[Dr. Chris Oakley's Home Page] [The Vl'hurgs]
My assessment: 6/10.
Summary: Worth a visit, but do not expect a film of the book.
Let's be honest: if you take away the comic ideas from the Hitch Hiker books, there isn't a lot left. On the other hand these comic ideas are so good that this does not much matter.
Example: the earth is destroyed to make way for a hyperspace bypass. Not evil aliens wanting to take over the galaxy, or some inexorable cosmic cataclysm like an asteroid strike: just a boring government department needing to build an express route and earth unfortunately being in the way. That is a funny idea.
Example: The Vogons write terrible poetry, and read it out to prisoners. The idea of an officious race like the Vogons wanting to "improve" themselves by writing poetry is funny. The idea of them realising that they aren't ever going to be any good at it is also funny. The idea that, having accepted that they aren't ever going to be any good it, they would use it to torture prisoners, is funny as well. To quote from the book, after Arthur's futile attempt to say something good about the Vogon poem:
A steel door closed and the captain was on his own again. He hummed quietly and mused to himself, lightly fingering his notebook of verses.
'Hmmm,' he said, 'counterpoint the surrealism of the underlying metaphor ...' He considered this for a moment, and then closed the book with a grim smile.
'Death's too good for them,' he said.
(And by the way, where was this gem in the film?)
Example: A manic depressive robot. Funny idea (as long as it is not done to death).
The characters in the book were flimsy to the point of being non-existent. The only one who seemed real was Arthur Dent, and although I never knew Douglas Adams personally (apart from a brief encounter at a book signing twenty years ago), based on the interviews I read I wondered whether A.D. was not in fact D.A., the latter just using the former as a means of writing himself into the story.
On the subject of story, the fact is that there really wasn't one: no plot and no character development (plots did not start until book three). There was just a collection of ideas, most of them comic, some of them incredibly insightful, linked together like a sequence of Monty Python sketches. For loose ends and paradoxes, Douglas Adams was hard to beat. Arthur Dent, who started off dazed and confused, ended up dazed and confused, but without a planet. The other characters seemed so insubstantial that you did not much care about what happened to them anyway. After earth's demolition, there was no more story to speak of - just ideas, some comic, some mind-boggling, some (like Deep Thought) both comic and mind-boggling.
On these grounds, therefore, the value to Hollywood ought to be strictly limited. And so it is. To make it work for Hollywood, they had to do a number of things:
1. Give it a point. In the film we have boy meets girl, girl goes off with alien, boy meets girl again on alien's spaceship, girl eventually realises boy is better than alien, boy and girl get together. So here is a story in the usual sense, and at the end there is a nice feeling that something good has come out of all the chaos. In the book we got no further than boy seeing girl on alien's spaceship, and one would search the book in vain for any "feelgood" messages (unless, of course, one was to count Eccentrica Gallumbits here, the triple-breasted whore from Eroticon VI).
2. Create some spectacular visuals. Some of these will truly blow your mind, Magrathea in particular. I like to sit in the front row in cinemas, and seeing the Magrathea scene for the first time really was mind-blowing. It is worth going to see the film for this scene alone.
3. Have believable characters. The film retained the shallowness of Ford Prefect and Zaphod Beeblebrox, but gave Arthur and Trillian more depth, as was necessary given the modifications to the story. Humma Kavula, who never appeared in the book, played by John Malkovitch, is a welcome addition in the film.
The problem with all of this is similar to the problem with neutering a dog. In domesticating it one also takes away an essential part of its personality. Hitch hiker's probably should never have been made into a film. It is interesting to reflect that although Douglas Adams invented Science Fiction comedy, it was the Men In Black films that first made the concept work for the big screen. It may well be that the Men In Black films could never have happened without Douglas Adams (he seems to have thought so, anyway), but it does somewhat make the point that if he had set out specifically to write an SF comedy for the big screen earlier rather than trying to adapt Hitch hiker's, he might have had his name on Hollywood film credits earlier.
Chris Oakley, 2nd May 2005.