than anything. The first set of factors, I call the three Bs. Adams poked fun at the concept of the high-tech, utopian vision of the science-fiction future by ensuring that despite their miraculous technological achievements, everyone Arthur met during his travels succumbed to the same things as us poor Earth folk: bureaucracy, banality, and bullshit. As advanced as they are, some beings still try to leverage philosophical events in order to become talk-show pundits. The president of the galaxy is a vain, self-serving sham, a distraction from the real power. More than anything, the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy was a point of view—one that states that the universe is callously, laughably absurd.

The second factor is the voice, literal and figurative. It may be because the original story played out on radio, but there has always been a rhythm to Hitchhiker's prose, spoken or written. While the actors are all fine—in particular, Mos Def makes a great Ford Prefect, in his own way capturing the character's oddness and careful balance between friendliness and a keen sense of self-preservation—the lines are delivered almost exactly as originally written (in one form or another), but without Adams' cadence. It destroys the timing, and consequently drains many scenes of the humour they should have. It doesn't help that many of the lines are edited in such a way that the Adams sensibility is lost. (How can you explain the Babel fish without the brilliantly subversive summation that increased communication led to more, not less, war?)

Most fans feared that Hollywood would destroy Hitchhiker's by Americanizing it; in fact, the only concession to typical blockbuster moviemaking is the love story and relationship drama that are bolted on. Most of the changes were made by Adams himself, but the adaptation was still a work in progress when he died suddenly in 2001. That his work was finished by someone else wasn't the problem; it was that they failed to take into account the way he looked at the world, the essential component to his work. And a movie that could have been great has instead become a tired shambles. Adams deserved better.

A Critical Eye exclusive