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Wednesday, May 04, 2005

If you multiply in base-13, 6x9 does indeed equal 42

If you'll pardon my unleashing my (never all that well-contained) inner geek for a post, it's time for At The Movies With Charlie. On Friday I saw The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy and immortalizing my thoughts on the experience seems like as good a way as any to continue plodding towards my post-a-week goal for 2005.

A disclaimer - this review contains a spoiler or two, so if you're planning to see the movie and hope to see it without pre-expectations, best to put off reading this post. Once you have seen it, though, I'd very much love to know what you thought.

I was first introduced to the Douglas Adams novels the movie is (sort of) based on back in junior high. My brother had a copy of the first one, I think, and I read the other three (at the time there were only four books in the trilogy (or at least I only knew of four)) courtesy of the Northwest Junior High library. I was (and still am) entranced by the way Adams played with language, his way of putting bits of sentences into other sentences, his absolutely wonderful gift for dialogue. I spent hours and hours and hours in junior high writing my own Douglas Adams-ish (I wish I could call them Douglas Adams-esque, but I don't think I can justify that) fiction, typing fiercely away on FREDwriter as my friend John typed away alongside me. Between the two of us we must have turned out hundreds of pages, much of it admittedly dreck but still a tribute to how influential the man was. John somehow taught himself to write well through those hours and hours of developing a voice and practicing transforming thought into text; I missed that part, but I think I got more of my dreck written than he did (quantity was key. Every day we'd check in as we were leaving the lab to see how many pages had been tacked on to our works). Someday I hope to find those old Apple II disks and figure out a way to transfer the text thereon to a word processor; that would be a delightful look back at who I was lo those many years ago.

All of which is quite off-topic; this is At The Movies, not In The Junior High Computer Lab. Last Friday I went with John, Mark, Carrie, and Jason to opening night. The reviews I'd read ranged from lukewarm to scalding, so I was a little nervous. The previews that ran before the movie included the new Herbie the Love Bug film and Chicken Little, which should have tipped me off to what sort of audience they'd made the film for, but I completely missed that red flag. The film itself... well, the film was "almost". Allow me to elucidate -

The film almost got Adams's universe. Hitchhiker's is set in a universe that doesn't share the standard science fiction assumption that for sentient life to reach the stars they must have solved the problems that humanity's struggling with. It's not completely ubiquitous but certainly present enough to acheive cliche status - the star-faring worlds have done away with racism, dictatorships, petty wars (what wars there are are usually either against some other society that's achieved star travel through oppression and despotism and allowing homosexual marriage and other obviously-society-destroying things or against an insurgent group inside the society that's led by a brilliant and charismatic but warped and evil madman), and often with the idea of money. The bit in Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home where Kirk has dinner with Hot Cetologist Lady (Gillian? Help me out here, Star Trek faithful; it's been a long time) and then can't pay because they don't have money when he comes from is a classic example. In Adams's world society has just expanded out into a larger setting but kept all of its basic weirdness. The universe is a parody of the real world - sometimes literally. The filmmakers didn't quite get that; rather than put us into basically a weirder Mos Eisley setting they hustled us around between basically exotic locales and settled for having the Vogons (the major bad guys in the movie, but not the book) be a running joke about bureaucracies.

They almost got the Adamsian style of dialogue. Douglas Adams is one of the greatest writers of funny dialogue (indeed, I can't think of a legitimate challenger) in the history of the English language. The wordplay back and forth betweeen his characters is wonderful, and a major part of his novels. I'm completely at a loss as to why a filmmaker would say to himself, "Well, we're making a movie based on this book with outstanding dialogue; we'd better be sure to change a bunch of it!" But change it they did. Not completely rewrite it, not always - usually just change it. For instance (and forgive me if I miss a word or two here, I'm doing this completely from memory):

From the Book:
Arthur: "Where are we?"
Ford: "We're safe."
Arthur: "Oh, good."
Ford: "We're on a [I forget the exact wording. "Vogon Ship" but more descriptive]."
Arthur: "Ah. This is obviously some new usage of the word 'safe' that I wasn't aware of."

