April 30, 2005

Actually I quite liked it

by Nick Montfort · , 4:26 pm

I had a great time seeing The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy on opening night yesterday. It looks to be the first successful film based on an e-book (okay, it’s a fictional e-book, but still) and there were visual and narrative elements of it that resonated with today’s digital culture and economy in a funny, uncanny way.

The movie wasn’t perfect, but there was a lot to like and a lot to laugh at. I so enjoyed myself that I became even more puzzled than I was before about the handfuls of invective that many reviewers of the film have been flinging at it, risking damage to their digital watches in the process. Let me try to gather some of these attacks into categories and figure out where they could have originated…

“Jesus Christ! Where is Tom Bombadil?!?”

From the camp that believes that there must be an injective mapping between the book and the movie, or that the movie is simply a lossless storage medium for the contents of the book, also allowed to have some pictures and stuff as long as Legolas’s footwear is appropriate. Such filmgoers, infected with an aesthetic sort of Protestant Fundamentalism, must find The Shining and Fight Club to be travesties for not disgorging everything in the original texts.

For instance, there’s the Slashdotted reviewer who wrote that the movie is “bad on a big scale because enormous swathes of the story have been dispensed with” went on to list all the things that aren’t in the film. (Due to the bandwidth limit being exceeded, the World Wide Web has now dispensed with this entire list. A bit of irony that a site entitled Planet Magrathea has been shuttered, yes. But there’s the Slashdot story here.) As with a child who thinks his security blanket, or towel, has been taken away and replaced with – well, anything else, it doesn’t matter – it’s unlikely that any new piece of art can ever offer enjoyment to the most extreme of such individuals, who should certainly be allowed to pout and cry in their own rooms. It’s all we can do for them, except for reminding them that the book hasn’t in fact been taken away, and comfort is still available from that old transitional object.

In the specific case of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, it’s even more towel-around-your-eyes to suggest that the movie must faithfully reproduce the book, because The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy is not a book, but rather is a radio play, a record, a book, an interactive fiction, a TV series, a comic book, and so forth. One of these the several things (not the first) is a book, but Hitchhiker’s is really a franchise, or, to be less crass and commercial, perhaps a “transmedial phenomenon.” To complain that a conversation from the book is omitted is sort of like whining about the unforgettable Babel Fish puzzle from Adams’s and Meretzky’s Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (Infocom, 1984) being left out.

Although this isn’t simply a book being made into a film, such translations are no doubt relevant to this movie and the complaints being advanced about it, and I’d love for Scott, who teaches a books-into-movies course, to add his thoughts here when he can.

“It’s not funny.”

I rather think it is, although your Britishness and sense of humor may vary. If you’re in a fit of anger the whole time because all of Prosser’s ancestry wasn’t narrated in full, you’re not likely to be in a mood to laugh. I agree with the Slate review by David Edelstein: Where the movie fails to be funny, or could have been funnier, it’s because the timing is off and the film often “loses the extra, awkward beat that great English comedy demands.” Of course, part of the reason for this was, see above, a desire to cram more stuff from the book in.

Etc., etc.

Several other criticisms have been advanced. They range from ones that are so perverse I have to wonder if the reviewer watched the same movie (“It looked low-budget!”) to ones that have some justification (“They added a sappy love-story subtext that wasn’t there!”) but which really don’t do as much damage as one might imagine.


I guess it’s telling that the most visible criticism of the film belies a misunderstanding of the difference between a motion picture and a novel, not to mention a lack of awareness that The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy existed in several other forms besides that of the novel. I assume that most people know pretty well what a movie is these days, so in most cases, is it that they don’t know what books are? (The Slashdotted reviewer certainly does; I suspect he’s interested in getting you to buy his books about Adams instead of going to see the movie, so that may be a special case.) Or is it that people want media experiences that simply repeat and validate the ones they’ve had before, rather than adding to them in any way? Well, I can only speculate. Go see the movie and let me know what you think.

7 Responses to “Actually I quite liked it”

  1. gtc Says:

    I’ve never read or heard anything from Douglas Adam’s HHGTTG, and I only thought the movie was ok. The actual bits from the guide were quite hilarious, and I thought the beginning was great. Here’s some of the problems I had with the film:

    1-The love story obviously was detremental to what the series is about (probably), that is wacky hilarious pieces stitched together in a Monty Python kind of way. The love story was out of place and just down right akward.

    2-It got a lot less funny after the halfway point, I don’t know why.

    3-They focused on all the wrong characters, just when you felt something could get going a new, worse character was added into the mix. And Marvin (I think tht was the robot’s name), just completely underused.

    I was kind of let down I had almost no expectations for the movie, so I can easily see how a devoted fan of the source material would be let down.

  2. nick Says:

    gtc, I think I pretty much agree with these three criticisms; these problems just didn’t result in critical damage to the movie, from my standpoint.

    I got word of this review of Hitchhiker’s on ifMUD. It’s pretty much consistent with my take on the film, but much more detailed in discussing the movie itself (rather than swirling commentary). It’s also quite spoilery, but worth reading after seeing the movie.

  3. Jason Scott Says:

    Hey there, textboy. I’d been looking for a place to consider the more intruiging subtexts of this situation, but I don’t have a very good set of venues to do so. So you win.

