Film discussion

H2G2 @ 42 – The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy (2005) – Movie Rewind

This is the story of the movie of The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy. Getting an actual adaptation of the radio series (or book, or TV series, or computer game) wasn’t impossible as much as very, very improbable. The tale behind the film’s gestation and eventual happening wasn’t full of excitement, adventure and really wild things, but more a man’s ongoing struggles to take on the Hollywood system in order to bring his multimedia success into yet another format.

Douglas Adams had been trying since 1979 to get a movie version made of Hitchhiker’s Guide, and details of much of this backstory can be found elsewhere, taking us up to the turn of the century, when director Jay Roach – best known for the Austin Powers trilogy and Meet The Parents – had managed to get some momentum going on the now-stalled movie project. Austin Powers himself, Mike Myers, even put himself forward for consideration as a potential Zaphod in the early stages.

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Adams and Roach managed to strike a deal with Spyglass Entertainment, who were connected to the behemoth that is Disney, leading to initial fears among ardent fans that it would lead to a ‘Disneyfied’ version of the property heading into multiplexes. However, with Adams firmly onboard, he was adamant that the integrity of Hitchhiker’s Guide was fully assured. This time, it was right, it would work. Sadly, however, before they could start filming, a terribly stupid catastrophe occurred, and the idea was nearly lost forever.

For Douglas Noel Adams was to die suddenly on Friday 11th May 2001, without even having time to apologise for the inconvenience.

It wasn’t even just for a year, for tax reasons. Adams went off to the afterlife (which, knowing him, was likely more of an après-vie), leaving the project in limbo. Names of actors had been bandied around – like Hugh Laurie or Hugh Grant for Arthur and Jim Carrey as Zaphod – but nothing and no-one had in fact been set in stone or finalised at that point, and now with Adams’ untimely passing, it seemed like the Hitchhiker’s Guide was once again destined to remain an entry in David Hughes’ The Greatest Sci-Fi Movies Never Made.

Fortunately, death is no longer the career setback it used to be, and the loss of Adams seemed to galvanise the efforts of all concerned to get it over the finish line, as a tribute to the (frequently) late writer; this big push was spearheaded by Adams’ widow, Jane. Roach was no longer able to helm the project himself, due to production gearing up on Meet The Fockers, so he looked to engage the services of Spike Jonze (Being John Malkovich, Adaptation).

However, Jonze demurred and he instead recommended his fellow directors of music videos (Jonze having been behind Weezer’s ‘Buddy Holly’, amongst others), Hammer & Tongs – director Garth Jennings and producer Nick Goldsmith. It was to be the duo’s first feature film, the offer interrupting their plans to make what was to ultimately become 2007’s Son Of Rambow. In early pre-production, they’d planned to cast Jonze as Ford Prefect, alongside Adam Buxton as Arthur Dent.

Getting a workable shooting script in place was to be a big challenge for the production team. Before Adams’ death, a Disney exec – David Vogel – commissioned a new script from writer Josh Friedman (Chain Reaction, Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles). However, after Friedman’s draft was submitted back in March 2000, a copy was leaked onto the internet, leading to a scathing review of it on IGN. Adams was maddened both by the poor reception and the changes Friedman has made, so he rewrote it, and this was to become the basis of the eventual movie.

With Adams no longer around to do any further work on the script, writer Karey Kirkpatrick (Chicken Run) was brought onboard in 2002, working not only from previous versions, but also material taken from Adams’ hard drive, as well as notes between Adams and the studio on the previous drafts, unfinished scenes, and much more which helped to inform his take on the story. His script was then ready for Jennings & Goldsmith when they were approached to make the film, with the pair suggesting tweaks for what was to become the final draft, ready for shooting at Elstree Studios in 2004.

