It is Thursday, and Arthur Dent already has a feeling early in the morning that this is not going to be his day. His attempts to wake up are rudely interrupted by a bulldozer trying to knock his house down in favour of a motorway bypass - he is only able to stop the construction crew by lying down in front of the heavy machinery. While arguing with a certain official called Mr. Prosser, Arthur's good friend Ford Prefect shows up and convinces him to join him at the nearby pub to be filled up with beer and peanuts. Then Arthur realizes that this Thursday will be the strangest of his life when Ford explains that he is not from Guildford, but from a small planet in the vicinity of Betelgeuse and the Earth will be destroyed by Vogons shortly to make room for a hyperway expressroute. In literally the last second, Ford Prefect manages to transport them on board a Vogon spaceship. In his profession of being a roving reporter for the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, this does not present much of a problem for him - but Arthur is really lost when he arrives in the hold of an alien spaceship together with his friend, who tells him his home planet has been destroyed ...
Douglas Adams was one of the most unusual authors in the modern history of literature, creating a whole new genre of science-fiction with his Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. Originally conceived as a radio play, the author soon transformed his story into novels. While only twelve half-hour episodes of the radio series were made and they were followed by only six episodes of the television adaptation, both became as much a success as Douglas Adams' Hitchhiker books, of which he wrote altogether five until 1992 with varying pauses in between. The stories of Arthur Dent, Ford Prefect, Zaphod Beeblebrox and Trillian were not only a worldwide success, but almost became cultural classics with the amount of influence they have had over the years.
The BBC television series produced in 1981 had been the only visual adaptation of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy for a long time and was very popular among fans because of its closeness to the radio series and for giving the characters their definitive appearance. Although he had written the script himself, Douglas Adams was never entirely satisfied with the series because of differences with director Alan Bell and the hasty production process. But despite the difficult circumstances, the television series had become as much of a classic as the radio series and novels.
One Story, Many Versions
The several versions of the story are to some extent completely different, because with each incarnation, Douglas Adams had re-written and changed the plot. There simply is no definitive version of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, but it is noticeable that the author had always wanted to make the books his final edition of the ever-changing plot, although he was also never completely satisfied with them. At the same time, Douglas Adams had answered the questions of his fans which version of the story is the official one with the notion that there are simply several parallel incarnations of it and none of them is supposed to substitute the other.
A movie version of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy had not even remotely materialized for a long time, although Douglas Adams had early on gotten some very tempting offers from Hollywood. The often cited phrase "Star Wars with jokes" and the unfavourable experience with the television series kept the author from making any firm commitments. Nevertheless, he traveled to Los Angeles in 1982 to work with Producers Michael Gross and Joe Medjuck and director Ivan Reitman on a possible movie. Although Douglas Adams got on very well with the filmmakers and even wrote a couple of script drafts, the project fizzled out when Reitman and his producers chose to work on another project instead, which later smashed the boxoffices under the title of Ghostbusters. After this episode, for a long, long time it looked like that there would never be a movie version of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy.
A New Beginning and a Tragedy
In the middle of the 1990s, something new was stirring around a movie adaptation of the Hitchhiker's Guide, when the computer-enthusiastic Douglas Adams had founded the multimedia company The Digital Village and released the interactive computer game Starship Titanic. While this was not connected to the Hitchhiker's Guide universe, and the Infocom text adventure from 1984 remains the only official Hitchhiker game, it was a distinctly similar idea and brought Douglas Adams back to work on a movie script. Together with his friend and business associate Robbie Stamp, he began the arduous task of securing a financing deal with a big movie studio.
In 1998, Douglas Adams signed a contract with, to the later dismay of many fans, Touchstone Pictures, a studio belonging to the Walt Disney company. Many feared a bad influence from Disney in the movie, but Douglas Adams would not have been Douglas Adams if he had not insisted on huge creative freedoms as one of the main conditions of the contract. In hindsight, the acquisition of Lucasfilm by Disney almost fifteen years later makes the concerns about the Hitchhiker movie look even more baseless. At the same time, Douglas Adams had also been negotiating with the BBC about a continuation of the radio series based on the last three Hitchhiker novels, which he had been planning since 1993 with Dirk Maggs, a young radio producer and writer .
