Long, bumpy road guides `Hitchhiker' to movie screens

It's a trip worthy of the beloved sci-fi comedy

Movies

April 28, 2005|By David Gritten | David Gritten,SPECIAL TO LOS ANGELES TIMES

LONDON -- Fans of Douglas Adams, the British writer who created the beloved science-fiction comedy The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, were stunned by his death from a heart attack, at age 49, in a Santa Barbara gym four years ago.

Two years earlier, he had moved from his north London home to California, having signed a deal with Disney to create a feature film of The Hitchhiker's Guide. It had been a long time coming; the radio series was first broadcast in Britain in 1978, and the Guide empire included books and a TV sitcom. But at the time of his death, Adams was still struggling to create a workable script.

"Douglas always wanted there to be a movie," observes Robbie Stamp, Adams' friend and business partner. "He believed a movie should be taking its place in the canon of his works."

Finally, it has happened, but only after plenty of maneuvering, with new principals replacing old. Yet there has been a constant determination to keep the film true to the irreverent spirit in which Adams created the story. "We've worked hard to make sure [the film is] true to itself," observes Stamp, who is now its executive producer.

There's a sound commercial logic in this approach. The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy has become a modern classic, translated into 25 languages and, according to a spokeswoman for Adams' London-based literary agent, Ed Victor, "16 million copies worldwide thus far."

Its hero is a diffident Englishman, Arthur Dent, who becomes the last surviving man on Earth after the planet is destroyed. He finds himself traveling around space (dressed in a robe and pajamas and clutching a towel) with his best friend, Ford Prefect (who turns out to be an alien), Zaphod Beeblebrox (president of the galaxy) and Trillian, a young woman Arthur met at a fancy-dress party, his last on Earth. The Hitchhiker's Guide has a philosophical bent, but its wit is light and brilliant; Adams' humor is self-deprecating and distinctly British.

After Adams' premature death threw film plans into disarray, Disney asked writer Karey Kirkpatrick (who took the screenplay credit on Chicken Run, another film comedy with a heavily British accent) to work from Adams' last revisions to his story and turn them into a coherent narrative.

Yet before long, the word leaking out about the proposed film was causing alarm bells to ring on Web sites for fans of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy (they call it H2G2). Their big fear was that Adams' quintessentially English creation would be crudely Americanized.

On the face of it, there was cause to worry. Disney is, after all, a Hollywood studio. And three American actors had been cast in crucial roles: Sam Rockwell as Beeblebrox, Zooey Deschanel as Trillian (a minor character in Adams' book, but now given a screwball-comedy romance with Arthur); and, most surprisingly, hip-hop artist Mos Def as Ford Prefect. British H2G2 fans, not wanting a Hollywood-style, CGI-heavy action movie, were dismayed.

Yet the Americans acquit themselves well, particularly Rockwell, who portrays Beeblebrox as a titanically stupid rock god with Freddie Mercury mannerisms. The story's British origins remain intact, thanks to Martin Freeman (Tim from the Emmy-winning BBC-TV comedy The Office) as Arthur; the unseen Stephen Fry, who wryly narrates the story in his veddy British tones; and Bill Nighy as the planet designer Slartibartfast (fiords a specialty).

Most of the book's best lines and situations survive. Its catchphrase "Don't panic!" is liberally sprinkled around, and the sense of wonder and joy that Adams instilled in his creation have transferred successfully.

This last achievement can be credited to Garth Jennings, 32, and Nick Goldsmith, 34, a two-man collective known as Hammer & Tongs, who have created stylish music videos for REM, Pulp, Blur and Beck. Neither had worked on a feature film before, but Jennings became the director, and Goldsmith its producer.

When their American agent mentioned the H2G2 script, "our attitude was `Don't bother sending it,'" Goldsmith recalls. "It was coming from Hollywood, and we felt, `Chances are they've ruined it. We'd rather not read it; it'll be depressing.' But he sent it, and it sat around the barge for two weeks."

Finally Goldsmith picked it up and found it surprisingly good. Then Jennings read it and agreed. "Now we had to think: This is our first film, there are huge expectations, this is a story people love and treasure," reflects Goldsmith. "So did we want to set ourselves up for a fall? But it was perfect. There was so much for us to get our teeth into."

He and Jennings decided to make a film true to Adams' intentions -- funny, silly, with heart and spirit. Neither man felt hidebound by the author's legacy: "Douglas used to say each incarnation of the story is its own thing," notes Jennings. "So we didn't have to try and make it look like the TV show. Our bible was the book." Not that this stopped them from taking liberties they felt Adams might have liked: The film starts with a rousing show tune.

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