Adaptation Comparison: The Hitchhiker’s Guide to The Galaxy
And here’s the first thing I wrote with Galaxy in the title.
Introducing what’s bound to become a common occurrence on the site: the adaptation comparison. In these posts, I’ll be performing a side-by-side analysis of two separate depictions of the same work (usually the most popular or most easily accessible). Because of this, the ‘Plot’ sections of these posts may be more spoiler-heavy than my average reviews.
This time around I’ll be comparing two separate versions of “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to The Galaxy”, the quintessential sci-fi comedy and a staple of pop-culture.
Despite originally starting life as a radio series, the franchise has branched out into several different mediums. Couple this with the fact the creator Douglas Adams made a concentrated effort to ensure that each adaptation would have distinct differences, and arguments over which version of the story does it best are inevitable.
The simple rules this time around are that, as the film ends at about the same point as the first book, the events of the later books will play no part in my criticisms.
The story of the book and film is, at first glance, identical. An average Earth man by the name of Arthur Dent becomes the (nearly) sole survivor of Earth’s eradication at the hands of the bureaucratic Vogons. Arthur, along with his extraterrestrial best friend and savior Ford Prefect, hitch a ride on a stolen ship manned by the President of the galaxy, searching for the secret of life in the universe.
In terms of story, the adaptations largely hit all of the same points; the crew of the Heart of Gold have trippy misadventures as the search for Planet Magrathea, eventually discovering the secret behind Earth’s construction, destruction, and re-construction by proxy. The one large notable difference is Humma Kavula and the Point of View Gun, two plot points constructed solely for the film, presumably as a way to give the groups’ travels more purpose. The fact that they’re interesting story concepts notwithstanding, the inclusion of these elements as obvious seeds for a sequel that will never come makes a good chunk of the film feel like filler in retrospect.
There’s also much more presence in the story by the Vogons, who in the film are recurring antagonists. Conversely, the Vogons of the book are largely a plot device used to get Arthur and Ford from Earth to the Heart Of Gold. This change didn’t do much to impact my view of the characters either way, but it’s easy to see how the films use of them could come off as lazy padding, what with them being very one-note characters in either version of the story.
A common fan criticism is that the movie just left out too much content. I personally find this decision to make sense, however. There’s quiet a lot of imagery in the book that would be practically impossible to portray on-screen, usually in the form of long winded tangents that, while funny, are only minimally important to the frame of the narrative. It makes sense that certain details would be omitted to make the movie feel more like one.
For reasons I’ll go over more in the Pacing section, I generally found the film better in terms of story structure. Certain story elements are left by the wayside due to the film not getting the sequel it hoped for, but in general I find the fact that it picks up fast and keeps my attention while providing essentially the same story to be an improvement.
It also helps that the film has, you know, an ending.
One thing the book does better in my opinion is the thematic element.
For example, early in the book, it’s only after the dialogue between Ford and the bartender that the reader realizes the world truly IS going to end (after we’re led to believe along with Arthur that Ford is just drunk and loony), and it’s only after this that the book begins to refer to the Vogon Constructor fleet as “machines” as opposed to “something’s”. The whole situation is real now, and these aren’t miscellaneous objects any more. They’re the cold, hard machines that will end life on the planet. That’s one of those small writing quirks that I find incredibly effective in retrospect.
Likewise the fact that certain alien locations are (by utter coincidence) named after Earth locations shows just how much the books version of space serves as an extension of Earth, more often then not in a bad way.
One of the complaints I hear most often about the film is that the main cast is underwritten. Though I don’t particularly mind this, I do have to admit it’s true. One of my favorite parts in the book is Chapter 16, where upon the discovery of Magrathea each of the characters gets a moment where we see some insight into each of their thought processes. We see how enamored Zaphod is with the discovery of the planet. We see the appreciation Ford has for beauty in all forms, as well as how that influences his skepticism. We see how Arthur is more concerned with mundane, human things like a good cup’a tea than the majesty of the universe. This bit with Ford in particular is my favorite.
“As Ford gazed at the spectacle of light before them excitement burned inside him, but only the excitement of seeing a strange new planet; it was enough for him to see it as it was. It faintly irritated him that Zaphod had to impose some ludicrous fantasy onto the scene to make it work for him. All this Magrathea nonsense seemed juvenile. Isn’t it enough to see that a garden is beautiful without having to believe that there are fairies at the bottom of it too? (p. 118)”
It’s just a very humanizing moment that reveals Ford’s values and provides more insight than the entirety of the film version gets.
There are a COUPLE of similar scenes in the film, most notably with the POV gun, but they pass by so quickly that they don’t have nearly the same impact.
When you get down to it Arthur is just as kooky as the others around him, in contrast to the film wherein he’s much more normal by human standards.
An interesting point of contention for fans of the book is Zaphod. In the movie, Zaphod is the element that is most often accused of being ‘Americanized’. I for one would argue that the problem with Zaphod isn’t so much that he’s more stereotypically American, so much as it is he’s just more one note.
