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.

So…?

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.