All these projects came to a standstill when Douglas Adams died on May 11th, 2001 of a sudden heart attack. He left behind not only millions of grieving fans, but also his wife Jane, his six-year-old daughter Polly and a big family. Despite their grief, his family and his best friends decided to continue the projects he had begun, because until his unexpected death, Douglas Adams had written and collected a lot of material. On his computer, a lot of texts were found, some of which were released as a posthumous collection under the title The Salmon of Doubt in 2002.
Saving the Hitchhiker
Also saved from development hell was the movie adaptation of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. Douglas Adams' friend Robbie Stamp made it his task to fulfil the greatest wish of the author: to finally make a big-screen movie of his story, Although neither director nor actors had been chosen yet, the preparations were in full swing - an almost finished script by Douglas Adams existed and the contract and financial backing were already in place. The preproduction kicked off in early 2003 in earnest, with finding a director and a cast as the highest priority.
Before he passed away, Douglas Adams had actually chosen Jay Roach as director while Hugh Laurie was to be the new Arthur Dent and Jim Carrey had been suggested as Zaphod Beeblebrox. Roach was unfortunately not able to work on the movie full time because of the long delays, but he still remained as one of the executive producers and also suggested music video and movie director Spike Jonze as his replacement. He also declined, but brought in a third suggestion with the British music video maker duo Garth Jennings and Nick Goldsmith, better known as Hammer & Tongs. Even they were skeptical in the beginning, but Robbie Stamp, Jay Roach and even Douglas Adams' closest friends liked their way of working so much, that Garth Jennings was chosen as director and Nick Goldsmith as the main producer.
Simultaneously, the preparations for a continuation of the radio series were beginning in earnest. Dirk Maggs, who had previously worked together with Douglas Adams on a different project, got the permission of Adam's family and the BBC to adapt the remaining three books of the Hitchhiker series. This was not altogether uncomplicated, because the first two books roughly followed the first six episodes of the radio play, but much of the second radio series was entirely different than the novels and had a unique plot which was not present anywhere else. Therefore, some narrative trickery had to be employed to join up the two parallel plots.
Dirk Maggs was, however, perfectly able to write the radio scripts of the new episode like they would have been created by Douglas Adams himself. The new episodes were recorded with almost the same cast as 1978, only the late Peter Jones as the voice of the Guide was recast with William Franklyn and some smaller secondary characters also got some new, but perfectly matching voices. The new radio series was broadcast in Autumn 2004 and shortly before the premiere of the movie in early 2004, giving the fans the long-awaited continuation of the radio series and the first new interpretation of the Hitchhiker saga since the early 1980s. The response was overwhelmingly positive, the series was able to enthrall everybody with the true to the original production bringing the Hitchhiker's Guide to life in the best way possible.
New Movie, New Actors
Compared to the new radio series, the casting process of the movie was somewhat more difficult. Twenty years previously it would still have been possible to cast the actors of the radio- and television series, but now Simon Jones, David Dixon and Mark Wing-Davey had become too old to visually represent their characters, which had, of course, not been a problem on radio. On the big screen a change of generations was inevitable, but even Douglas Adams had no special casting preferences and only wanted to get an English actor for Arthur Dent. Shortly before his death, a first casting possibility had been Hugh Laurie as Arthur Dent and Jim Carrey as Zaphod Beeblebrox, but because of the long delays this unfortunately did not work out.
The casting ultimately became a responsibility of the new filmmakers, who were acutely aware of their huge responsibility and always consulted Douglas Adams' family and friends to make their decisions. The biggest problems choosing the actors was the huge influence their predecessors of the radio and television series had, because in over twenty years they had been the only audiovisual interpretation of Douglas Adams' material and many saw them as the definitive incarnations of the characters. The film would have to be a careful balance between replacements of the original cast and something completely new.
