The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy

Keeping true to an original is hard for Hollywood.

The Hitchhiker's  Guide to the GalaxyI always imagined that the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, that book within the book that offered all kinds of useful information to those thumbing their way across the Milky Way, was a rather fluid thing, in a constant state of being rewritten and reedited as new information was gathered by writers such as Ford Prefect.

So it didn’t really bother me that they made changes to the story in bringing The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (check out the Widescreen Edition) to the big screen. Having seen the results of a completely faithful screen translation recently (Sin City), I was more than happy to see The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy be less than faithful. Unfortunately, being Hollywood, they changed all the wrong things.

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The basic story (and it’s always been the most basic of stories) of an English everyman named Arthur Dent who gets saved from the demolition of Earth by his good friend (and undercover alien) Ford Prefect to go on an incredible journey through the galaxy remains mostly unchanged. They still have to listen to Vogon poetry, conveniently translated by a Babblefish, before they are thrown out an airlock into space.

They are still improbably saved from death by the Heart of Gold, the only starship in the universe with an improbability drive. That starship is still commanded by two-headed Galactic President Zaphod Beeblebrox, and crewed by Marvin the Paranoid Android and a girl named Tricia MacMillan (Trillian for short) that Arthur once tried to pick up at a party.

And they all end up on the planet Magrathea, home of an ancient race of world builders who had originally built Earth itself as a huge computer designed to calculate the question to life, the universe and everything (the answer, already computed over 7.5 million years by another supercomputer named Deep Thought, is 42). They just take a few different detours than those familiar to readers of the books.

The problem is that those detours result in a kind of philosophical shift away from what was always at the heart of the “Hitchhiker’s” story. The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy is a book about the absolute absurdity of existence. The answer the question of life, the universe and everything is 42, and nobody is ever sure of the question.

And that absurdity, first and foremost, is what the book was about. Surviving that absurdity, without actually learning anything valuable from it, is what made Arthur Dent who he was. The problem for Hollywood is that that is not the kind of hero they want for one of their movies. No, Hollywood heroes need to learn, or redeem, or defeat, or triumph over something.

So Dent, whose entire sad little life was annihilated in the first moments of the movie, when given the opportunity to return to that life in the end makes the uncharacteristic decision to continue to travel the galaxy with Trillian, Prefect and George W. er, Beeblebrox.

Although if absurd things like the Earth being destroyed to make a hyperspace expressway can happen, I suppose equally absurd things like a whole new Earth being created can also, but it shifts Arthur from a victim of circumstance to a being wholly in control of his situation. Other changes in the story are also counter-philosophical.

Zaphod Beeblebrox is now searching for the question to the answer of life, the universe and everything. No mention is made of the fact that Earth was only minutes away from calculating that question, which takes all of the irony out of the timing of Earth’s destruction.

Also, the Arthur and Trillian love story feeds us the old love conquers all, will make a new man out of you cliche that seems completely at odds with the overall philosophy of the books. If love gives meaning to life, then life has meaning and absurd old 42 doesn’t mean a thing. We always knew that Dent was attracted to Trillian, but being the man he was we never expected him to take the risks required to win her.

Of course it’s supremely tricky to adopt a book about an idea to the screen, especially a book about as absurd an idea as absurdity. The actors, director and screenwriters all manage to be fairly competent.

And in its own way this film is a legitimate take on the Hitchhiker’s story, especially if you like happy endings. But at its heart, it’s more platinum than gold; it’s just not the Hitchhiker’s that we all know and love.

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