The Hitchhiker's Guide To Making a Science-Fiction Comedy from One of the Best Books in the Universe Without Losing Its Soul...
Sentient petunias. Paranoid androids. Ex-galactic presidents with two heads. Horriffic poetry. Talking mice. A song-and-dance routine performed by dolphins. And a very confused Englishman named Arthur Dent, who discovers that the ultimate answer to life, the universe and everything has much more to do with math than one might expect.
For those who know Douglas Adams’ cult-classic book, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, the previous is fond and familiar territory. For those who don’t, they’ll soon have another entrée into his sci-fi comedy universe. Hitchhiker’s Guide has been made into a major motion picture by first-time director Garth Jennings, to be released at the end of April. Jennings’ previous work with producing partner Nick Goldsmith (known collectively as Hammer & Tongs) includes innovative music videos for artists like Beck (“Lost Cause”), Blur (“Coffee & TV”), Badly Drawn Boy, R.E.M, Supergrass and The Wannadies. Following other crossover video directors like Spike Jonze (the friend who recommended the team to Jay Roach and Spyglass Productions) and Michel Gondry (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind), Jennings and Goldsmith attracted attention for their intelligent, odd style, subtle humor and ability to create interesting visual effects on the cheap.
“We knew that we couldn’t make this a sci-fi spectacular,” said Jennings. “The characters would have to do the work, not special effects—although there are some pretty spectacular effects. But even with the special effects and all that, we knew the story had to come first, because that’s the whole point.”
“Basically, we set out to make the un-Star Wars,” says screenwriter Karey Kirkpatrick (Chicken Run). “Whatever the makers of Star Wars would do, we wanted to do the opposite.”
“After all,” Jennings says, “you can make everything flashy, but that’s not what we wanted to do. At the end of the day, if you want to make something good, what matters is the story.”
And this story is rather simple. Arthur Dent, an unassuming British man, wakes up one morning to discover that his house—in the direct path of a planned bypass—is about to be bulldozed. His problems increase further upon discovering that alien Vogons are about to demolish the entire Earth to make way for a hyperspatial express route. Aided by Ford Prefect, an alien friend who’s on Earth researching for an updated version of the Hitchhiker’s Guide (a comprehensive galactic travel manual), Dent escapes the doomed planet. He then meets up with Prefect’s semi-cousin, the two-headed, three-armed ex-Galactic President Zaphod Beeblebrox, as well as an attractive astrophysicist named Trillian, and Marvin, a depressed robot. Together, this gaggle of misfits adventurously explores the universe in a stolen starship powered by an Infinite Improbability Drive and learns the ultimate answer to life, the universe and, well, everything.
Adams’ book has a devoted following both because of its engaging plot and its universal themes: We take ourselves too seriously; anything is possible; nothing is impervious to change; reality is no more important or “real” than fantasy; a good sense of humor can get you through almost anything; and the one certainty in life is uncertainty. And, of course, the book is freakin’ hilarious.
“What we set out to do was have a lot of fun doing something we all loved and connected with,” Jennings said. “And we did that. … We all felt strongly that the thing about Douglas’ book that is so special, so great, is its sense of playfulness, of fun. And we knew that we had to preserve that in our making of the film … in order to do honor to the book. That was our job.”
pictured at top [L-R]: L-R: Marvin the Paranoid Android, Zaphod Beeblebrox (Sam Rockwell), Ford Prefect (Mos Def), Arthur Dent (Martin Freeman)
So why was one of the best selling sci-fi novels ever handed to a director with no feature filmmaking experience? Because he simply “got it.”
