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The novel Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy was written by Douglas Adams and first published in 1979. The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy is a hilarious and improbable science fiction story starring Arthur Dent, an Earthman who wakes up one day to be rescued from the demolishing of the planet Earth by his best friend Ford Prefect, who has just revealed himself to be an alien hitchhiker. The reader is then taken on a zany tour of the galaxy in Douglas Adams’s mind, sometimes explained by excerpts from the galactic encyclopedia, “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy”. Interestingly enough, the novel is an adaptation in itself, as the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy was originally a BBC radio program a year before (douglasadams.com). Recently, this novel has been adapted into a Hollywood sponsored film and released in theaters everywhere. Many novels, TV series, comics, or even video games are slapped onto the big screen as feature films every year. These films usually receive mixed reactions from fans of the originals and new viewers, as to the quality of adaptation from the original source material. As arguments and silly slapping matches ensue, one may pause to wonder what qualifies as a good adaptation from the source material. Upon examination, loyalty in plot and flow, casting, trueness of tone, and consideration for commercial or popularity success should be considered. Despite a few shortcomings, Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy is a successful adaptation because it considers these factors, and fairly balances them without making a carbon copy of the original source material.
The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy film had a difficult path to follow. Douglas Adams died in 2001 before finishing the screenplay, leaving Karey Kirkpatrick to finish and revise it. He added most of the new characters and ideas himself, but after he died, producers revised the screenplay (imdb.com). Fortunately, the film essentially follows the same plot as the book, with the exception of a couple of added scenarios, and the displacement of a couple scenes, and the rejection of some extraneous details. Something like this may have been done as a sort of revision to the story of the book. An example of this would be the placement of the “So Long, and Thanks for All the Fish” scene at the beginning of the film. This scene was actually described later in the book, near the end. Readers of the actual book may notice this change, but moviegoers who have never read the book could not possibly know the difference. Rather than beginning the film with Arthur Dent waking up in his bedroom, the film begins with amusing information about dolphins, as well as a very catchy song. This is a similar hook to that of an interesting opening statement or quote to an English essay. Some differences, such as a run in with galactic president Zaphod Beeblebrox’s political opponent Humma Kavula, and a trip to the planet Vogsphere, were added, but didn’t have major impact on the framework of the overall plot, while building on matieral that only received mere mention in the book, and freshening the experience for hardcore fans who may have read the book fifteen times before. Many films have experienced similar changes, but altering the plot too much with these changes can easily result in an unsuccessful adaptation.
Sometimes changes are made to increase the appeal of a film to the larger audience of the everyday moviegoer, rather than exclusively appealing to the veteran fans of the original book. This may include extra action sequences, less obscure humor, or love interests that end up making the main character come off as more of a hero. All three of these are present in Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, but only in balanced doses, and the good outweighs the bad in all of these scenarios. Action sequences, commonly found in films in the form of epic battles, gunfights, high speed chases, fierce competitions, or combinations of those, basically exist to keep the viewer hooked or provide breaks from lengthy dialogue sequences. The film Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy doesn’t add many extra pointless action sequences, rather, exaggerates the existing ones a slight amount more than they were portrayed in the book. For example, when on the planet Margrathea, Arthur and the party are confronted by a few intergalactic police officers. After a comical conversation, the problem is instantly resolved with no fighting or chasing, as an event that occurs in the background ends up killing the police officers. In the film version, however, the officers are replaced by a massive horde of angry Vogons, and Arthur and company must run away and dodge a volley of laser beams. The problem is solved in essentially the same fashion, but the scene was portrayed more intensely and dramatically than in the book. Humor can be made less obscure to target a larger audience as well, making it easier to understand. For example, in the book, Ford Prefect aids Arthur by convincing a confused Mr. Prosser to take Arthur’s place lying in the mud in front of his own bulldozer that’s waiting to demolish Arthur’s house, thus convincing Mr. Prosser to protest against his own job, in a sense. In the movie, this obscure scene is made simpler when Ford simply wheels in a shopping cart full of beer and peanuts to pass around to the demolition crew. The love interest between Arthur and Trillian was basically non-existant in the book. In the movie, Trillian was more of a damsel in distress who had to be rescued from execution on the planet Vogsphere, which also never occurred in the book. By the end of the movie, Arthur and Trillian are together, which is explained in an interview with producer Nick Goldsmith where he says, “We’ve tightened the plotting and made Arthur a little less passive, so he now has a relationship with his unrequitted love, Trillian, and has to rescue her from the Vogons” (UK Times). This is the largest fault in adaptation for this film. Boston Globe reviewer Ty Burr attacked this change saying, “ It (also) represents kowtowing away from Douglas Adams, who never in his life allowed sentiment to gum up the works” (Boston Globe). This is an error because it edits the author’s intended portrayal of the characters, thus affecting the tone of the film from zany to sentimental at a couple points, but only redeemed by the fact that they are few and short.
The way things are portrayed are very important to an adaptation from a book to film. Novels are not usually fully illustrated, so it’s left up to the reader’s imagination to envision what the characters and setting look and feel like, or even how they would sound or smell. This where casting becomes an important factor to consider in a story where the characters each have unique personalities. For example, Martin Freeman, who was casted for Arthur Dent, is a successful choice because he portrays Arthur as an extremely normal British man, who is in a constant state of confusion being while being taken through the galaxy and not quite used to the fact that the entire Earth had been destroyed earlier that morning, which matches his personality in the book. The setting of Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy is massive, and spans multiple planets. However, the movie had to remain somewhat low-budget, made for under $50 million dollars, in order to be acquired by a studio quicker and more efficiently. Due to this lower budget, use of computer graphics and effects was limited, and was used sparingly throughout the movie (Variety). Therefore, a majority of the scenery, with the exception of space and flight scenes, were handmade sets. Also because of this, environments were created differently than described in the book at some points. For example, in the book, the planet Margrathea was described as an odd mixture of a swamp and a very cold climate that would be unlikely to occur on planet Earth. Thusly, the surface of Margrathea was simply produced as a snowy terrain. Most importantly was how the actual Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy was portrayed in the film. The adaptation was dead on with animated entries on the colorful screen inside the book, paired with direct excerpts from the book, and the words “Don’t Panic” written in large, friendly letters on the cover.
While the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy film was a reasonably successful adaptation, it is clear that success with adaptations are difficult, require a lot of in-depth consideration and can be criticized by differing points of view. While it may be nearly impossible to compress all the pages of a book into one in a half to three hour film, it is very possible to envoke the same feeling that the original source material creates. This is why extraneous lines or events or descriptions can be cut or added, and exactly why it is important to keep the framework of the original intact. Sometimes dramatic changes are made in the process of adapting to Hollywood, so the ability of material to resist these changes, while still appealing to the masses, is important. Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy hit a few inevitable bumps along the way due to it’s poor luck and obscure yet unique style, but beyond all improbability, it was still completed, and a decent success.
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