In the book, Zaphod displays a lot more emotional range, and while he still has moments of stupidity, there is a reason for it within the story. I haven’t read the script so I can’t confirm anything, but part of me wants to say that this was Sam Rockwell’s fault. In the film, the scene where Zaphod is properly introduced to the audience is played with the same absentminded enthusiasm and charisma that Rockwell displays throughout the whole movie. However, the exact same scene in the book depicts Zaphod as not only irritated, but also displaying some caution and reasoning. I must say it came as a surprise to me, as someone who was only ever used to Zaphod being a manic idiot at all times.
I actually find it kind of hilarious, since Book!Zaphod is actually kind of a genius who’s biggest problem is that he doesn’t consider how others could be affected by his actions. Meanwhile, Movie!Zaphod is like a rock star hyped up on sugar and crack.
The book does a much better job explaining how it is that Zaphod became President in the first place, though in the end both the film and the book draw the same conclusion: that being that the galaxy is just full of idiots.
In terms of the other characters, I think the one I like most as far as both adaptations go is Ford. In the film in particular he’s just so chill, and it’s much more clear in the film how much Ford cares for Arthur as a friend. Trillian I’m mostly indifferent toward in any version, though I will admit I think Zoey Deschanel is a bit overrated as an actress.
Movie!Marvin is more likable with the voice of Alan Rickman, a personality that’s more snarky than self-pitying and a very cool design, though the idea of Marvin being likable at all may seem blasphemous to some.
More than any other aspect of the adaptation, how you view the characters really comes down to personal taste. Do you prefer Arthur to be a bit weird or mostly normal? Do you find Ford funnier as an eccentric goof or a laid-back stoner? Is Zaphod more interesting a pompous nut or just an utter lunatic?
I personally find the books characters to be more investing and multi-faceted. It’s a shame since I DO like the films cast. I just find them to be much less dignified than that of the book.
A book is more often than not a longer experience than a film by virtue of the medium. What this means, of course is that the book will inevitably have a different feel in regards to its pace. However, I find ‘Hitchhiker’s’ to be an interesting example of just how much pace can differ.
A general rule of thumb regarding a good adaptation is that events get equal amount of focus relative to the length of the product. Going off a totally arbitrary idea that’s based more on my personal experience than any kind of fact, I’m going to say that the average-length chapter of any adapted book is around 20 to 40 pages long, and will usually be covered in anywhere from 5 to 10 minutes of screen time. Of course this varies depending on what the content of that particular chapter is, but on average I would say your average film adaptation covers maybe Four-and-a-Half pages per minute of screen time.
Where I’m going with this is essentially that ‘Hitchhiker’s’ doesn’t do that at all. There are several scenes in the book that get at least two chapters devoted to them, only to be covered in maybe three minutes of movie time. By the half hour mark, the film had covered 13 chapters and just over 100 pages worth of material (for further perspective, it takes the author himself over two hours to reach this point in his own audiobook).
Unfortunately, the second half of the book suffers from the opposite problem. It’s fine for the most part, but the last couple of chapters fly by at a breakneck pace, with an ultimate ending that, as alluded to earlier, is largely unsatisfying.
This article from a couple years back puts the films lack of humor pretty high on his list of problems with it. I for one disagree. The movie is by no means a laugh riot, but it is probably a lot funnier than most modern sci-fi movies, adaptation or otherwise.
I found the ‘slapstick’ scene on the Vogon planet to be particularly amusing, and slapstick in general is a very visual form of humor that I don’t think can be pulled off well (if at all) in a medium with no visuals to speak of.
Get it? They’re sticks that slap you.
The humor of the book flies a lot faster and more frequent than that of the movie, but the movie isn’t exactly lacking in jokes. The comedy that IS carried over to the film is carried over well, it’s just not enough.
The element that I found to be handled poorest was the Guide itself. In the book, the Guide entries were some of the funniest parts, and while the films portrays the guide well (with some neat animation and superb narration by Stephen Fry). The sad thing is that the second half of the movie treats the Guide as an afterthought, and the fact that we never see Ford working on it is disappointing.
Another source of humor that I find woefully underused in the film is Eddie, the ship’s computer. The fun of Eddie in the book is how people react just as poorly to his positivity as they do to Marvin’s dourness. In the film, however, Eddie gets only few lines and none of the other characters really react to him.
In fairness to the film, Freeman does add some humor to Arthur that I felt wasn’t there in printed form, and Bill Nighy’s Slartibartfast makes me laugh much more than the book version does, thanks mostly to Nighy’s delivery.
I’m probably going to surprise absolutely no one by saying this, but I prefer the book to the movie. I still find the film a joy to watch, but it pales in comparison to its source in just about every aspect. The characters are more one note, the plot is watered down, and it strikes one as a missed opportunity to bring some truly genius moments of comedy to the screen.
With that said, I still like the performances and by no means would I consider ‘Hitchhiker’s’ a bad film. But as far as adaptations go, it’s simply lacking. It’ll be satisfying for those looking for an easy to follow three act structure, but the book remains the more genuine article.
Posted on February 19, 2014, in Adaptation Comparison, Book Reviews, Editorials, Movie Reviews, My Reviews, Uncategorized and tagged Action, Comedy, Douglas Adams, Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, Sci-Fi. Bookmark the permalink. 3 Comments.