Defending the 2005 Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy film and Preserving the Legacy of the Late Great Douglas Adams
As much of a bum rap as the 2005 film has, a new adaptation of the five books by Douglas Adams could be earth-shattering in a way the film was not
I have told the story in previous HubPages articles about how I got into the classic series of novels by the late great Douglas Adams detailing the adventures of ordinary Earthman Arthur Dent, intergalactic reporter Ford Prefect, two-headed, three-armed hippie President of the Galaxy Zaphod Beeblebrox and Zaphod's human squeeze Tricia "Trillian" McMillan, and I will not retell it here. I will, however, tell how I discovered the other versions.
I also more or less covered in my first article here how I discovered the 1981 TV series. However, around Christmastime in 1994, I was vacationing in Fort Myers, Florida with my grandparents because they intended to buy a home there and went to look at some. My late grandfather, who spoiled me rotten, and I had stopped in a Montgomery Ward department store. I saw a series of four tapes of an audiobook of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy on a shelf and, thinking it was a reading of the first book, I asked Pop-Pop if I could have it so I could occupy myself during our long car rides and he obliged. Listening to it on the way back to the motel we were staying at, however, I discovered it was, in fact, the original form of the twelve-episode BBC Radio 4 serial, broadcast in two six-episode blocks from 1978 to 1979. Considering I had only read Douglas Adams' interviews where he spoke of that original form, that was what I called a happy accident. Listening to them on car rides, I absolutely loved it and from then on, I understood what they meant whenever I heard elderly Americans at the time talk about, "When I was your age, sonny, television was called the radio!"
Then, also around Christmas that year, my grandfather showed me a newspaper article saying that former Monkee, Michael Nesmith, intended to produce a Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy film with Adams himself writing the screenplay (and knowing Douglas and what I had read in Neil Gaiman's book on him, I know he wouldn't have had it any other way). I was thrilled but was less so a year later when no such film arrived at my local theater. I always held out hope there would be a film of the series. So, apparently, did Douglas.
In late 1997, after Men in Black suddenly had all the Hollywood studios craving funny science fiction, Douglas Adams signed a deal to write a new draft of a Hitchhiker's screenplay for Walt Disney Studios which Austin Powers (and soon to be Meet The Parents) director Jay Roach would direct and he'd executive produce. Despite having high hopes this time, the film was no closer to production two and a half years later when Douglas unexpectedly passed away at the age of 49.
However, Jay Roach and intended producer Roger Birnbaum felt an even greater responsibility to get the film made after this happened, as did Douglas's longtime friend and colleague at his company the Digitial Village, Robbie Stamp, so they hired the screenwriter of Chicken Run, James and the Giant Peach and later Charlotte's Web, Karey Kirkpatrick, to polish up Douglas Adams' most recent draft of the screenplay and the film was finally greenlit for production in late 2003. So excited was the author about this that he checked the Internet (mostly a now-defunct website on Douglas that he will not name) for information on the film daily.
I was not immediately sold on the casting choice of Martin Freeman as ordinary Earthman Arthur Dent because, while he was an ordinary-looking guy, he didn't look like Arthur Dent, i.e. Simon Jones from the original radio show and TV miniseries (and good friend of Douglas Adams). But to Martin's credit, in several interviews at the time, he admitted that himself. I had been rooting for Coupling's Jack Davenport, who was much more Simon Jones-esque, ever since I saw him in Pirates of the Caribbean. Once I saw Freeman's turn as Tim Canterbury on the UK Office, I thought to myself, "I still don't know if he's Arthur, but I like him!"
Then the news that alien Ford Prefect, who named himself after a car and failed to adapt to Earth despite humans not noticing that, was being played by an African-American actor/rapper named Mos Def, aka Dante Terrell Smith, I looked at the fellow's picture and immediately dialed my friend Brian (an expert on rap music whereas I am not)'s cell phone. Brian only knew what I had told him about this property then but I was going to ask him about this fellow. I asked him if he knew a rapper named Mos Def. He said he did. I explained he had been cast in this movie I was talking about and how it already generated controversy online because people thought the character should be white. Brian replied, "He is a really good actor, though."
