Getting a movie made in Hollywood is like trying to grill a steak by having a succession of people coming into the room and breathing on it.
- Douglas Adams (1999)
The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams has existed in a number of incarnations since it appeared on the radio in 1978. As the book (1979) diverged from the radio show in places and the television series (1981) diverged from the book, so the film is similar yet different to the works that preceded it.
The film had a long gestation period, but was finally released in cinemas in 2005. Based on the screenplay that Douglas had been working on since 1983, it also included material by Karey Kirkpatrick1. This divided opinion, with some people accepting it as a jolly-enough adaptation of the original while others were disturbed by the changes that turned it into a Hollywood movie2. Although the ending was left open to the possibility of a second film, it was not successful enough to encourage investment in a sequel3.
The plot of the film roughly follows the plot of the previous incarnations, so we meet Arthur Dent just as his home is about to be demolished to make way for a bypass. He and his friend Ford Prefect hitchhike to escape the destruction of the Earth by Vogons, a bureaucratic race of aliens, and soon find themselves on a spaceship, the Heart of Gold. There they meet Zaphod Beeblebrox, Ford's cousin and President of the Galaxy, and Trillian, an astrophysicist whom Arthur had previously met at a party on Earth when she was known as Tricia McMillan. Having learned that the answer to 'Life, the Universe and Everything' is 42, they are trying to find out what the Ultimate Question is. They go to the planet Magrathea where Ford, Zaphod and Trillian meet the supercomputer Deep Thought and Arthur sees a new Earth4 being created by the planet builder Slartibartfast. Arthur and the others are reunited in the new version of his home and then they all head off to the 'Restaurant at the End of the Universe'.
The main change from the previous incarnations is that it was a challenge to compress the story into 110 minutes, rather than a number of episodes over several weeks, so the plot skips along rather rapidly - it isn't always clear what is happening and why. More minor changes include Zaphod's second head being underneath his other one and elements of Arthur's relationship with a quirky woman called Fenchurch (which developed later in the Hitchhiker's 'Trilogy in Five Parts') being transplanted on to Arthur and Trillian so as to provide the film with a love interest. A notable addition to the story, expanded from an idea by Douglas, is the scene set on the planet Viltvodle VI where the team meet Humma Kavula, a priest of the Great Green Arkleseizure (a deity said to have created the universe in a sneeze). The sculpture of the Great Green Arkleseizure (a giant nose) is modelled in the shape of Douglas' own nose.
The film is rich in details like that for fans to look out for. In the flashback scene showing Ford's first meeting with Arthur, he is nearly knocked over by an actual Ford Prefect car. The theme music from the radio show plays when Ford sticks out his electronic hitchhiking thumb. The office-loving Vogons write in Pitman Shorthand and there is a queueing scene featuring a cameo by Marvin from the 1981 TV series. The Heart of Gold is shaped vaguely like a teapot and is decorated in Willow Pattern Blue5 with images from Guide Entries. When we first meet Trillian we can tell she is wearing one of Zaphod's shirts as it has three sleeves. There is a button that says, 'Please do not press this button again'. There are cameos by members of Douglas' family, and Douglas' face is the last image seen before the end credits.
The comedy in the film ranges from the verbal humour that Douglas was known for, such as the classic line 'It must be Thursday. I never could get the hang of Thursdays'6, to visual humour, such as the Heart of Gold's Infinite Improbability Drive turning Arthur and Ford into sofas and knitted versions of themselves, to slapstick, such as Arthur hitting his head on the ceiling as he tries to descend the stairs in his house. Indeed the characters encounter actual Slapsticks on the Vogon homeworld, as they are hit in the face by them whenever they have an idea. This explains how the Vogons came to be so bureaucratic (and also why the Vogons' noses are high on their faces).
To enhance the look of the film, physical effects were used where possible - the Vogons and other aliens were made by Jim Henson's Creature Shop, real mice were trained, and the actors performed their own stunts. However, blue-screen technology was used to create Zaphod's second head, and CGI is used to good effect when Arthur views the immense planet building workshop. There is some violence, mainly against crabs, but no blood and gore, as the film is rated PG (Parental Guidance).
In spite of the inclusion of another female humanoid in addition to Trillian (Questular Rontok, the Vice President of the Galaxy, living and working among the Vogons), the film only just passes the Bechdel Test, which examines the portrayal of women in film. If you count the scene in which Trillian discusses the Earth with a Vogon as representing two female characters talking about something other than a man, then that satisfies the basic requirements7 of the Test.
The cast list includes a roll call of British national treasures alongside famous actors from the USA.
Arthur Dent is played by Martin Freeman, who came to fame in the British sitcom The Office and appeared in Richard Curtis' film Love Actually (2003). He would go on to appear as Bilbo Baggins in The Hobbit films directed by Peter Jackson.
Trillian aka Tricia McMillan is played by Zooey Deschanel. She had had a variety of roles in films including Almost Famous (2000) and Elf (2003) and went on to star in the hit US sitcom New Girl.
Ford Prefect is played by Mos Def8, a rapper and actor9 from New York. Zaphod Beeblebrox is played by Sam Rockwell who went on to appear in Iron Man 2 (2010) and numerous other films including Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (2017), for which he won the Best Supporting Actor Oscar. He played another President (George W Bush) in Vice (2018).
Marvin the paranoid android is brought to life by Warwick Davis and voiced by Alan Rickman. Veteran British actor Alan Rickman starred in Galaxy Quest alongside Sam Rockwell and was famous for playing Severus Snape in the Harry Potter film franchise. Warwick Davis' extensive acting career began at the age of 11 when he won a role in Star Wars: Episode VI - Return of the Jedi. He has played a variety of roles in the Harry Potter series and also appeared in adaptations of The Chronicles of Narnia.
John Malkovich plays Humma Kavula. He has had a range of roles in television series, and films such as Rounders (1998), notably playing himself in Being John Malkovich (1999).
Other veteran British actors include Stephen Fry as The Book, Bill Nighy of Love Actually and Pirates of the Caribbean fame as Slartibartfast, Helen Mirren as Deep Thought and Richard Griffiths (Vernon Dursley in Harry Potter) as the Vogon Jeltz. Anna Chancellor of Four Weddings and a Funeral fame plays Questular Rontok. Simon Jones, who played Arthur Dent in the radio series and television adaptation, makes a cameo appearance as a Magrathean hologram image10.
The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy was released on DVD in 2005. Extras include deleted scenes and outtakes, a game where you have to try to guess a four-letter word before Marvin falls to pieces, a singalong version of the 'So Long and Thanks for all the Fish' theme song and an 'Infinite Improbability Drive' that shows you a random scene from the film. There are also two audio commentaries - one with director Garth Jennings and producer Nick Goldsmith of Hammer and Tongs with Martin Freeman and Bill Nighy, and the other with Douglas' friends and colleagues Robbie Stamp and Sean D Solle. Some editions contain a second disc featuring the documentary Don't Crash: The Making of 'The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy'. This features interviews with the director and producer and some of the cast members plus Sean D Solle and Jim Lynn from The Digital Village and footage of Douglas Adams himself. A limited edition also came with a copy of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy novel and a Marvin the Paranoid Android mug.