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Perhaps the most onerous task would be the actual casting. Although there’d been theatre-based versions previously with different casts, for most people Simon Jones would be the definitive Arthur Dent, and Geoffrey McGivern or David Dixon would forever be Ford Prefect. Electing to take things in a different direction, Jennings and Goldsmith had picked Martin Freeman – hot from his success playing Tim in The Office – to portray Arthur, and rapper Yasmin Bey (a.k.a. Mos Def) was cast as Ford; Adams had previously said he was open to an American playing the role.

Sam Rockwell – who had appeared in 1999’s sci-fi comedy Galaxy Quest – was chosen to be Zaphod Beeblebrox, and Zooey Deschanel was to be the big screen’s Tricia McMillan (or ‘Trillian’). Splitting up the role of Marvin the Paranoid Android between them were Warwick Davies (Willow) as the body, and Alan Rickman (who had appeared alongside Rockwell in Galaxy Quest) providing the voice. A variety of UK talent was used to keep the British end firmly up, with The League Of Gentlemen proving assorted Vogon voices (and Steve Pemberton also playing Mr. Prosser).

The task also remained of who they could get to voice the titular book, as Peter Jones – who’d performed the role on radio and TV – had sadly passed away in 2000. Originally, Oliver Postgate – who’d not only voiced, but also created some of British television’s most beloved children’s shows, like Bagpuss, Ivor The Engine, and The Clangers – tried out for the part, but quickly counted himself out. Stephen Fry seemed to be the obvious choice, given that he was a famous polymath, and also known for being a voice of all things knowledgable on quiz show Q.I., so he was signed up as the unseen narrator.

Of course, there were efforts to give nods to what had gone before, as a nice homage for devotees. For example, there was an appearance by the original BBC Marvin in a cameo on the planet Vogsphere, as one of a plethora of robots and aliens in a queue. The original Arthur Dent himself – Simon Jones – turned up as the automated message transmitted from the planet Magrathea. The Eagles track ‘Journey Of The Sorcerer’ was kept as the theme. And Douglas Adams himself actually cropped up during the film on more than one occasion, from featuring in the design on a teacup, to being the very last image seen before the end credits.

Given that one of the things Hitchhiker’s Guide features is the notion of ‘Plural Zones’ – which gave rise to the idea of there being a near-infinite number of alternative realities – it remained to be seen whether fans could accept one which had neither Joneses Simon nor Peter starring in it. Things didn’t seem to bode particularly well after a rough cut was screened, and the Douglas Adams biographer M.J. Simpson wrote a rather excoriating 10,000 word review, which led to Slartibartfast actor Bill Nighy rather colourfully voicing his open disapproval of the writer during publicity rounds for the movie.

This might not have been the Hitchhiker’s Guide that fans were used to, but if you’d compared the different iterations there’d been to date, none of them were actually the same, and they all varied in their own ways, some more drastically than others. Although Adams hadn’t actually produced the final shooting draft himself, his DNA ran through the whole script, and used new concepts he’d either created or refined from other writers’ earlier attempts. As such, the movie of Hitchhiker’s Guide is as valid as any of the other versions since 1978.

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It certainly seemed to have been relatively well received, as it took £4.2 million in the UK during its opening week after being released on April 28th 2005; when it came out in the US, The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy featured in the Box Office Top 10 for its first four weeks. By the time it had finished its theatrical run, Hitchhiker’s Guide had grossed a total of $104,478,416 around the globe. However, it wasn’t enough to secure a trip to Milliways, the Restaurant At The End Of The Universe, as this not insignificant amount sadly didn’t make the grade to ensure a sequel.

So, Hitchhiker’s Guide‘s run on the silver screen was all too brief, but we should be grateful that it reached cinemas at all, after languishing away in Development Hell for over two decades. It may not be what some fans were expecting, but for some people this would have been their first exposure to Douglas Adams’ creation, and drawn them into wanting to check out the books, the radio shows, the TV series, and so on. Hopefully, one day we might get to see another movie, whether a delayed sequel, or maybe an entirely new take on the material altogether.

Who knows, maybe one day we’ll finally be able to say: So long, and thanks for all the flicks.

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