When I saw Brian in person later that day, I explained the character Mr. Def was portraying was an alien who traveled the galaxy and had to constantly explain complicated stuff to his frazzled human friend. He seemed to think he could do that. I said, "I heard somebody online say something about he might give Ford one of those heavy Ebonic accents..." And Brian shook his "no" head sharply. "Mos Def is very intelligent." (which, in researching him since, I've come to conclude he absolutely is) he said. I shrugged and said, "Then he can do it."
Truth be told, Mos Def was an interesting choice because Ford Prefect stuck out like a sore thumb on Earth and him being an African-American from New York made Ford stick out further. But I spent the next year explaining to fools (who didn't care because although they never said so, they just didn't want a black guy in the film) that Ford's description in the books, which was the only form most of these people seemed to know anyway, didn't matter because none of Hitchhiker's other adaptations were literal right down to the letter and that the only person who had to be played by an English actor was Arthur Dent according to Douglas Adams (and for the record, if they'd cast Mos Def as Arthur, which only an idiot would have done anyway, I would have been with those fools), but they didn't listen. Reminiscent of what is happening with Jodie Whittaker as the Thirteenth Doctor today but I digress.
I figured to myself that first-time (film, he'd done a ton of music videos before) director Garth Jennings and his partner, producer Nick Goldsmith, who were English and grew up with the material, must have cast Def for a reason. Then I saw a few days later they cast quirky character actor Sam Rockwell as Zaphod Beeblebrox, which I whole-heartedly agreed with and thought, "Well, if they got that right..."
I had only seen Rockwell in Charlie's Angels (and unknowingly in Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles in 1990) but I looked at him and I said, "He's perfect!" I had heard names such as Johnny Depp, Robert Downey Jr., Will Ferrell, Jack Black, and Jim Carrey for Zaphod over the years but any one of them would have been a disaster. First of all, they were all such big stars nobody would have been able to look past them and see Zaphod in a million years (even though being played by a big star would have suited the Big Z's ego) and second, all of those men don't have something Zaphod Beeblebrox needs (particularly and especially Black, Ferrell and Carrey) that Sam Rockwell has, they're not cool. And Rockwell's long blonde locks and heavy beard he had adapted for the film was pretty much exactly how Zaphod should have looked. I admit the second head under the first head thing was kinda goofy but so is having two heads to begin with.
I was a little disappointed the original voice of the group's resident forever morose robot Marvin the Paranoid Android, Stephen Moore, wasn't used to do the character's voice again because Douglas Adams said he wouldn't have gone to anyone else, but I was delighted that they cast the late, legendary Alan Rickman (who also had a perfect somber, sardonic voice for Marvin) in his place. He was Hans Gruber, for Heaven's sakes!
When the eventual film came out, it turned out to be something fans and non-fans either loved or hated, despite doing reasonably well commercially. The cast was great, it was funny, and it had plenty of the original material interspersed with a lot of new Douglas Adams ideas (mainly a subplot about the green Vogons chasing our heroes to rescue President Beeblebrox from his kidnapper, even though his kidnapper is himself in which we learn the Vogons are a race of disgruntled civil service employees who aren't even permitted to have original thoughts without getting smacked in the nose by wooden paddles), but sadly people (and in America, these people were mainly people who didn't realize the series were more than just books) who disliked the film had complaints such as:
"It didn't end like the book at all!" (The book did not end until the end of the second book The Restaurant at the End of the Universe. This ain't The Ten Commandments here, fellow)
"They changed too much!" (Hitchhiker's is very sloppily structured in its original story form, with a very long beginning, no middle, and an ending, that was why they took so long to get a proper screenplay, films have to be rigidly structured or else they don't get made)
"They disrespected Douglas Adams with their changes!" (uh, considering most of the changes were his, I don't think he would have felt too disrespected by them)
"Zaphod Beeblebrox was different." (It's called character development, dude, something else Hitchhiker's had a lack of in other forms)
"They added a lovebird subplot between Arthur and Trillian." (again, we go back to character development here, guys. Any buxom blonde extra in an action movie has more character development than Trillian does. Those kind of female characters are unacceptable today and Arthur wouldn't have made for any kind of main film character if he just stood around like a clueless putz the entire time like he usually does).
