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Welcome to This Week in Genre History, where Tim Grierson and Will Leitch, the hosts of the Grierson & Leitch podcast, take turns looking back at the world's greatest, craziest, most infamous genre movies on the week that they were first released.
It was the early 1970s and a teenager named Douglas Adams was backpacking across Europe. "I had a copy of a book called The Hitchhiker's Guide to Europe," he later recalled, "and one night I was lying in a field in Innsbruck — I have to say that I was drunk — and I was staring at the stars. It was one of those beautiful starlit nights, and it occurred to me that at some point somebody should write a hitchhiker's guide to the galaxy as well. I fell asleep and forgot about it for six years."
From such modest, drunken inspirations came one of the most beloved, cheeky sci-fi comedy franchises of all time. And exactly 15 years ago today — after television series, novels, video games, and comic books — the film version of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy finally hit U.S. theaters, telling the story of Brit everyman Arthur Dent, who ends up being one of Earth's sole survivors and journeys across the cosmos. The path to the big screen was just as momentous.
The film starred Martin Freeman, best known at that time for playing the likable Tim on the original U.K. version of The Office. But although Hitchhiker's Guide is so beloved for its very British comic sensibility, he was one of the few actual Brits in the ensemble. Freeman was joined by rapper Mos Def as Ford Prefect, Arthur's best friend who turns out to be an alien, and Zooey Deschanel as Trillian, an astrophysicist, fellow Earthling, and potential love interest. In fact, the cast was a murderer's row of great character actors and future Oscar winners — including Sam Rockwell, Alan Rickman, and Bill Nighy — as we follow Arthur on his quest to find the mystical planet Magrathea, where President of the Galaxy Zaphod Beeblebrox (Rockwell) believes they'll get the answer to the Ultimate Question of Life, the Universe, and Everything.
Along the way, there's a lot of droll humor, depressed robots, and even a musical number, "So Long, and Thanks for All the Fish," sung from the perspective of dolphins.
Like Monty Python set in outer space, the movie was proudly its own thing, happily doling out knowingly cheesy effects and goofy humor while skewering the ponderousness of most sci-fi epics.
From the get-go, Hitchhiker's Guide was destined to be a cult item, not a blockbuster, honoring Adams' peculiar vision more than slavish box-office demands. "We've worked hard to make sure [the film is] true to itself," Robbie Stamp, Adams' business partner, said when the movie was about to be released. "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."
Why was it a big deal at the time? The early 21st century had its share of sci-fi successes, like the Matrix movies, the Star Wars prequels, and I, Robot, but those were all action movies with serious themes. Hitchhiker's Guide was something different: an irreverent interstellar comedy that opens with the Earth being pulverized. Of course, that was what fans had always loved about this story, which first enchanted radio audiences on the BBC back in 1978. Adams, who had written on Monty Python's Flying Circus and Doctor Who, gave us a universe that was mischievous, illogical, and sometimes undependable. In other words, hurtling around the cosmos was just like life on Earth.
Because of the story's incredible following — it expanded into a series of books and there was also a 1981 TV series in the U.K. — it seemed inevitable that there would be a Hitchhiker's Guide movie. Except, it kept not happening. In April 2001, just a month before he died at the age of 49, Adams, who had written a screenplay for the film, remained optimistic about the possibility of an adaptation. He called it "The perennial movie, which has been about to be made for about 20 years and is even more about to be made now. But we shall see. I wish I had never thought of doing it as a movie. I'd have about 10 years of my life back."
Adams' sad passing — and the fact that he had moved from London to Southern California in 1999 specifically to oversee the film — only added urgency to bringing Arthur's misadventures to the big screen.
But it wasn't easy. Jay Roach, a hot Hollywood director because of the Austin Powers films, was attached for a while but decided instead to serve as a producer. Spike Jonze, who had received glowing reviews for his existential 1999 comedy Being John Malkovich, turned it down, but he recommended director Garth Jennings and producer Nick Goldsmith, who worked together as Hammer and Tongs, creating music videos for everyone from R.E.M. to Fatboy Slim.