“After I signed on to work on the screenplay, I met with Jay Roach (Austin Powers, Meet the Fockers), who was originally slotted to direct,” says Kirkpatrick. “Jay said that these two guys called Hammer & Tongs were signed on; they ‘got it.’ They had the right sensibilities. And he said they wanted to talk to me. They were in England and had never done a feature before, and I thought, ‘What have I gotten myself into? These guys are so green they want to talk to the writer? Don’t they know that in Hollywood the writer doesn’t matter?’ But as soon as I talked with them, it became clear that they weren’t green, they wanted to feel me out, to see if I ‘got it,’ too. And they were very intelligent, very funny, warm people, and very quickly we were all in agreement about how to do the film.”
“The last thing we wanted was to be known as the guys who destroyed The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy,” said Jennings. “Because we’re fans of Douglas Adams as much anyone else. We’d have to answer to our friends.”
This should reassure the myriad fans who’ve feared that the inevitable film version would fall into the wrong hands. More specifically: thick, unwieldy Hollywood hands, incapable of the wit and subtlety required when handling such iconic material and its cinematic transformation. After all, Hitchhiker's was published 25 years ago, and Adams wrote the first version of the screenplay back in 1982. Before his death in 2001, he penned a final version of the screenplay both terrifically funny and fresh, with several new characters added. Touched up by Kirkpatrick, many of the problems that scared people away in the past—a lack of defined character arc for Arthur Dent, a loose second act, a soft ending—had been solved.
“Once we read the script and realized we wanted to do this, we started doing models, storyboards, going out of our minds a little bit. We were so excited, and after eight months, 2,000 drawings, storyboards for a third of the film, we burned it all onto a presentation DVD and presented our work to Disney [who owns the rights]. We’d figured out a fresh new way to do the movie for less money than anyone else had thought possible, and that … caused them to greenlight the project right there.”
Because Disney was so impressed with Jennings and Goldsmith’s up-front work, it had a very hands-off approach to the whole project. “The people at Disney were great,” says Jennings. “They basically said, ‘Here, you guys get this material better than we do, so do it the way you want to.’ So we were able to have creative control not only over the production team we worked with—we used the same team we’ve been working with on our own projects—but we also had control over everything else, including the casting.”
And the cast of subtle yet scene-stealing actors seems perfect: Martin Freeman (the clever, awkward Tim from BBC series The Office) as the flappable Arthur Dent; Sam Rockwell (Confessions of a Dangerous Mind) as Zaphod Beeblebrox; Zooey Deschanel (Elf) as love interest Trillian; and Mos Def (The Italian Job) as Ford Prefect.
“Of course you need to have a good chemistry between the actors, and we do,” says Jennings. “We were so lucky to get everyone, and everyone loves the book and immediately understood completely what we wanted to do. Martin Freeman as Dent—the way he delivered his lines, this kind of throwaway style, it was a new way of doing the character, and so great and fun to watch. And Mos Def—well, you couldn’t really get more different than Martin, and the dynamic between the two is really great.”
The planets seem to have finally aligned. Call it improbable, call it coincidence, but, either way, Douglas Adams would be pleased that a quarter-century after its publication, his book’s themes still resonate—especially his simultaneous love for, and hatred of, technology, which provides us with more things to do, see, learn, master and be at the mercy of, but it doesn’t set us free. Only we can do that. And what better way is there to experience true freedom, with all its dangers and joys, than hitchhiking?
“That’s something we wanted to focus on” said Kirkpatrick. “Arthur isn’t happy on Earth. He’s content but not happy. It’s when he loses everything he thought he needed, and sets off on this incredible adventure, that he finds happiness. There’s a great quote in the book. A character named Slartiblartfast, who built the Earth [long story …] is talking to Arthur, and he says, ‘Science has come up with some amazing things, but on the whole I’d rather be happy than right any day.’ And Arthur asks him, ‘Well, are you happy?’ And he says, ‘Well, no, that’s where it all falls down.’ I think when we were making this movie, we wanted to be happy more than right, i.e., obsess about how we’d fit in all the details in the book. … But you can’t be worrying about getting all the little details in there. We wanted to have fun, and, in that effort, do Douglas Adams an honor. And we did.”