Old Friends with new Faces
Arthur Dent, the typical british Everyman, had been played by Simon Jones in the radio and television series and was actually Douglas Adams' very first choice and the basis for the whole character. It was completely impossible to find a similar replacement, so not even Douglas Adams or later the filmmakers had even thought of trying it. Instead a new actor was sought with the goal of a similar interpretation, but not a straight imitation of Arthur Dent. After the best choice of Hugh Laurie did not work out the filmmakers had the incredible luck of getting the British actor Martin Freeman interested in the project, who had up to then mainly come to fame as a comedian in Ricky Gervais' original BBC sitcom The Office. He did not bear much resemblance to Simon Jones, but this was more a blessing because it allowed him to make the Character fully his own without abandoning the source material. His Arthur Dent is still the befuddled, slightly disillusioned Englishman who mostly can't come to grips with what is happening to him - he remains a mostly passive character, but in many ways Freeman managed to build a perfect bridge between his predecessor and his completely own interpretation of his role.
Ford Prefect, Arthur Dent's best friend and, as it turns out, intergalactic reporter, had been played by two different actors in the old incarnation of the Hitchhiker's Guide: Geoffrey McGivern had been his unmistakable voice in the radio play, but on TV he was played by the also unmistakable David Dixon. Both had been through and through British characters, or better faux-British as Ford was trying to blend in a little too hard, but Douglas Adams had never actually said much about Fords appearance in the books apart from his wardrobe choices. Nevertheless, many fans were appalled when it was announced that the role would be cast with American Hip-hop musician and actor Mos Def - a coloured American was sadly unthinkable for a lot of people. But looks did not really matter for Ford Prefect and Mos Def, one of the most intelligent and creative Hip-hop musicians and not a bad actor at all, took his role and gave it a completely original spin, while simultaneously even approaching Geoffrey McGivern's original interpretation.
Even closer to the original was the difficult casting of Zaphod Beeblebrox, fugitive President of the Galaxy and old friend of Ford Prefect. Mark Wing-Davey had played Zaphod on radio and television as a foolish, bragging space playboy, who was now similarly bold and hefty by Sam Rockwell. The American actor had originally begun his career as a serious character performer, but then made his break as a comedian in the 1999 science-fiction satire Galaxy Quest and so even had garnered some relevant experience in the appropriate genre. The old problem with Zaphods two heads and his third arm had been solved in the television series with only limited success due to the constrained budget, but the filmmakers had chosen a clever, different solution without a permanently visible second head. But Zaphod is still a two-headed, three-armed galactic idiot, with whom Sam Rockwell had a lot of fun and managed even to hit the same tone as Mark Wing-Davey without copying him outright.
While Tricia McMillan alias Trillian, Zaphod's prospective girlfriend and Arthur Dent's love interest, was played in the television series by Sandra Dickinson, a small American blonde in a stunning event of miscasting, the filmmakers went all the way back to the radio series and the books for the roots of the character. Originally described as "... slim, darkish, humanoid, with long waves of black hair, a full mouth, an odd little nob of a nose and ridiculously brown eyes..." by Douglas Adams, casting Zooey Deschanel in the role was a very inspired choice despite the actress hailing from the USA. She did not only fit the character visually, but also brought the needed competence, intelligence and charme to Trillian and was a great successor to Susan Sheridan, who had voiced her in the radio series. Deschanel brought exactly the right quirkiness, warmth and depth to her role that was so much missing in the television series.
Depressive Robots, Planet Makers and a new Rival
Marvin, the paranoid android, is actually not a person in the strictest sense, but had always been one of the main characters in The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. Stephen Moore had always been his voice on radio and television, with his deep sighs mostly created by putting a bucket over the actor's head and he would have been a good choice for the movie, too - but the filmmakers had chosen to do a complete recasting and so made another surprisingly good choice with Alan Rickman. The actor had not only the perfect qualification of being very British, but also a world-class character who almost seemed a bit too large for the role. Nevertheless, Rickman is not just a soulless voice, but really embodies the character in the same heartfelt way Stephen Moore did.
