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How 'Hitchhiker's' got picked up

It was an ironically circuitous path to the big screen for Douglas Adams' offbeat guide. In the end, a pair of London video wizards took it under their wings.

April 24, 2005|David Gritten | Special to The Times

London — Fans of Douglas Adams, the British writer who created the beloved science fiction comedy "The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy," were stunned by his sudden death from a heart attack, at age 49, in a Santa Barbara gym four years ago.

There was an extra dimension to the sadness surrounding the author's demise. Two years earlier, he had moved from his north London home to California, having signed a deal with Disney to create a feature film of "The Hitchhiker's Guide." It had been a long time coming; the radio series was first broadcast in Britain in 1978, and the "Guide" empire included books and a TV sitcom. But at the time of his death, Adams was still struggling to create a workable script.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Tuesday May 03, 2005 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 2 inches; 83 words Type of Material: Correction
"Hitchhiker's Guide" -- An article in the April 24 Calendar about the making of "The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy" said that Walt Disney Studios asked screenwriter Karey Kirkpatrick to work from a script by the book's late creator, Douglas Adams. Kirkpatrick was hired by Spyglass Entertainment, the company that produced the film. Spyglass also hired the two-man British collective Hammer & Tongs, Garth Jennings and Nick Goldsmith, who became the film's director and creative producer, before Disney agreed to finance the project.

"Douglas always wanted there to be a movie," observes Robbie Stamp, Adams' friend and business partner. "He believed a movie should be taking its place in the canon of his works." Finally, it has happened, but only after plenty of hectic behind-the-scenes maneuvering, with new principals replacing old. Yet there has been a constant determination to keep the film true to the irreverent spirit in which Adams created the story.

"We've worked hard to make sure [the film is] true to itself," observes Stamp, who is now its executive producer. "It's a strange, unique thing. I've always loved the fact that you can't ever describe it as a cross between one movie and another."

There's a sound commercial logic in this approach. "The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy" has become a modern classic, translated into 25 languages. It has sold more than 2 million copies in Britain alone and, according to a spokeswoman for Adams' London-based literary agent, Ed Victor, "16 million copies worldwide thus far."

Its hero is a diffident Englishman, Arthur Dent, who becomes the last surviving man on Earth after the planet is destroyed. He finds himself traveling around space (dressed in a robe and pajamas and clutching a towel) with his best friend, Ford Prefect (who turns out to be an alien), Zaphod Beeblebrox (president of the galaxy) and Trillian, a young woman Arthur met at a fancy-dress party, his last on Earth. "The Hitchhiker's Guide" has a philosophical bent, but its wit is light and brilliant; Adams' humor is self-deprecating and distinctly British.

After his premature death threw film plans into disarray, Disney asked writer Karey Kirkpatrick (who took the screenplay credit on "Chicken Run," another film comedy with a heavily British accent) to work from Adams' last revisions to his story and turn them into a coherent narrative.

Yet before long, the word leaking out about the proposed film was causing alarm bells to ring on websites for fans of "The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy" (they call it H2G2). Their big fear was that Adams' quintessentially English creation would be crudely Americanized.

The Hollywood factor

On the face of it, there was cause to worry. Disney is, after all, a Hollywood studio. And three American actors had been cast in crucial roles: Sam Rockwell as Beeblebrox, Zooey Deschanel as Trillian (a minor character in Adams' book, but now given a screwball-comedy romance with Arthur); and, most surprisingly, hip-hop artist Mos Def as Ford Prefect. British H2G2 fans, not wanting the film to resemble a by-the-numbers, Hollywood-style, CGI-heavy action movie, were dismayed.

Curiously, Deschanel was among those who sympathized with their concerns. "I read the book when I was 12," she said, speaking by phone from Los Angeles, "and I think it's wonderful -- so funny and unique. It's very British in its humor, but that's better than being very American -- at least I think so. I tend to like British humor."

Yet the Americans acquit themselves well, particularly Rockwell, who portrays Beeblebrox as a titanically stupid rock god with Freddie Mercury mannerisms. The story's British origins remain intact, thanks to Martin Freeman (Tim from the Emmy-winning BBC-TV comedy "The Office) as Arthur; the unseen Stephen Fry, who wryly narrates the story in his veddy British tones; and Bill Nighy as the planet designer Slartibartfast (fiords a specialty).

Most of the book's best lines and situations survive. Its catchphrase "Don't panic!" is liberally sprinkled around, "42" is still the answer to the ultimate question, Arthur still can't ever quite get the hang of Thursdays -- and a towel, a manic-depressive android and a whale falling from the sky all make important appearances. Above all, the sense of wonder and joy that Adams instilled in his creation have transferred successfully.

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