If _Lord of the Rings_ shows the terror and confusion of the First World War, and Orwell’s _1984_ is a portrait of post-war London, then the movie version of Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy captures seventies England, which is run by vile, blobby civil servants and depressive (robot) functionaries. Arthur Dent is a mopey Englishman surrounded by Yanks who are dazzling, confident, and dim. His main source of comfort is cups of tea, which never arrive. Because it’s seventies England, bowls of petunias in space are funny, and so are absurdist answers to weighty questions.
If I sound hard on the film, I don’t mean to be. Monty Python cast such a shadow that the comedy of cringe and absurdity is still around, and mostly holds up. I never got into the HG2G radio series or books, but was always fond of the kind of boys who did, and this movie makes me miss England, or at least the England of the BBC and Douglas Adams. The cast is lovely. Mos Def’s cheekbones seem picked to set off Martin Whatsisname’s perfect, lumpy ordinariness; I would have liked to have seen him in more scenes. Bill Nighy turns up–yay. Sam Rockwell has a great time in every movie he’s in. The closing song, “So Long and Thanks for All the Fish,” makes full use of Neil (Divine Comedy) Hannon’s Broadway voice. As for the glowing, intrepid Zooey Deschanel character ending up with that particular Arthur Dent, well, I’m glad they explained the bit about the Improbabability Drive. And I want the number of her dermatologist.
Douglas Adams took equal delight in technology, nature, and the arts, and that was rare in a country that still forces kids to limit their study to three subjects from the age of 15, herding them into art or science pens as if the Renaissance had never happened. It shows in his writing, which roamed joyfully. Before he died suddenly at 49 he had dreamed of getting HG2G made into a film, and so it was sweet to see an Adams-faced planet swim into the very last frame. “For Douglas,” ran the closing dedication; indeed.