Sunday, May 01, 2005

The Hitchhiker's Guide to Mediocrity

I didn't think it was all bad, it was just... ordinary. Minor spoilers below.

The best thing in the new film version of Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy is the opening musical number: Earth's dolphins singing "So Long, and Thanks for All the Fish" before abandoning the doomed planet. I daresay it approaches Monty Python in its sublime brilliance.

If only the rest of the movie had lived up to that promise.

I can't provide a better cinematic analysis than MaryAnn Johnson has, so go read her review at I also don't have the abiding hatred for the movie that she seems to, but I can see where she's coming from-- if I'm not on her planet, I'm in the same solar system. Go spend your nine dollars on the book instead, and if you must see the movie, wait for DVD.

Now, I had no expectation that any movie adaptation could be fully faithful to the book, with its meandering asides and Douglas Adams' inimitable prose, which just doesn't work unless the words themselves can get into your head and worm around until they hook up with all the other bits of your brain that are vibrating on the same multiplexed wavelength of paranoia, resentment, apathy, and the faintest glimmer of hope that only exists because of the expectation that nothing could ever-- or should ever be allowed to-- prevent you from taking afternoon tea.

You see? I don't claim to be as good a writer as Adams was, but even that paragraph above has very specific rhythms and serial concepts that don't work unless they're written out and strung together just so. Adams' genius was not in his dialogue, it was in his narrative observation: third person, British, more than a little sarcastic, with humor so dry it would make you thirsty. And there's no way to capture that on film, even in voiceover. Are you seeing the problem here?

There's even a larger issue, upon which Neil Gaiman expounded in his recent Nebula Awards speech:
[W]e're now living in a world in which SF has become a default mode. In which the tropes of SF have spread into the world. Fantasy in its many forms has become a staple of the media. And we, as the people who were here first, who built this city on pulp and daydreams and four-colour comics, are coming to terms with a world in which we find several things they didn't have to worry about in 1965.

For a start, today's contemporary fiction is yesterday's near-future SF. Only slightly weirder and with no obligation to be in any way convincing or consistent.

It used to be easy to recognise SF written by mainstream authors. The authors always seemed convinced that this was the first novel to tackle Faster Than Light travel, or downloadable intelligence, or time paradoxes or whatever. The books were clunky and proud of themselves and they reinvented the wheel and did it very badly, with no awareness of the body of SF that preceded them.

That's no longer true. Nowadays things that were the most outlandish topics of SF are simply building blocks for stories, and they aren't necessarily ours. Our worlds have moved from being part of the landscape of the imagination to being part of the wallpaper.

I wanted this new Hitchhiker's movie to be extraordinary. Forget the badly structured screenplay and shallow characters for now-- I just wanted more of a sense of wonder to permeate the thing, the same awe that suffused me when I first read the book and had to wrap my head around the notion that my entire planet of six billion miraculous souls would only rate the words "mostly harmless" in a galactic travel guide.

You see, that bit isn't even in the movie, which is so Earth-centric and human-centric as to encourage isolationism, and goes for a string of cheap laughs instead of the deeper, smarter satire that one might have expected-- or hoped for. I blame Hollywood for wanting a big skiffy action movie with only a veneer of wit, but then again, what else can you expect from Hollywood?

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Personally, i feel that the beginning of the movie was annoying. In my opinion it did not go downhill from there, it got better. I mean come on, try to image encountering friednly aliens, who give you the ability to tour the Universe with them. How wonderful! I have the movie on DVD, and i have watched it only once. I believe that the writers tried to present the viewer with the idea that this world is great, even though there are so many problems. It also attempts to makes us think about the bigger picture. How the Universe affects us, and how we affect the Universe.