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© 1987-2016
Scott Larson





Building façade in Cannes, France

Mostly harmless

In my constant search to find entertainment for my kid, I recently dug out a copy of Garth Jennings’s 2005 screen version of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Strange to think, but it had already been half a decade since I had seen it.

As I watched it again, just like the first time I saw it, I wanted to love it. I wanted to love it because I love the story that Douglas Adams came up with and I love Jennings’s work, which includes his wonderful follow-up feature Son of Rambow. But the movie kept frustrating me. I suppose it comes down to the old problem of loving the original so much that you just can’t accept a new version. I am fully prepared for this to happen again next spring when Tim Burton’s big screen version of Dark Shadows comes out. This apprehension increases the more I hear (or see) about Burton’s movie. For example, photos recently snapped on film location of Johnny Depp had him looking disturbingly like Michael Jackson. An officially released cast photo, modeled on a famous one done of the original TV cast four decades ago, looked nifty, and in that one Depp did not look like Michael Jackson. Instead, he looked like Harry Potter.

But back to Hitchhiker’s. Before it was a feature film in the 21st century, it was a radio series in the 20th century, as well as a series of novels, a television series, stage shows and a comic book. I first came to know it as the BBC television series, originally broadcast in 1981. I don’t remember exactly when I first saw it, but it would have been on Channel 9, the Seattle public television station. As an entertainment, it hit all the right chords for the time. It was steeped in the conventions of science fiction, drawn from TV shows such as Star Trek and Doctor Who, for which Douglas Adams spent time as a script editor and writer. It was also infused with that particular brand of British absurdist behavior exemplified by Monty Python. (Adams got a couple of writing credits on Monty Python’s Flying Circus, rare for a non-member of the troupe, and had a couple of brief onscreen appearances on the show.) Moreover, Adams’s environmental passion was on display in the TV series—in its explicit criticism of humans’ stewardship of planet earth—as well as his, as he called it, “radical atheism.” But, beyond all that, Adams was a brilliant observer and satirist of the society around him. In this regard, he had a deadly wit that Jonathan Swift himself might have admired.

An early adopter of the Apple Macintosh (reportedly, he was the first person in Europe to buy a Mac), Adams foretold the interactive nature of reference books in his vision of the computerized Hitchhiker’s Guide. In the amount of information the TV series threw up on the screen (visual representations of the titular guide), it was more than the viewer could realistically take in and so presaged an era when this would be standard practice for TV shows and movies, in the knowledge that viewers could pause at any point with their DVRs and DVD players. In short, The HHGttG was wonderful and thrilling in the way that it felt like the television of tomorrow and expected us to be very clever if we were going to keep up.

I have long felt a strange (and obviously self-flattering) kinship with Adams. Never mind that he had the kind of sense of humor that always made me think that he and I would get on well. We were born in the same year, and he wound up living in a place where I once lived and loved: Santa Barbara, California. (I, around the same time, moved from the west coast of America to his side of the pond.) And, like me, he became a father, of a daughter, when he was in his 40s. (In his case, at the monumentally significant age of 42. The answer to life, the universe and everything, indeed.) Sadly, though, he died (of a heart attack) just a short time before her seventh birthday—and just two months after his 49th. He had been working on a big screen version (the only medium it hadn’t conquered) of The HHGttG for decades. It was finally completed four years after his death.

With all this history behind the movie, you can understand why I wanted to love it. And I did. But mainly because of all the memories it evoked of when I first watched the original TV series. Strange to think, given all the jokes Adams made about religion in the various incarnations of The HHGttG, but I guess Adams’s story has become something nearly religious to me. I don’t want to see the sacred text altered, even though Adams himself was always rewriting it for different media. For me the wonderful Simon Jones was the only Arthur Dent and David Dixon the only Ford Prefect. Martin Freeman did a dandy job in the Arthur Dent role, but he was too likeable and not stuffy enough. Making Ford Prefect an American (Mos Def) made me miss David Dixon’s version, although it did make funnier the notion the he was passing himself off as being “from Guildford.” I love Sam Rockwell’s work, but something about his Zaphod Beeblebrox bothered me. It was too obviously inspired as a caricature of George W. Bush (although, upon current viewing, it makes Mos Def’s portrayal seem, unintentionally, like a riff on Barack Obama). But who knows, maybe Mark Wing-Davey’s rendition in the 1980s was meant to be caricature of Ronald Reagan, and it just went over my head.

Anyway, you can see where this going. I have gotten stuck back in time and am now one of those old codgers who doesn’t like people messing with my nostalgic memories. But you know, what was most grating was the fact that the filmmakers jettisoned the cheerfully gloomy ending of the original for a more or less standard romcom resolution. Instead of walking into primordial history with Ford Prefect, Arthur Dent winds up with Zooey Deschanel! But come to think of it, maybe this is the way it has to be. Maybe the romantic ending reflects where Adams was later in life, having discovered higher levels of love with his wife and child. He was no longer the wisecracking and pessimistic enfant terrible of two decades earlier.

Anyway, my kid loved the 2005 movie version. And you know what I did right after we finished watching it? I immediately started digging through my pile of old VHS tapes that I had shipped over from Seattle and didn’t stop until I found the one labeled “HHGttG” and put it into the old VCR, which is still hooked up to the television, and made my kid watch all six episodes, complete with pledge breaks from Channel 9.

Afterwards, she still preferred the 2005 version, but I know where my heart lies.

-S.L., 29 September 2011


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