Marvin's design was also one of the biggest challenges of the movie, because his television incarnation of a lifesize toy robot was simply outdated and needed to be replaced with something much better. The idea of having a brain the size of a planet was taken deliciously literally, making Marvin a little, stumpy robot with an oversized round head. As unusual as the design might be, it fits perfectly to the depressive nature of the robot and is neither too modern nor too retro, but really something a company called Sirius Cybernetics Corporation might build. The robot was, of course, not a real robot, but a costume for a human: Warwick Davis, one of the most sought-after small-statured British actors gave Marvi n his very own moves and while he did not provide the voice of the robot, he still was all Marvin by bringing him alive with quite complex motions.
Slartibartfast, the Magrathean planet builder with a particular fondness for fjords, had originally been a small, wizened old man on radio and television played wonderfully by Richard Vernon. Who had unfortunately passed away since. The filmmakers took the opportunity to redo the character a little and make him a bit less a god figure than a real planetary engineer. With Bill Nighy, another classically trained British actor had been added to the cast, but he was not chosen for his name, but for his acting and because he really wanted to play the role. Nighy made much more out of Slartibartfast than benevolent, but doddering old fool - now the planetary engineer is an elegant, tall, middle-aged Gentleman having a lot of fun with his job.
One of the few completely new character was Humma Kavula, who had been written in as a new subplot by Douglas Adams himself and does not exist in any other version of the story. Originally conceived as a all-out bad guy, Humma Kavula ended up being a weird and eccentric religious Leader, who lost the presidential election to Zaphod Beeblebrox and became his arch-nemesis. Douglas Adams had created the relatively brief role with John Malkovich in mind, who was fortunately able to play the character in the movie with visible relish. Even though he was half CGI, the actor still gives a wonderful performance that maybe could have been a little longer. One other new character seen only in an even smaller role was Questular Ronk, Zaphods jealous vice president, played to perfection by British actress Anna Chancellor.
Large Green Men, A New Voice and a Special Guest
A huge surprise of the movie are the Vogons, who had been expanded from a handful of one-dimensional alien monsters to a whole culture. In earlier versions of the story, the Vogons are mostly just brutal, planet-destroying antagonists, but for the movie they have been changed into a race of aliens, whose niche in the universe has become the obsessive bureaucracy - something, which was already slightly present in Douglas Adams' books, but was only fully developed for the movie. Visually, the Vogons were magnificently created - instead of animating the amazingly ugly monsters with the help of computer graphics, the filmmakers worked together with Jim Henson's Creature Workshop to build them in real life. They were inhabited by actors, and there were not only a handful of them, but a whole lot even with many different characters. What once looked like a Halloween rubber mask in the BBC series was now incredibly detailed and in every sense life-like.
One of the most important roles in the story of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy is, of course, the voice of the guide, serving as a narrator in all versions of the story. On radio and television, the voice of the book had been the wonderful and unique Peter Jones, who had sadly passed away in 2000 after an acting career spanning over fifty years. For the new radio series, his old friend William Franklyn had taken his place, but the filmmakers had someone different, but at the time very similar in mind: the actor and writer Stephen Fry, who had been a close friend of Douglas Adams and was even one of the author's personal choices. There could not have been a better voice for the guide - Stephen Fry had already been presenting the British television quiz show QI for several years, which was created by another one of Douglas Adams' old friends John Lloyd and often had a decidedly Hitchhiker-esque slant. His wonderfully dry British delivery and very precise pronunciation made him perfect for the part and a great successor to the unforgettable Peter Jones.
Simon Jones, the original Arthur Dent, has a short cameo as the Hologram from Magrathea in a lovingly done homage to the original television series. Originally, Simon Jones had even been in talks to play Slartibarfast himself, but since it would have been very confusing to see him together with Martin Freeman, the filmmakers had decided against it - although he would certainly have been good in this role. Another bold and surprising choice was the one of Deep Thought, the supercomputer built to answer the ultimate question of life, the universe and everything - instead of a deep, hollow and mysterious voice the filmmakers decided on something entirely different and cast the British actress Helen Mirren in the role, bringing a refreshing new take to one of the most famous fictional computers of all time.
