Tuesday, May 10, 2005

Dr. Vector spoils Hitchhiker's Guide (the book and the movie)


I recently (about two months ago) picked up a copy of the five-volume Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy omnibus. This is second such that I've owned in my life. The first I acquired in my late teens, read about half of, lost interest in, and put on permanent loan to a friend. My newer copy I read about half of, lost interest in, and put on permanent loan to a friend. I'll explain why in a bit.

I should mention up front that I've never listened to any of the HG radio plays, and I've only seen one episode of the TV show on PBS. I didn't think that would matter, but it turns out to be pretty important, as you'll see in a sec.

I'll start, then, with an axe that I've ground in several recent conversations (apologies if you were a participant in those conversations and thus find this repetitive). The characters in HG aren't particularly funny. Neither are the situations or events. The books are mainly funny (and therefore tolerable) because the language itself is funny. Douglas Adams wrote funny sentences. You can put a lot of these together and call the result a funny book, but that's a bit misleading.

In particular, the books don't cohere as books. This is particularly obvious when you're reading them in an omnibus, because you can't see the endings coming at all. At a certain point you turn a page and BAM! there's the end of the book. This is irritating if you're expecting them to work as books, but it makes perfect sense if you know that each chapter of the first few books was originally an entire installment of the radio show. An HG omnibus, then, is a series of funny sentences that really work, compiled into chapters that more or less work, compiled into books that don't work at all, compiled into an omnibus that would work better if the arbitrary boundaries between books were erased.

But all of that depends on how much you like Douglas Adams's funny sentences. If you like Monty Python and Fawlty Towers and a lot of other popular late 70s/early 80s British humor, then you'll probably dig HG, because it's filled with a lot of the same enjoyable nonsense (except for the Fawlty Towers bit; FT worked because of funny situations, and as I've indicated, most of the situations in HG aren't all that funny; it's the way they're described that's funny).

Something that gets to be a problem as the series goes on is that the level of invention drops. The saga undergoes a thinning. However you want to put it, the later books are just less interesting that the earlier. It may be because the early books were transcribed from radio plays, which had to be consistently inventive and pay off in the short term, so that the per-chapter value is fairly high. But the later books were written as books, and they just don't hold up in comparison. It may be that Adams's real calling was as a radio script writer, and his deflection into a career as a writer of books was an unfortunate accident.

Another problem is that not only are the characters and situations not that funny in themselves, they're often downright depressing. Being marooned in the Pliocene for a few years and having to live in a cave and eat bark is not something you want to happen to a character that you care about (or are trying desperately to care about). More to the point, it's boring. At one point in the evolution of Star Wars (ANH), someone who was working with Lucas on the script (mighta been Gary Kurtz, but I honestly don't remember) had one of the characters say "This is boring." Lucas struck the line. He said that if the characters find the situation boring, the audience sure as hell will, and the solution is not to comment on it, but to do something about it. Would that Adams had known that; all the funny sentences in the world can't prop up a story in which not much happens to characters that aren't ever sketched with enough detail or sympathy for us to care about.

At the end of each book, nothing has really changed and no one has learned anything. You might think that those things don't matter, since it's a comedy. But they do, because if the plot doesn't advance and the characters don't develop, the whole enterprise is just so much consequence-free blather. You may object that the plot does advance: in every book and practically every chapter, the characters find themselves on a new planet and often a new time period. My point is that none of this makes any difference; you can pick up the omnibus and start reading at any point and the result is the same (except that the farther in you are, the less funny and interesting it all is); the characters may go to lots of places but nothing they do matters, and the relationships between the characters don't change. This may have been Adams's point: that life is a long series of random encounters that we'll never understand with weirdos to whom we can't relate. If so, he succeeded in spades. I just don't find that funny.

In the final analysis, the books aren't dark enough to be gallows humor, not serious enough to make me care, and not funny enough to keep my spirits up during the boring and depressing longueurs that increasingly take over the narrative as it continues. They're kinda like hot oatmeal. It sounds like a good idea, and the first few bites are always enjoyable, but pretty soon the sugar and cinnamon are gone and you find yourself slogging through a bowl of cold sludge, wondering why you didn't go for some fuckin' Count Chocula instead.

Incidentally, if you want to read something hyperbolic enough to be funny, but also filled with ideas, action, and characters of more than one dimension, check out Neal Stephenson's Snow Crash. If you want to read some funny SF where the funny resides in the characters and their situations, try The Stainless Steel Rat Gets Drafted, or Bill the Galactic Hero: On the Planet of Bottled Brains, both by Harry Harrison.


I had misgivings about the movie, since so much of the comedy of the book is embedded in the narrative bits. The moviemakers solved this problem in the same way as the makers of the TV show: they frequently cut away from the action to straight narration with cartoons and such. That's fine; that's where the funniest parts of the book are, and there's probably no better way to get them on screen. But it does mean that the funniest parts of the movie don't involve the characters or plot at all, they're just parts where the omniscient narrator is riffing on things.

