The challenges of bringing The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy to the screen, big or small.
In 2005 Garth Jennings and Nick Goldsmith brought Douglas Adams and Carey Kirkpatrick’s script for The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy to the screen. It remains, to date, the only big screen adaptation of Hitchhiker’s, and I hope this remains the case.
Originally a radio series in 1978, but also a stage play, a series of novels, and a TV series, Hitchhikers had been considered as a possible movie since the late 1970s. As with any cultural phenomenon, people were interested in adapting it into as many mediums as possible. As with every adaptation, there was a struggle between replicating the source material and working it into a different format.
Some stories are so entwined with the medium that it’s impossible to imagine it working in another. Terry Pratchett’s Discworld books have long sections of expository narration with footnotes, amiably and amusingly conveying a lot of information and doing a lot of heavy lifting for the story. Hitchhikers nailed (and possibly inspired) this approach by using the titular guidebook to do much the same thing.
Because it started on radio, Hitchhikers' storytelling is episodic, even when translated to book and film. Adams also altered aspects of the radio series for other versions, editing out John Lloyd’s contributions and largely ignoring the second radio series. This meant that Hitchhikers was able to translate to TV more easily, as it maintained the six-half-hour-episodes format, and while some of the effects have dated, Peter Lord was able to successfully represent the Guide with innovative visuals.
However, three hours of television broadcast over six weeks allows for this, whereas a 90 minute to two-hour film requires at least an hour to be cut. The Guide acted as an introduction to the story so far, and explained what the hell was going on when Adams dropped in another concept that allowed his characters not to die. Some of that has to be cut for a movie version to work.
This is not insurmountable, it just requires careful adaptation to join the dots and write new exposition. The style which made the radio series stand out is harder to make work in a movie, but it can be done.
What’s more difficult to overcome is how widespread Hitchhikers is in culture. There’s been multiple versions of it and the jokes are widely known. The cadences and rhythms of their delivery are etched into people’s brains. Any adaptation has to decide whether or not to stick to what’s worked or to try something new.
The 2005 movie largely went for trying something new, and as a result was patchy, but interesting. No new interpretation of the characters failed, but not enough of them succeeded. While we may disagree on which new takes worked and which did not, the important thing is that it’s demonstrably difficult to offer a fresh delivery of material that is incredibly familiar to an audience.
A side note: while I feel that the making of documentary for The Hitchhikers’ Guide To The Galaxy film is funnier than the movie itself, the film is visually wonderful, and I especially love the Slartibartfarst sequence. Not technically relevant, I just felt I should mention the bits I particularly enjoyed.
There are currently no rumours of another film, although Hollywood is getting very good at surprising us with remakes, but recent years have seen two attempts at adapting Adams’ other franchise, Dirk Gently. TV has made great advances in terms of long-form storytelling and movie-level visuals. Furthermore, a new television take on Hitchhikers has popped up on the development slate at Hulu. Expect that to see some decent money spent on it, too.
But also: we have absolutely no need to see another version.
Currently Amazon is taking Lord Of The Rings to the small screen. They could adapt another book, or come up with something original, but they are throwing money at an established franchise because they know that people will feel obliged to give it a go.
I’d rather not see that with Hitchhikers, because I’m egregiously pious clearly, but also because it’s really been covered. We have a TV version, a film version, a stage play, novels and their radio adaptations. Plus the original from 1979.
It is self-evidently no longer 1979.
Adams’ ideas were based on circumventing cliches in science fiction, but now we have new cliches. If you want to make Hitchhikers again, and avoid the problems mentioned above, you’re going to have to jettison a lot of warm, familiar material and bring in something new. We all know how much fandom loves it when that happens…
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