In his own Words
The movie's script had been written mostly by Douglas Adams himself until shortly before he passed away. No major changes were made to the plot itself, Karey Kirkpatrick was mainly responsible for a minimal last polish to make the script fit for actual filming. The plot actually begins like every other incarnation of the Hitchhiker's Guide, but at the moment Arthur and Ford arrive on the Heart of Gold and join Trillian, Zaphod and Marvin, the story is taking completely new paths. Many ideas, elements and even dialogue from the previous versions have made it into the movie, but Douglas Adams had chosen to reinvent his story one more time. Humma Kavula and the stopover on Vogsphere, the main new parts in the movie, are absolutely classic Adams material, which easily could have been a part of the earlier incarnations. The movie is not simply a remake, but a completely separate version of a basic idea and not any less original - even the balance act to squeeze the story into one and a half hours and cap it off with a perfect and not too abrupt ending was enormeously successful.
For the movie, the relationships between the characters were a little rearranged and expanded, something which had never been explored much in the early Hitchhiker stories. The triangle between Arthur, Trillian and Zaphod was made into a major subplot, whose quiet lovestory brought a little more depth to the story and made especially Arthur and Trillian much more than the passive characters they once were. Even Zaphod does not remain just an arrogant idiot with an ego the size of a planetoid and becomes slightly more likeable over the course of the story. The biggest change in the characters is, however, that they are now allowed to drive the plot themselves instead of just being innocent bystanders.
The New Universe of the Hitchhiker's Guide
The visual adaptation of the movie is simply stunning and matches the active imagination of Douglas Adams perfectly without overstimulating the audience. Digital visual effects are, of course, extensively used, but at the same time the overall design never goes completely overboard and everthing is kept on a plausible and almost realistic level. The Vogons are deliciously real and most of the sets have been created without much CGI help. The design of the Heart of Gold starship is very unusual, but brilliantly effective - a spherical starship is something completely new and unique. The principle of the Infinite Improbability Drive is also brilliantly demonstrated with some wonderful new gags fully in the spirit of Douglas Adams.
The most visually impressive scene of the movie is the "Factory Floor" sequence on Magrathea, showing where the planet-building industry does its work. This particular piece of Douglas Adams' imagination could only have been brought to life with extensive digital special effects, because conventional optical tricks would have been less convincing like low-budget version from the television series had been. The filmmakers were determined to do the scene right this time, and they did it in a brilliant and breathtaking way. Otherwise, the movie does not leave the impression of being just a visual effects orgy - the distinct look is mainly achieved by the detailed production design full of small and big surprises and references.
Another very important part of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy is the actual design of the Hitchhiker's Guide, which was, of course, again given a central role in the movie. In 1981, the "book" had been created for the television series as a small handheld computer with screen and keyboard, a design far ahead of its time predicting the use of PDAs more than twenty years later. In the mid-2000s the role of the tablet computer was only slowly emerging, but a handheld PDA with a small display would not have been very futuristic, so instead the guide was designed as a real book with a foldable touchscreen display in widescreen matching the wide aspect ratio of the movie. Despite the sleek new exterior, the most important thing is not missing - the traditional inscription of Don't Panic (in large, friendly letters) is on the back side, while the front has new elegant logo with a raised thumb as its main motive.
The graphical design of the guide was one of the highlights of the television series, but the supposed computer graphics were actually hand-drawn traditional animations mimicking the computers of the age so well that everybody thought they were genuine early CGI. For the movie, the re-imagining of the guide's visuals were entrusted to the small British graphics studio Shynola, who only got minimal guidance and some conceptual artwork from the filmmakers. They transformed the erstwhile green-on-black format into a more modern, eye-pleasing look not entirely dissimilar to many flash web animation of the mid-2000s without throwing the original ideas overboard. The limited drawing style and the reduced colour palette has the distinctly unique look expected from the Hitchhiker, but it is still generic enough not to date itself too much. The animation is still as playful as the handmade 1981 version with much to discover in the numerous sequences.