Hitchhiker's Guide would be Jennings' first feature, but the British artist wasn't fazed. "Douglas used to say each incarnation of the story is its own thing," he told the Los Angeles Times in 2005. "So we didn't have to try and make it look like the TV show. Our bible was the book."
Plus, the filmmakers had assembled a buzzy cast. Freeman was riding high off the success of The Office — plus, he'd been part of the beloved rom-com Love, Actually. Deschanel was a rising star thanks to roles in Almost Famous and Elf, and Rockwell had begun to establish himself as an electric actor's actor, earning rave reviews for his leading role in the bizarre Chuck Barris sorta-not-really biopic Confessions of a Dangerous Mind. As for Mos Def, he was the era's coolest, most socially conscious hip-hop artist, segueing into acting with parts in Bamboozled and Monster's Ball.
The journey to the multiplex hadn't been easy, but Hitchhiker's Guide looked primed to be a big deal.
What was the impact? Hitchhiker's Guide was No. 1 at the box office its opening weekend, besting another new release, the Ice Cube-starring xXx: State of the Union. But its commercial dominance was short-lived, and soon the movie was losing altitude. (By the time Star Wars: Revenge of the Sith premiered in mid-May, Hitchhiker's Guide was near the bottom of the Top 10.)
Reviews were generally mixed, with many critics complaining about the film's episodic, hit-or-miss narrative, which was also a problem with Adams' original stories. (As Adams biographer M.J. Simpson once put it, "He was very much making it up as he went along. Beginnings, middles, and endings is what all good stories should have. Well, Douglas was great at beginnings. He was pretty good at middles. He couldn't do endings... mainly because by the time he got to the middle, he'd thought of another really good beginning and he wanted to go write that instead of doing the ending.") During an era in which Hollywood was really ramping up its franchise mentality — crafting crowd-pleasers to appeal to the widest demographic possible — Hitchhiker's Guide was this quirky whatsit that didn't fit in.
Not surprisingly, there would be no sequel, even though there was plenty more source material to work with. "There isn't [any possibility] at this point," Freeman announced in 2007 about a potential follow-up film. "I found that out from the horse's mouth, Garth Jennings. I had dinner with him and he said [the first one] just didn't do well enough."
Has it held up? It's interesting to compare the Hitchhiker's Guide film to another sci-fi comedy that also co-starred Sam Rockwell, 1999's Galaxy Quest. Neither were big hits at the time of their release but have gone on to become beloved fan favorites. To be fair, Hitchhiker's Guide isn't the cable staple that Galaxy Quest is, but that's very much a product of its proud British-ness. As Roach put it in 2010, "It was always going to be that kind of a film that had a certain niche audience that would go crazy for it. And it found that. And unfortunately, that's not everybody, but it was a very good feeling to see that people who loved [the books] watch it."
What also hurt Hitchhiker's Guide is that, as funny as it sometimes is, the movie never found a consistent comedic tone, mixing action and humor in awkward ways. For hardcore Adams fans, the absurdist references were a lot of fun — fear not, the number 42 puts in an appearance — but it also made the film feel like an inside joke the rest of us couldn't fully appreciate.
But even if the movie wasn't a colossus, everyone associated with it has gone on to great things. Deschanel continued to have hits, including her successful Fox sitcom New Girl, and Rockwell won an Academy Award for his work in Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri. Jennings directed the smash animated film Sing.
As for Freeman, well, when he revealed that there would be no Hitchhiker's Guide sequel, he admitted he wasn't too troubled. "It's kind of cool with me because I just got out of being Tim from The Office," he said. "To go straight from that to being Arthur Dent for the next 12 years of my life wouldn't have been too cool." Soon, he'd play Dr. Watson in BBC's Sherlock series and Bilbo Baggins in the massive Hobbit trilogy, as well as snatch a role in the Marvel Cinematic Universe as CIA agent Everett Ross. Hitchhiker's Guide wasn't to be his next franchise, but he had more on the horizon.