Which points to one of the central problems of the movie. It is an awkward mashup of 70s Brit humor and 90s American movie cliches, and the two don't coexist well at all. In the books, Trillian isn't really a character; her appearance on the Heart of Gold is just one more in the long series of humiliations that Arthur Dent endures (that's painfully obvious after the first book, when Adams can't really think of anything for her to do). But in the Laws of American Movies, there must be an attractive young female and she must fall in love with the male protagonist. The last blockbuster that I know of that flaunted that Law was Jaws, back in 1975. So...GASP!...movie Trillian and movie Arthur fall in love. Arthur's love isn't pathetic and unrequited, like the rest of his pathetic and unrequited life, as in the book, which is the whole point of his love and his character. No, it's noble and requited, and therefore (from the point of view of the book) it is destroyed.

There are some other major changes from the book, all of which I thoroughly spoil below. The changes are seemingly there to give the movie some semblance of a coherent, resolveable plot. That being the case, it is curious that some of the changes don't, in fact, advance the plot, and other new plot threads, having been called into existence, are never resolved.

Herewith, the changes, in no particular order:

1. Zaphod Beeblebrox has a female Vice President who commandeers the Vogon fleet to chase down Zaphod and rescue him from his kidnapper (who is also Zaphod). Her entire function in the movie is to tell the Vogons to do whatever they were about to do anyway. I can't fathom why the filmmakers, having made the decision that the Vogons would chase the main characters throughout the movie, instead of through just the first few minutes, decided that they needed an Authority Figure to hold their hands. Half the time I couldn't tell if the VP was trying to rescue Zaphod or kill him.

2. The book has a throwaway line about some blue-skinned race that believes the entire universe was sneezed into existence by the almighty nose. The movie expands on this concept, so that the characters land on the planet where this religion holds sway. All of this is very much in the spirit of the book, and I think it works better than any of the other new bits and probably better than some of the adapted material. The high priest of the nose-worshippers is Humma Kavula, amusingly played by John Malkovich. He kidnaps one of Zaphod's heads (by the expedient of cutting it off) and sends the characters to retrieve a special gun designed by Deep Thought, in exchange for which he'll return Zaphod's head. So far, so good. The characters go and find the gun, and their possession of it makes for a nifty escape from the Vogons near the end of the movie. BUT, they don't take the gun back to Lava Kahuna or Bravura Vulva or whatever his name is, and Zaphod is still in the most un-Zaphod-like state of having only one head when the movie ends. This may point the way to a sequel, which would be problematic for several reasons, not least being the energy this movie puts into getting Arthur and Trillian together. If they stay together in the sequel, then there's no sexual tension (TV shows often turn boring when the fated-but-frustrated lovers finally hook up; see X-Files and Frasier). If they don't, then the filmmakers will have fucked with the source material to no good end. Inelegant.

3. Trillian is seized by the Vogons and rescued by Arthur and crew. There are two big problems here. The first is that when Trillian is kidnapped, she's walking on the nose-worshipping planet with Arthur, Ford, and Zaphod. The Vogons show up and grab her, and everyone else gets away. This is handled with about as much exposition and subtlety as the previous sentence. It just happens. There is no tactical reason why the Vogons get Trillian instead of one or all of the other characters. So the kidnapping feels entirely forced and ad hoc, which it undoubtedly was (as something welded onto a pre-existing story). I can't believe that the filmmakers couldn't think of a reason why Trillian might have been even 20 feet away from the rest of the party when she was snatched, which would lend the scene some believeability. That's a Lucasian level of inventive failure, and it really stands out in an otherwise fairly clever film (a lot of the new gags are pretty darn funny).

The other problem with the kidnapped-Trillian subplot is the manner of her rescue. Briefly, the Vogons try her for kidnapping Zaphod, find her guilty, and start to lower her into a cage containing a Ravenous Bugblatter Beast of Trall. That's kinda cool; the RBBofT is a key piece of HG mythology, and it sets up a really excellent payoff, which the filmmakers then bypass. Arthur and crew land on Vogsphere and go to resuce Trillian, and they succeed...by filling out forms. That would be just fine and would fit in perfectly with the Brazilian (Terry Gilliam film, not South American country) logic of the movie, except that as things are going forward, anyone with any knowledge of HG in any of its previous incarnations is expecting the good guys to rescue Trillian from the RBBofT by dropping a towel on her head. That would have been completely cool, it would have been a nice reward for HG fans, and it would have been funnier than what actually happened. How the filmmakers missed it is a surpassing mystery.

Having written a total of two reviews now, I'm really starting to get irritated by the young female love interest cliche. Why can't we have some intelligently written female characters that, like, have dramatic questions of their own to answer? But that's a bitch for another day (a young, attractive one).


Blogger Mike Taylor said...

Among my many, many gripes with this film is the way that Ford's concern for his towel is made into a lovable eccentricity rather than a simple piece of common-sense hitch-hiking pragmatism. Anyone who doesn't get that -- anyone who thinks it's funny for Ford cares about his towel -- is clearly not qualified to be involved in a Hitchhiker film. (Although, for reason that I sent to Matt in an offline email, frustratingly for you, dear reader, the film should never have been made in the first place.)

1:15 PM  
Blogger Dr. Vector said...

Ah, I see what you're doing. I'll try to keep up. :-) Maybe we can retroactively make this blog an interesting place.

Yeah, the flippant treatment of the towel bothered me, but not nearly as much as the missed opportunity to use it on the Bugblatter Beast. Thoroughly unfulfilling.

3:11 PM  

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