Music to Hitchhike by
Musically, The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy has always been linked to only one particular piece: in 1978, Douglas Adams had chosen the Eagles' instrumental Journey to the Sorcerer as a title tune for the radio play, which had become the most recognizable trademark of the series with it's signature banjo introduction. While the background score of the radio and television series otherwise consisted of a sound collage provided by the BBC's Radiophonic Workshop, this would not have been enough for a big movie production. Therefore, the filmmakers had chosen the British allround film composer Joby Talbot, who created a score quite unusual for a science fiction story, following more on the footsteps of Danny Elfman than Jerry Goldsmith or John Williams with a fine balance between gloomy and light, humorous sounds, all fully orchestrated.
Talbot has wisely resisted using Journey of the Sorcerer simply as a title tune, but it is heard during a special scene in the movie as a wonderfully arranged version. Instead the movie opens with a stunning jazzy production number based on the famous quote So Long And Thanks For All The Fish, although the vanishing of the dolphins shortly before the destruction of the Earth is not much part of the plot and only briefly mentioned. But the song creates exactly the right playful mood and makes it clear to the audience that this will not be a run-of-the-mill science-fiction spectacle. The movie is capped off by a lovely version of the song in an easy-listening jazz style, sung by Neil Hannon, one part of the group Divine Comedy together with score composer Joby Talbot.
A Hitchhiker like No Other
The new incarnation of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy is not comparable to any of its predecessors and turned out to be something entirely different, just as it was intended by Douglas Adams himself. The majority of fans were, however, absolutely delighted and surprised how well the vision of the author had been preserved despite the influence of the American film studio funding the production. Although the first trailers were a little hit-and-miss, everyone really interested in Douglas Adams' work warmed up to the movie very quickly. But for the casual viewer with no knowledge of the books, radio or television series, the movie turned out to be quite difficult to understand, mostly because of its inherent Britishness and Adams' very own brand of quirky humour.
Garth Jennings and Nick Goldsmith had brilliantly mastered the difficult task to finally bring Douglas Adams' script to the big screen, especially without having to make too many concessions to Hollywood. It is distinctly noticeable that even long after his sudden early death, Douglas Adams still had a lot of influence through his family and friends on the movie's production and the filmmakers and actors really understood his material and never just went through the motions. While a really huge success failed to materialize according to expectations, and some, but by far not all critics reacted quite negatively, The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy was able to take 21 Million Dollars in the opening weekend during its US premiere in late April 2005 and later managed at least to take back its production costs.
The open ending and the newly awakened interest in The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy created a lot of hope that there would be another movie soon, but the overall weak performance at the boxoffice worldwide was not good enough for Disney and despite having all the right ingredients on the table, the studio refused to turn the Hitchhiker's Guide into a franchise.
Almost ten years after the movie's making, it has sadly never been followed up by the Restaurant at the End of the Universe, despite rumours that there are even more script treatments written by Douglas Adams himself for potential future movies. The stars of the movie have meanwhile all gone in different directions and there will probably never be a chance to reunite them for a sequel. On the other hand, the filmmakers have always been aware that their movie might have been the only chance for a long time to bring The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy to the big screen - and in this they succeeded brilliantly, creating a beautiful memorial for the late Douglas Adams.
After the premiere in the Spring and Summer of 2005, The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy had been relatively quickly released on DVD in the Autumn of the year all over the world. While the USA and most of Europe including Germany got a single-disc edition with quite good extra features, only the UK got a 2-disc version with an additional hour-long documentary about the making of the movie. The Blu-Ray released two years later in 2007 in the USA and England also left off the documentary and the German edition even got rid of all the extras.
The disc reviewed in this article is the German DVD release from 2005, sporting an adequate, but still not quite perfect image quality and all the extras from the international releases save for the UK-only documentary. It was not a masterpiece of a DVD, but still more than good enough to enjoy the movie. The Blu-Ray releases might improve on the image quality, but the German HD release should be avoided because of the lack of bonus materials.