Brian saw the film with me on opening day. I figured just because I'd yapped about it so often he was doing it just to shut me up but he appeared genuinely anxious to see it when we went. And I was worried because when I would glance at him periodically he appeared to not be enjoying it but when we emerged he proclaimed nothing was further from the truth and he said he agreed with me when I said I disagreed with somebody that Mos Def should have been Zaphod. If he'd played Zaphod, it would have been a black stereotype and I know Mos Def/Yasiin Bey hates that.
And I admit it wasn't a perfect film, but there were plenty of British-centric jokes in it and enough of the original material maintained for me to consider it a good effort. Because it was never, ever, ever, going to be a literal adaptation of the other forms of the story.
I also recently came across Karey Kirkpatrick's August 2003 script which contained almost everything people were so upset was cut out of the picture as well as Douglas' new ideas, which makes me wonder if there is a longer cut of the film out there somewhere that would make the fans happier if it were released? I also came across a draft from 1987 by an "Abbie Bernstein" for producers Ivan Reitman, Joe Medjuck and Michael C. Gross. I had heard when Douglas himself came across it years after it was written, he was embarrassed to see his name on it when he didn't write one line in it. Reading it, I didn't blame him. I wouldn't have wanted my name on this thing either! On the upside, it proved to me that the eventual film could have been much, much worse. And anyone who doesn't believe me? Click away at my email address and I will forward you that draft and then I will double dare you to complain about the film we got again. Unlike this Abbie Bernstein draft, at least the eventual film had all the essential characters and plot points in tact!
Unfortunately, not enough people agreed with me to make it still revered to this day and that is why I will end this article by talking about something a young writer/director named Max Landis, who has adapted Douglas' other big series, Dirk Gently's Hollistic Detective Agency for BBC America, said.
He said you can't directly adapt Adams' work (which he didn't do) because his books don't work that way. I haven't seen the show so I can't say how well he did but he is not correct in that you can't directly adapt Adams. Radio scriptwriter/director Dirk Maggs, in 2004, adapted the last three novels in the book series to BBC Radio 4 with the original radio cast and he followed the material almost to the letter. Even when he did add something or (in rare cases) someone new, it came off as something Douglas Adams himself could have easily come up with. And despite thinking the film was a nice tribute to Douglas too, I think Dirk's adaptations were a far better tribute because I know Douglas loved his radio series so much. So I think that the BBC and/or BBC America or BBC Wales or somebody with BBC in their title should take Mr. Maggs' lead and readapt the series for television.
With the exception of Rod Lord's colorful and creative graphics for the Guide of the title in the show, the 1981 miniseries was ridiculously cheesy to look at (Longtime Adams close friend/writing collaborator and Associate Producer of the show John Lloyd once rightly complained how stupid the original Zaphod, Mark Wing-Davey, looked having to lug around this pathetic mechanical contraption masquerading as a second head and third arm in it), there's no question about that. Adams allegedly refused to work with producer/director Alan J.W. Bell on a potential second series when he didn't listen to enough of his creative ideas. However, Adams was on set for the making of the show almost the whole time and penned every line in all six of the scripts. So he adapted his own material well enough.
In addition, they had to cut several pieces of material out of the film because of time constraints (only so much you can put in an hour and thirty minute film). But in 1996, when the Paul McGann Doctor Who film premiered on FOX network, Americans had the same problem they generally had with the Hitchhiker's movie (despite it being much better than the McGann film, the only thing that got right was casting McGann and one of its supporting actors!), they just didn't get it. But today the current series is a smash here. Hitchhiker's, if the BBC followed through and took great care with it, could be the same way (maybe even on Saturday nights in-between Who seasons).
It could also solve all of the problems of the visual interpretations of years past. The original miniseries had all the proper material but the effects sucked. The 2005 film was visually stunning and well-performed but it was shortened. A new series could have all the proper material from all five books (and sorry, Mr. Eoin Colfer, your book is not invited) and do the special effects correctly.
So BBC One or Two, or BBC America, what about it, huh? And fans, I know you're out there, who's with me?