On Wednesday night I watched the 2005 film adaptation of Douglas Adams's The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy for the first time since that time in Eugene. I've thought about the film reasonably often during that time, and my feelings looking back on it were mainly frustrating ones.
That's still the case. I dislike most of the movie. It's overly loud, surprisingly juvenile, jarring in tone, and full of decisions that made and make me go "Huh?" Hitchhiker's Guide was always going to be difficult to adapt to film, as evidenced by how every attempt from 1979(!) until the mid-Nineties floundered and the eventual film took approximately 10 years to finally happen. (Weird to think that there hadn't been a huge hit science fiction comedy until 1997's Men in Black, which to an extent greased the wheels to get Hitchhiker's filmed. No, Spaceballs wasn't a big hit. Neither was Heavy Metal.) And maybe a genuinely good movie adaptation of this digressive, satiric story just isn't possible: a movie may not have the breathing space for the odd turns Hitchhiker's has taken in all its other forms*.
The movie's frustrating decisions include turning depressed robot Marvin into a sad sack, instead of the sarcastic smartass he was in every other version ("Oh, sorry, did I say something wrong, pardon me for breathing, which I never do anyway so I don't know why I bother to say it..."). Voice actor Alan Rickman did what he could with the lines, and man-in-suit Warwick Davis really threw himself admirably into the part, but the role is a failure at the script level. Sam Rockwell's George W. Bush-on-uppers performance as fugitive Galactic President Zaphod Beeblebrox gets old very quickly. I get conceptually what Mos Def (now known as Yasiin Bey) did to portray the alien-ness of his character Ford Prefect, giving him tics that you don't expect a person to have, but I had trouble connecting to the character here. (The sometimes unclear line readings don't help.) John Malkovich as religious leader Humma Kavula sleepwalks through his cameo, more interesting for the visuals (though the visuals aren't particularly funny) than for the mainly plot-pushing lines he has.
Martin Freeman does okay as main character Arthur Dent, the everyman from Earth at the center of the story, but often in a "Jeff Lebowski as The Dude" way where more things happen around him than to him. Great for The Big Lebowski, not so great here (a film with none of the offbeat greatness of Lebowski). Maybe the moment added to the film that's most characteristic of both the character and the earlier versions of Hitchhiker's is when Arthur sees an alien waiting room and quietly says to himself "I'm British: I can queue." I wish this film had had more quiet moments like that.
I found myself honestly impressed with Zooey Deschanel, who might give the best overall performance here. She's former Earth resident Trillian, who's had more time to adjust to the universe than Arthur has. Adams admitted that Trillian was a weak, redundant character at first, for reasons that were his fault as a writer; she really had nothing to do until the third book (I'd forgotten that he completely wrote her out of the second radio series), but at least here she's made more substantial and has more to do; I think some of the film's best screenwriting involves her, like when she uses the Point-of-View Gun on Zaphod. She's wistful for the home she left behind but open to the neat things that are possible in the rest of the galaxy. And when she gets mad, she has a point and good reasons to be mad.
The film's varying levels of cartoonish designing, on top of the loudness and jarring-ness, kept taking me out of it. For every effective visual like the spacecraft Heart Of Gold and the blocky Vogon ships (and the impressive Vogons, made by Jim Henson's Creature Shop), there's an overly cartoonish crab or throwaway gag-level alien.
The score by Joby Talbot often seems frenetic for the sake of being frenetic, and (more of a problem, I think) wacky for the sake of wackiness. The opening song is the earworm of earworms, and I'm not sure that's a good thing; bold choice, but I still don't know if it was the right way to start this film.
And the thing is, making a story in the early 2000s which has such Seventies roots may add to why it's jarring. By 2005, hitchhiking was a much-reduced aspect of the world (reduced still more, I'm guessing, now that we have Uber and Lyft). The deodorant gag, a throwaway line in earlier versions and given a plot purpose here, is another very Seventies thing. This Seventies-ness would have been less of an issue or not an issue at all had an earlier attempt to film Hitchhikers succeeded but, of course, that didn't happen in this world.
But. But. All the frustrating aspects of the Hitchhiker's film still lead to one particular sequence that honestly gets to me and moves me: Arthur Dent seeing the immense factory floor where entire planets are under construction. Arthur gets to take a break from being angered, bothered, or bewildered by the universe to see something huge, positive, and beautiful, and it clearly affects him.
In its many previous forms, The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy is informed by sadness: Douglas Adams often lived with depression, and had already had enough loss in his life that he understood what grief and loss felt like...and what it could take to feel happy again after grief and loss. And how to feel happy while living with depression. As funny and pointedly satirical as his work often is, that work still acknowledges the sadness that can happen in life. The fourth novel, So Long and Thanks for All the Fish, is especially strong that way: it gives Arthur a happy ending by falling in love with the Earth woman Fenchurch. (Yes, I know Fenchurch is rather cruelly wrenched away from him in the fifth novel, 1992's Mostly Harmless: that book reflects how 1992, due to death and a key betrayal (sounds melodramatic, but I'm not exaggerating), was one of the most difficult years of Douglas Adams's life. I'm not surprised that Mostly Harmless is grim.) Happiness can take work. In the world of Hitchhiker's and in ours, it can take a lot of work. It's still worth the work.
I'll likely never revisit the 2005 film, but I will revisit the many other versions of Hitchhiker's Guide.
* Which include multiple radio series, retellings on LPs and cassettes, five Douglas Adams-penned novels (and one authorized sequel by Eoin Colfer, a book to which I was not kind), a computer game, a canceled second computer game, a 1981 BBC miniseries, even towels with the Guide's statement on the importance of towels printed on them. Hulu since 2019 has been developing a proposed Hitchhiker's Guide TV series; I don't know that show's status.