April 29, 2005,
What's wrong with this picture? Take your red crayon and draw a circle around the whale falling through space. Now draw a circle around the bowl of petunias falling beside him.
A whale and a bowl of flowers falling through endless space are not impossible they're merely improbable, which is how they happened to get there. The spaceship Heart of Gold has an Improbability Drive. It would be improbable for this elegantly minimalist spaceship to leap from one end of hyperspace to another, so if you push the big Improbability button on the dashboard, that's what will happen. Other improbable things happen too: the two missiles pursuing the spaceship are changed into a whale and a bowl of petunias. The people inside the spaceship might be changed into anything. When the Heart of Gold first picks up the hitchhikers Arthur Dent and Ford Prefect, they arrive in the form of sofas. In a later scene, the whole crew is turned into yarn-doll copies of themselves. Arthur, spacesick, emits a brilliant flow of multicolored yarn.
The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy is based on the five-volume "trilogy" by Douglas Adams, who had lived with these characters most of his life. The Guide started out as a radio show and improbably morphed into books, a TV series, a video game, and finally this film. Adams had finished a rewrite of his screenplay when he unexpectedly died of a heart attack, on his 49th birthday, in 2001. He was steeped in the kind of light-touch British surrealism that Americans love, but are too rambunctious to be able to replicate; he was a writer on the BBC series Dr. Who, and appeared as a pepper-pot lady in a Monty Python sketch.
As I watched the film in a packed screening audience I kept wondering "What's wrong with this picture?" Fans of the book, who are as dedicated and picky as fans of Harry Potter or Star Wars, have been heaping the movie with garlands of praise, and long lines had been waiting to get into the screening. But they weren't laughing. They seemed to appreciate and respect the movie, and at the end gave a long round of sincere applause. But while the film was rolling they studied the screen silently.
I think the problem is that the charm of Adams's work depends on surprise. Absurd juxtapositions and whimsical images are delightful the first time you run across them. The fans were there to make sure all these old familiar surprises were in place, and they were pleased. They were even touched, as if their late lamented friend and hero Adams were gazing at them from the screen (he is, very briefly, in one of the film's last images). The petunia bowl rates a smile of grateful recognition, not a burst of surprised laughter.
For those of us with less exposure to the books, or none at all, the film seems merely frenetic. Adams was not strong on developing characters, or exploring complexity in relationships. His plots are headlong, and it's easy to lose the thread. The newbie viewer will often wonder "How did we end up on this planet? What happened with that other character? What's going on?" You just have to hang on for the ride, and enjoy whatever scraps you pick up along the way.
The scraps are often delicious. For one thing, instead of using computer-graphic effects, the space monsters are the product of Jim Henson's workshop, so they are big, stuffed authentic creatures rather than digital illusions. They have a homey familiarity, in an 80s' kind of way. Likewise Marvin the Paranoid Android; he's old school, pleasantly so. Sam Rockwell is terrific as Zaphod Beeblebrox (and Douglas Adams was terrific at names). John Malkovich is suitably eerie as a new character provided by Adams, Humma Kavula. Yet overall the movie is a grab-bag of bizarre images, rather than a story. The love triangle between Zaphod, Trillian, and Arthur Dent, nearly absent from the book, is here developed just enough to seem implausible.
Hovering in the background are the Big Questions. A computer named "Deep Thought" was once built to answer the question of "life, the universe, and everything." After 7 1/2 million years, Deep Thought produced the answer, after warning, "You're not going to like it." The answer is 42. The new quest, then is to discover what the ultimate question is, which will go with the answer "42."
Douglas Adams was a self-described "radical atheist." He added the "radical," he said, to make clear that he was not an agnostic. "I am convinced that there is not a god," he told American Atheist magazine in a 1999 interview. "As a teenager I was a committed Christian," he said. "Then one day when I was about eighteen I was walking down the street when I heard a street evangelist and, dutifully, stopped to listen. As I listened it began to be borne in on me that he was talking complete nonsense."
As the characters of the Hitchhiker's Guide scramble through the galaxy looking for clues to the ultimate questions, Arthur Dent runs into somebody who has stopped thinking about it. This character is Slartibartfast, brilliantly portrayed by Bill Nighy, who brings a twitchy nobility to the role and manages to make the whole raucous movie slow down for a moment and be human. Slartibartfast works for a business that creates custom-made planets, and was part of the team that made earth ("I did the bit called Norway. I got an award for it.") Slartibartfast tells Arthur that, as time goes by, you realize that it's futile to run after questions of ultimate meaning. You might as well just enjoy life as it flies past. "I'd much rather be happy than right any day," he tells Arthur.
"Well, are you?" Arthur responds.
Twitch. "No. That's where it falls down, of course," he says.
Here's an ultimate question for you. Look at a photo of the beautiful earth taken from space. Think about the confusion and tragedy that fills it. And ask: What's wrong with this picture?
Frederica Mathewes-Green writes regularly for NPR's Morning Edition, Beliefnet.com, Christianity Today, and other publications. She is the author of Gender: Men, Women, Sex and Feminism, among other books.