From the Movie:
Arthur: "Where are we?"
Ford: "We're safe."
Arthur: "Oh, good."
Ford: "We're on a [again, I forget exactly]."
Arthur: "FOOOORRRRD!!!"

Apologies for the inexact quoting, but you get the idea. They would almost use an exchange straight from the book but then change the punch line into something lame-o. It was weird, and very puzzling to me. The only thing I can think of is that they were aiming the film at a younger audience and thought that Adams's humor might be inappropriate in a movie version of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy (read that sentence again if you missed the sarcasm).

They almost picked a target audience. I expected the film to either be aimed at the hard-core fans - sort of like the newer Star Wars movies or the second and third Lord of the Rings films: if you don't understand the world you're watching the film certainly isn't going to bother to explain it to you - or at people basically unfamiliar with the . Instead it was a very weird combination of the worst of both. There were jokes aimed at the in crowd that were probably just confusing and annoying to those who haven't read the book - simple ones to fix, too. Explain why they're carrying towels! There was also a staggering disregard of the book's plot that indicated to me that the filmmakers themselves might not have read the book - certainly not aimed at HHGG devotees. I've never seen a movie adaptation that changed the plot more than this one - the characters' goals, the routes they took to reach those goals, and the exciting conclusion were all very different. Plus they of course had to add a love story.

They almost got the characters right. Arthur I liked quite well, Trillian was fine, Ford was okay. Zaphod was a disaster - they took an interesting character and made him an annoying idiot. I've heard that he was supposed to be a parody of Dubya, which is all well and good (certainly it defends some of the characterization choices), but certainly doesn't help make the film timeless. Marvin drove me nuts; they played him as the funniest part of the books, and while he was certainly entertaining the movie shouldn't have been about him any more than the books were.

The special effects were breathtaking (although, strangely, they opted to avoid dealing with Zaphod's extra head and arm by having his heads arranged vertically and his arm always under a cloak (until they're just taken away)), but they seemed to be the focus of the movie. I have trouble understanding why moviemakers these days are willing to spend millions and millions on special effects but not to spend money on a top-notch scriptwriter. The film was partially Adams's work (I'm not sure to exactly what degree) but somewhere along the line it lost his vision. Worth seeing for the sake of watching a HHGG movie, but really only almost worth the ticket price even then.

* Endnote - I found the frequent necessity of using the possessive of "Douglas Adams" bothersome. Strunk & White tell me, though, that when a non-plural word ends with an s the "'s" ending is correct, and far be it from me to argue with the Charlotte's Web dude himself.

As a former HHGG devotee, I am waiting (semi-)eagerly for the dubbed version to make it here. The qualified nature of my eagerness comes from the fact that dubbing lowers whatever humor quotient may have been there by at least half. But I can see the special effects anyway. :-)
White of Strunk and White is *E.B. WHITE*???? Wow. And... I always write Jess's, not Jess'. Jess' just looks so incomplete.
You hit the nail on the head when you questioned the strange idea that special effects can carry a movie like that. It surely doesn't make sense that they aren't willing to fork over a little more to make the script "top-notch".
I have to admit that in the early afterglow of the movie, I was more positive about the movie because of the effects. Then I thought about what they did to the plot and the characters... Looking back on the experience I am much more dissapointed that they couldn't understand what the Adams books were all about and make a good movie based on them.
There was such potential for a really great, classic movie.
Ahhh, well. Such is life.
Carrie D.
I was with you when you saw the movie. Ahh, those were good times. I would agree with you. The movie, as I have said before, was worth the price of admission, but not what I spent on popcorn and a soda. Next time I am at the movies I will be unconcessioned. That may have been my whole problem with the movie. I was not delighted with HHGG but perhaps it was because I was distracted by corn in both popped and syrup form.

-Mark DeVries
I'm just mad you posted your review before I did.
You were going to post my review?
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