Adapting novels for film is never an easy job, and itís made doubly difficult when the novel in question—say, Douglas Adamsí The Hitchhikerís Guide to the Galaxy—gets its juice as much from the authorís unique voice and deliberately nonconformist style as it does from plot and character. The elan of the prose and how it takes shape on the page are simply not aspects of a novel that can be transferred to a visual medium, unless one trains a camera on someone reading the book, which would hardly make for a cinematic experience.
There are a great number of things wrong with the new Hollywood adaptation of The Hitchhikerís Guide to the Galaxy, and they all stem from the script. (The FX are fine, for instance, and some are even breathtaking; an excellent little Monty Python-style showtune sung by dolphins opens the film; and the cast is extraordinary, but without a hardy blueprint, they can do little more than flail about helplessly, which is indeed what they do.) Adams famously likened the process by which a Hollywood movie gets to the screen as "trying to grill a steak by having a succession of people come into the room and breathe on it,"1 and though he eventually relented and got close to finishing a script (quite an achievement for a man who considered deadlines amusing suggestions) upon which screenwriter Karey Kirkpatrick expanded, itís hard to imagine that what ended up on the screen would have pleased the author.
Adamsís satire has been severely truncated by the film, not because many of the Guide entries that were the meat of Adamsís askance view of the world didnít make it into the film, but because the uniquely Adams-y elements that did make it are so weirdly mangled that they will make no sense whatsoever to those not already familiar with Adamsís novel. And what is on the screen is presented with little appreciation for Adamsís eccentric way of telling a story.
Two very specific examples can serve as a metaphor for the failure of the script as a whole. The first is tied up in either a deep misunderstanding of how Adamsís played with cause and effect in his fiction, or in an unwillingness to be adventurous enough before a mainstream American audience to risk them failing to understand that preposterousness in the plotline was deliberate. I speak, of course, of the Infinite Improbability Drive, which, in the film, serves as little more than the visual equivalent a one-liner, allowing the starship Heart of Gold to morph into a flower or Douglas Adamsís own head as it slams into normal space before stabilizing as a starship. In the novel, the very nature of the Infinite Improbability Drive turns it into a sendup of the often tortured plot machinations bad writers resort to in order to get their characters where they need to be in order for the stuff the author needs to happen to them can happen. The Infinite Improbabilty Drive became a way for Adams to dispense with the literary equivalent of ďall that tedious mucking about hyperspaceĒ and cut right to the chase: Have Arthur plug a random and otherwise useless phone number into the Heart of Goldís computer, and wham! Adamsís characters are precisely where he needs them to be for his next bit of fabulous fluffery.
But not here. The Infinite Improbabilty Drive can be seen in many other metaphoric ways as well, of course, as, for instance, a meditation on the underlying weirdness and logic of the universe. That attitude is embodied in not only the fundamental interconnectedness of the triangular relationship between Arthur, Zaphod, and Trillian, but in how Adams lets the audience discover that relationship. In the novel, you may recall, tidbits of it are slipped in gradually in a way that does not indicate they will be connected until the very moment that Arthur, the last man from planet Earth, immediately after being introduced to ex-Galactic President Zaphod Beeblebrox from Betelgeuse V, snaps, ďWeíve met.Ē Not only is that hilariously absurd, but itís an indication of how Adamsís universe is going to constantly knock the breath out of you and the feet from under you with its sense and nonsense.
Yes, in the film, Arthur and Ford are rescued by the Heart of Gold at an Improbability equal to that of the phone number of the Islington flat at which Arthur met Tricia McMillan only to see her wooed away by Zaphod ďPhilĒ Beeblebrox. But the bizarre connectedness of the lives and fortunes of all three of them is lost because the ďjokeĒ in the film about Arthurís would-be new girlfriend going off with an alien has long been deployed and dismissed—that is, in fact, the totality of the joke. When the punchline to what is perhaps the central bit of metaphysical humor is revealed in the very beginning of the film, all reason for the joke to be told in the first place is gone. In this instance (and in many others in the film) the Adams-y pieces may all be there, but the sense of how they fit together is gone—there is no cohesion in any of it.
This deflating of the Zaphod-Arthur-Trillian relationship is particularly inexplicable because the film unfortunately turns the triangle of interconnectedness into an actual romantic triangle. Removing Arthurís (and our) shock and indignation at the infinitely improbable coincidence of his meeting again Tricia and ďPhilĒ robs this triangle of energy it desperately needed if it were going to work for the story or characters. Which it does not do, perhaps needless to say.)
A simpler example of how the mere presence of particles of Adams does not add up to a cohesive whole concerns two of what are probably his most beloved tropes: towels, and the Ravenous Bugblatter Beast of Traal. Both are present in the film, and neither will mean anything to anyone who has not read Adamsís novel. The film Ford makes a big deal of presenting the film Arthur with a towel as they are about to embark upon their interstellar journeying, but the film Ford at no point endeavors to explain what the towel might be useful for; indeed, other characters at later points are seen with towels wrapped round their head as if theyíve just had a shampoo, but for no reason thatís obvious even if you have read Adams. The towel is mere flavor. And—as with the loss of Arthurís getting off on the wrong foot with Zaphod—it is especially inscrutable when the perfect moment for the introduction of at least one good reason to carry a towel galactically presents itself.
There comes—in the mostly pointless padding out that occurs in the middle of the film, where irrelevant new characters and situations are introduced, fail to be explored or exploited, and are immediately forgotten—a moment during which one of the principal characters is being deliberately dangled over a cage containing one particularly hungry Ravenous Bugblatter Beast of Traal. (In order to maintain some suspense for the reader who may not yet have seen the film, I will refrain from revealing who is threatened with being fed to the Beast. Devoted fans of Adams will at this point likely be suffering from an increasing level of stress to which I am loathe to add; and since it matters not one whit to my argument who may or may not become Ravenous Bugblatter Beast of Traal kibble, I feel comfortable withholding this information.) No details have been offered to the movieís audience about the special stupidity of the Beast—itís so dumb that it thinks that if you canít see it, it canít see you—but we readers all know that to rescue this person would involve merely throwing him or her a towel to wrap round his or her head. Instead, of course, a very convoluted Rube Goldberg plot thread is arrayed to effect the rescue (and without that bit of trivia about the Beast, it becomes merely another standard sci-fi BEM; the joke of the Beast is completely lost). Some attempt is made to give the scheme an Adams flavor, but it ends up, as does nearly every attempt to make this film feel like something Douglas Adams would have written, utterly misfiring.
If you keep a carefull watch, though, during this Rube Goldberg, not-Douglas Adams sequence, youíll spot the original Marvin the Paranoid Android, from the 1980s BBC miniseries. One can only wonder what kind of torture this must be for him.