In 1996, I was most definitely a fan of The Hitch-Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy. I had experienced the series, in its various incarnations -- books, audiobooks, radio show, TV show -- at least a dozen times, I knew chunks of it off by heart, I thought it was a work of genius. Approaching the Internet for the first time, I was excited at the prospect of talking to like-minded people. But then I logged on to alt.fan.douglas-adams and was horrified at what I saw: a bunch of fucking nerds who were only interested in forty-two-spotting, who kept all discussion at the level of anorak trivia, who were terrified of looking at the series in any depth at all. And the same went for the various fan websites I found. Most memorably, there was a "quote wall" where fanboys could post their favourite quotes from the books. Like an infinite number of monkeys, they had reproduced the entire text of the first two volumes in random order.
Much as a fanatical street preacher turned the young Douglas Adams towards atheism, so these fanboys began to shake my own faith -- in the Hitch-Hiker series. I had already thought that the last two books were poor; now I began to worry about the first two. Were they really worthy of a quote wall in their entirety? Looked at more critically, a lot of the humour didn't stand up. From the standard Radio 4 sketch-filler ("Oolon Colluphid's 'Who is this God Person Anyway?'"), to the tiresome undergrad stuff (the Vogon poetry), to the flat-out lame ("do not drink unless you are a thirty ton mega-elephant..."), and even to the odd throwaway line from Keeping up Appearances ("It must be a Thursday. I could never get the hang of Thursdays"), the best that could be said was that a lot of bad lines had been canonised along with the good.
And watching the appalling 2005 movie version die on its arse, one could be forgiven for thinking there were no good lines in HHGG at all. From the woeful dolphin dance number onwards, I could only watch with a rictus of horror as one gag after another failed to fire. The delivery of the lines was so poor, their timing so badly off, and the resulting 110 minutes so embarrassingly laugh-free, that I had to watch the BBC TV series again immediately afterwards to reassure myself that the same jokes were ever funny in the first place. Thankfully, watching the original cast reassured me.
As Arthur Dent, Simon Jones was far better than Martin Freeman: funnier, with a stronger presence, and a sharper, clearer voice that communicated Dent's frustrations more intensely. Freeman performs Dent with the same mumbling reality-TV schtick he used in The Office; this has long outstayed its welcome, but it seems to be all he can do. Even before the movie, he had become typecast as a homely-faced cuddly guy, and this is how Arthur Dent has been "reimagined" for the 21st century. He's a harmless everyman the guys are supposed to identify with and the girls are supposed to want to hug. He's a different character from Jones's Dent, a much less funny character, more reminiscent of the Dent of the dreary later books, in which Adams had become sentimental about him.
The original HHGG was much tougher, crueller and more satirical than this. The audience were still meant to identify with Dent, but most of the jokes were at his and our expense. It relentlessly mocked the pettiness of his and our concerns (wristwatches, cups of tea, even the demolition of his house); it depicts a universe totally indifferent to him and us, that doesn't make any effort to offer us comfort, that has no reason to. At its best, HHGG is a Gulliver's Travels for the late 20th century, a comprehensive mockery of human hubris and stupidity. At its best, it's a Total Perspective Vortex that shows us how insignificant we are in a vast universe; at times, there's something genuinely alien and mind-expanding about it, something awesome in the literal sense of the word.
In its comparatively doting treatment of Dent, the movie discards this possibility in favour of schmaltz, and quaint, slightly dated, garden-variety wackiness. Shorn of their satirical edge, Adams's flights of fancy degenerate into mere whimsy, surrounding a very soft centre. In the original, the universe was emphatically not about Arthur Dent; but in the movie, the universe ultimately is about Dent and his attempts to find happiness with the girl he loves. Maybe this more faithfully reflects the interests and perspectives of its suburban audience. But compared to the original, it's almost infinitely more pedestrian.
The other male leads fare little better than Dent. David Dixon brought an unblinking intensity to Ford Prefect in the TV series; Mos Def never establishes himself in the role and more or less disappears from the movie once Zaphod shows up. Mark Wing-Davey was an alluring, charismatic asshole as Zaphod in the TV series; as Zaphod in the movie, Sam Rockwell is merely an asshole.
The only arguable improvement in the movie is Zooey Deschanel in a bulked-up role as Trillian. Deschanel is cute and geeky, and wears far less makeup and glamour than the average movie starlet, which consequently makes her far more attractive. However, my budding ardour was cooled substantially when I realised that her appearance was calculated to make 300,000 other engineering graduates feel the exact same way. There's something uncomfortable about one's potential love interest also being an object of mass aspie-lust, but I guess that's the price you pay when you cynically aim your bit of totty at the nerd community. In any case, Deschanel is not helped by being saddled with mostly new lines of mostly poor quality. There's a weak sequence just before the end with a gun that makes its target see things from the shooter's point of view. When Zaphod threatens to fire the gun at her, Trillian quips "it won't affect me -- I'm already a woman" -- an awful gallery-playing line clearly designed to make the more moronic half of the more female tenth of the audience whoop and applaud. Who wrote this, Ricki Lake?
Among the best parts of all the HHGG incarnations, and especially the TV series, were the many interludes from the Guide itself. (In fact, the brilliance of the Guide animations in the TV series makes it my favourite version of HHGG.) Stephen Fry is just about the best living choice to narrate the Guide in the movie; but as good as he is, he just ain't Peter Jones. And what's more, Fry is let down by some extremely witless animations, visually uninspired and full of dire jokes. One starts to dread the interludes from the Guide, rather than look forward to them. The TV animations were a marvel; not only were they funny, but with all their busy sound effects, text and diagrams rushing by, they actually looked like excerpts from a real futuristic multimedia guidebook: a guidebook that happened to be amusing, but still a guidebook. The movie animations, by contrast, are just unfunny narrated cartoons. Compare the TV and movie versions of the Babel Fish entry, and see all the shortcomings of the movie summarised neatly.