    First of all, it appears the source of most of the complete over-the-top dislike of the movie was MJ Simpson’s pre-release spoiler review/omission list. Then you get what’s called “a negative buzz” and everyone starts feeding off it. But the thing is, if you read MJ Simpson’s review, and the related articles on the site, you start to realize he’s in conflict with the estate of Douglas Adams, various external parties, and, ultimately, the Internet At Large once his views become known. This of course was likely what resulted in his quitting the site, and the fact it came earlier and with so much gusto (his resignation of running the site) was an inevitability pushed forward. In was particularly struck in his review how he turns arouns and critiques Douglas Adams for his inability to write!

    I am reminded, like you, of the “controversy” surrounding the Lord of the Rings movies, and how there were a lot of people displeased with the work Jackson did with the film. I have long since lost it (and I am sad I did) but I remember finding one critique which listed in blistering details all the things wrong with the movie…. and then went on to list all the problems that Tolkien had with the books! In other words, the “perfect” Lord of the Rings movie was neither the movie or the book, but in this maniac’s head! There has to be a special, unique name for this syndrome of thought.

    I have been working for the last four years on a documentary film about dial-up bulletin board systems. It has been a lot of blood and sweat and I have made a lot of choices and covered a lot of subjects. I could have possibly broken my head when the reviews start really coming in after it hits the DVD players…. but I was lucky, damn lucky.

    I tell people, now, that the release of the Lord of the Rings movies forever and completely insured me from ever having a breakdown or ruined time from the reviews of my film, because, as I say:

    “Peter Jackson spent SEVEN YEARS making this film. He had the FULL USE of a COUNTRY. He had a DEDICATED SPECIAL EFFECTS HOUSE that is now recognized as having revolutionized special effects as ILM did in the 1970’s. He made it nearly TWELVE HOURS LONG. For goodness sakes, he had MULTIPLE FULL-TIME FORGERS making swords for the entire cast and training them to use them.”


    Once this movie came out and I saw the hate, I realized (and I also know I should have realized this sooner) it is IMPOSSIBLE to make a movie that everyone likes. There are people who are contrarian, people who have expectations far outside the goals of the film, people who just don’t LIKE THE GENRE of the movie being shown.

    Do what I do: go to rottentomatoes.com, the meta-critic site that brings together all the reviews it can from many, many sources. Then find something almost universally beloved. Something like Titanic or Lord of the Rings or anything else recent that has a nice amount of reviews. Then tell it to “only show rotten reviews”, the negative ones. Gaze back in wonder as you read why that percentage of reviewers hate the film. I remember one review of a documentary where, basically, the reviewer says that documentaries are a horrible art form and shouldn’t be made. And then, surprisingly, trashes this documentary he’s been assigned to watch!

    I took a college course called “Novel Into Film”. It was very effective in showing why comparing books and movies is like comparing eggs and rocks. Yeah, they’re both round… but it kind of gets majorly different after that, and a good egg is a bad rock and vice versa.

    By the way, Nick, you’re in my next film. Talk to you soon.

  4. Megan Says:

    I totally agree.

    Now, I’ve never read Adams’ books in full, I’ve only listened to part of the radio play, but I HAVE seen the original miniseries- though I’m told the plot in those is a bit constrained as well.

    I liked the new one. I thought it was well balanced, and it brought a new level to the story. I particularly liked the simple animations to go with the narration. (there was even a nod to the original miniseries at one point when they showed the original Marvin) Hell, I would watch it again.

    I’ll admit though with Lord of the Rings I was a bit more scrutinizing, since I had read the books. I absolutely adored the first movie, despite the omissions, and hated the second one because I thought some choices Jackson made were a little bit strange. In any case, I think he did a pretty good job.

    I think the point is that the HHGTG movie is faithful in spirit, and that’s probably the thing that matters most.

  5. Mr. Falcon Says:

    The really ironic thing is that, according to the HHGTTG anthology I have, Douglas Adams himself had no such “Protestant Fundamentalist” views on the integrity of a work across mediums. He knowingly introduced inconsistencies between the radio-play , the book and the mini-series, and offered no excuses for doing so. He simply didn’t think it was important.

  6. greglas Says:

    I think there’s something kind of endearing about the Tom Bombadil / elven footwear complaints. If a fantasy/sci fi movie clams to be its own thing (like Willow or Krull or Chronicles of Riddick), the audience has no critical weapons at their disposal — they’re forced into muteness, like visitors to MOMA, unable to evaluate because they’re not sure what the point of evaluation would be — so they end up saying rather dull things about whether they liked or disliked the characters, whether the fight scenes were confusing, when and how things started to drag. The movie is usually better than the average criticism.

    But with the book turned movie, esp. the *uber-fanboi* book turned movie, the palette of potential disappointment is so vast, they hardly know where to begin with the critical merriment. They’ve all done the movie in their heads, to some extent, so each and every twist, turn, and line of dialogue becomes ripe for evaluation.

    To tear apart LOTR, in other words, is an essential way for the fan to enjoy it. And I would hope that Peter Jackson, with a few Academy Awards in his back pocket, can manage to be happy about the wonderful target he has given to the reader who aspires to be a critic.

  7. nick Says:

    Thanks for the comments, all. I’m intrigued by your last line, Jason — and by the way, textfiles.com (at least the Apple II crack screens assembled there) are in my most recent piece of digital art, Mystery House Kracked by the Flippy Disk. Good luck on the rollout of the BBS documentary.

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