THE HITCHHIKER'S GUIDE TO THE GALAXY MOVIE... DO PANIC?Uh-oh...
Author and journalist MJ Simpson, founder of the Planet Magrathea Hitchhiker's Guide fan site, has seen a mostly-finished cut of the Disney Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy film at a special screening for journalists, and is less than enthused by it. To put it mildy.
"The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy movie is bad. Really bad. You just won't believe how vastly, staggeringly, jaw-droppingly bad it is. I mean, you might think that The Phantom Menace was a hopelessly misguided attempt to reinvent a much-loved franchise by people who, though well-intentioned, completely failed to understand what made the original popular - but that's just peanuts to the Hitchhiker's movie. Listen.
And so on...
It’s bad on a big scale because enormous swathes of the story have been dispensed with - most of the Guide entries, whole scenes - or changed beyond all recognition. And it is bad on a small scale because many, many wonderful lines have been cut or in some cases actually rewritten to make them less funny. Whatever your favourite line from Hitchhiker’s, there’s a good chance that it won’t be in the film. Even if it’s really well-known, widely-quoted, much-loved, very funny - it will probably be absent from the movie. Or if it is there, it might have been changed."
Just so there's no ambiguity as to what he thinks of the film, Simpson closes the spoiler-free version of his review with this line:
"This is a terrible, terrible film and it makes me want to weep."
For those of us who actually prefer reading spoilers prior to seeing something and want to know what specific problems he had with the film, "don't panic", Simpson has also written a lengthy scene-by-scene breakdown spread out over four long pages that seem to indicate that most examples of Douglas Adams' sharp wit have been excised to make this film a fairly generic wacky space comedy (think Men in Black 2), and there's so little of the expository information about the universe provided by the Guide that huge swaths of the film will likely not make sense to casual viewers who have not heard, read, or seen any of the previous incarnations of the story, all of which were somewhat different from one another but all of which had most of the same major plot elements intact.
Here's just one example that, if this is the way the final cut of the film, I find somewhat egregious.
"Hitchhiker's Guide always had a strong opening. It was beginnings that Douglas Adams was good at, middles and especially ends being a bit trickier. The dialogue between Arthur and Prosser, which was written for a sketch in a Cambridge Footlights revue in October 1973, is a terrific example of Douglas' clever way with - and love of - language:"I eventually had to go down to the cellar to find them."
"That's the Display Department."
"With a torch."
"The lights had probably gone."
"So had the stairs."
"But you found the plans, didn't you?"
"Oh yes, they were 'on display' in the bottom of a locked filing cabinet stuck in a disused lavatory with a sign on the door saying 'Beware of the leopard.'"
Or, as the movie version has it:"I eventually had to go down to the cellar to find them."
"But you found the plans, didn't you?"
Can you spot what has been removed from this scene, gentle reader, in order to shorten it? That's right. The jokes. The jokes have gone. The funny bits, the wit, the humour. The clever stuff that made it worth including in the first place."
See, one of the most memoriable pieces of dialogue in the entire story, an exchange that is funny in and of itself (though I think it's funnier if you include the final "Ever thought of going into advertising?" punchline, which Simpson didn't include in his excerpt), has been "gisted" to the point that there's no joke remaining, it's just a couple of unremarkable lines that audiences have to endure while they wait for the kewl explosion when the world blows up.
Here's a list of important items from the three main versions of the story that aren't in the movie.
Is MJ Simpson being too tough? "Quint" at Ain't It Cool News has posted a short rebuttal.
"Now I saw a test screening of THE HITCHHIKER'S GUIDE TO THE GALAXY and while I didn't think it was the greatest thing since sliced bread, I thought the spirit of Douglas Adams was captured well. There was about 10-15% of the movie I had any problem with and that was all in the (to me) forced romance between Arthur and Trillian.".
"I respect Mr. Simpson's love for Adams' text a whole lot and I respect his opinion on the film, but I have to say... the overall feeling I get from reading his reviews is that he's not seeing the forest for the trees. He seems to be really caught up on single lines (sometimes single words!) missing that he may have missed the bigger picture."
Quint later added to that article with an e-mail from someone who calls himself "Pseudo Simon" who claims to have attended the cast and crew screening in London on Sunday.
"I think that MJ is clearly a huge fan, and I respect the fact that they're upset with the changes. All fans get upset over things like this, Star Wars, comic geeks, Trekkies, we all get in a tizz if things are changed. My best friend, who is a massive fan, saw these changes. And he understood them. And he liked the film for what it is: a film. Not a book on screen. Not a TV show updated. It's still a story that's been made for a different medium. No, not every version's going to be as you want it to be (Although from what I hear of Sin City this could change...), it can't have everything you liked about the book, TV or radio show, but I like the respect the film-makers had for it, the fun they had making it, and the fact that they could make this sci-fi geek still be amazed by the scope and vision the book had when I was a kid. I laughed, I marvelled, and I had a fun couple of hours."
This being AICN, the people in the Talkback are mostly less-than-polite, many calling Simpson an "anal fanboy".
I wouldn't say I'm exactly a Hitchhiker's Guide purist; my own allegiance is to the BBC TV version, which seems to be regarded by the hardcore fans as the least of the three major versions of the story (the other two being the BBC radio play and the Douglas Adams novel). I know it's not the greatest version, but it's what I was exposed to first and is, to me, the definitive Hitchhiker's Guide experience. And, yeah, the version I like has already been dumbed down a bit for television but it still has enough of the dialogue preserved to make it a relatively intelligent viewing experience, and animator Rod Lord's simple text-and-diagram animations for the Guide gave the TV version a unique visual trademark that I think was, in some small way, influential1 as to how text and information is presented websites with well-designed layouts (i.e. what this blog is not). The story in Hitchhiker's Guide is strictly secondary to the smart dialogue, or at least it's supposed to be.
Is Hollywood's version of the story a suitable tribute to Adams' comic legacy, or is it just a film that presents much of the gist of the story, just louder, flashier, and dumber, pandering to the perceived tastes of the average American teenage moviegoing audience? MJ Simpson says it's the latter, AICN's Quint and many other people who have seen it say it's the former. I will not have an opinion myself until I see it at the end of the month.
For what it's worth, I actually did enjoy The Phantom Menace so I'm not jumping prematurely to the conclusion that I shall end up agreeing with MJ Simpson.
(Though, one thing I am happy to see in the complete spoiler summary is that there are a couple of nods to the TV series version, or one nod to the TV series version and one nod to both the radio play and the TV series. I've also heard some reports that the Eagles' Journey of the Sorcerer, the instrumental track that served as the theme for both the radio play and the TV series, does show up somewhere in the film, another bone tossed for us TV series fan.)
1 To clarify a bit, I think Rod Long's Hitchhiker's Guide animations were influential on the way that computer information was displayed on the "Com screens" in the later-era Star Trek series, which, in turn, were a big influence on early web designers.