Out of loyalty to my adolescence, I went to see The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy Sunday night. Reading the Hitchhiker's "trilogy" was one of the tests for entry into the inner circle of suburban American teenage geeks in the early 80s. Other tests included: reciting π to an arbitrary number of significant digits (I never got beyond 8), reading Douglas Hofstadter's Gödel, Escher, Bach (poked around in it in highschool and finally read it through in grad school), intimate knowledge of Monty Python's Flying Circus and/or Doctor Who (I reached moderate proficiency with the former but never did become a Whovian), creating recursive acronyms (OK, this one may be a little obscure, but I remember being both impressed by and jealous of "Bram, the Recursive Acronym Man," whom I met at geek summer camp), and playing Dungeons & Dragons (yup, and the less said about this the better).
I recalled loving the books (up to number four, So Long and Thanks for the Fish (1984); by the time number five, Mostly Harmless (1992), came out, I had moved on to geekery of a different sort), so the prospect of the movie produced a mixture of nostalgia (ahh, relive the simple pleasures of my youth) and trepidation (what if I decide the pleasures of my youth were really inane?). In the end, the movie delivered neither extreme. It was enjoyable enough, but it also became clear that much of the humor of the books is optimized for 13-year-olds who are too smart for their own good. Depending on one's tolerance for absurdist sci-fi, the movie will probably range from very pleasant to unbearable. For the most part, it seemed to stick pretty close to the book, although my memories of it are pretty vague (and unencumbered by any exposure to either the original radio play or later TV miniseries versions).
Other miscellaneous observations:
- Sam Rockwell's performance as President of the Galaxy Zaphod Beeblebrox was, I thought, suitably over the top. The finessing of his being two-headed was unexpected, but probably the only way to stay true to the book (and the plot) without spending (additional) megabucks on special effects.
- I hear that the romantic significance of Trillian/Tricia Macmillan was exaggerated for the movie. I had pretty much forgotten that character altogether, so I suspect that's true (though it may also betray the fact that I was still in the "Girls? yuck!" phase of life when I first read the book). I found Zooey Deschanel to be disconcertingly familiar-looking, but a check on her credits indicates I have never seen her before in my life.
- I remember, with absolute clarity, the robot Marvin as having the form of a dog. Maybe this was pure imagination, but in any case, I found the waddling, globe-headed robot of the movie a little weird. Alan Rickman's voicing of the depressed automaton is terrific, though.
- The movie, in the form of voice-over narration from the Guide (i.e., the "actual" Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy), manages to check off most of the great set-piece jokes of the book (including treatises on Vogon poetry and the biology of the Babel fish). Oddly missing, however, is the story of Ford Prefect's extensive Guide article on Earth being edited down to two words: "Mostly harmless." Likewise, the explanation of the utility of towels (especially in escaping the Ravenous Bugblatter Beast of Traal) is notably absent.
- Also missing is my favorite Zaphod Beeblebrox line: "That's a really great spaceship! I think I'll steal it!" (or something to that effect).
- As an erstwhile hypertext researcher, I found myself especially intrigued by the representations of the Guide. Although not explicitly hypertextual in the books, the movie's Guide, as animated by British video collective Shynola, with sliding subject headings and forking cross-references seems very much in the hypertext spirit. It might be worthwhile to trace a history of fictional, impossible books. Of course, HHGTTG has another tie-in with the history of hypertext/interactive fiction since in 1984, Infocom released a text-based adventure game based on the series.
- When I grow up, I want to be a Head of Hair and Fur (apparently an actual job title within Jim Henson's Creature Shop).
Addendum (5/18): I forgot to mention that the whole sequence where Slartibartfast gives Arthur a guided tour of his Earth reconstruction project is pretty damn cool and includes an hilarious throwaway shot of a laborer painting Ayers Rock red. (Perhaps this is only funny if one has seen Ayers Rock. It looks just like the kind of superfluous and enigmatic feature an overambitious designer would concoct.)