Frankie Mouse Goes To Hollywood
For this special anniversary edition of the Post I thought I would do something a little bit different and look at the history and prospects of a film as yet unmade, one with a special significance to most of us who use this site: the cinema version of that wholly remarkable book, The Hitch Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy.
Given the huge name-recognition factor of the Guide brand, the success of the story in nearly every other medium, and the consistent popularity of SF at the pictures since the late 1970s, the continuing absence of a Guide movie is remarkable. But it's not for want of trying: not many years have gone by since 1982 without some snippets of Guide movie-related trivia coming to light. The very first mention of the possibility of a movie came in the 15th November 1979 edition of the Evening News where it was announced a film 'might yet win finance from EMI'.
This aside, the history of the project falls roughly into three phases - the first covering the years 1982 to 1993 (roughly). The names most frequently attached to the project in this time (other than that of DNA, obviously) were those of Columbia Pictures and Ivan Reitman (since the director of Ghostbusters and Junior, amongst others). The Reitman version of the film was originally intended for release in 1985 but it was gradually shunted further and further into the future. The main problem at this time seems to have been creative differences between DNA and Reitman: Reitman thought that it would be anticlimactic for the Answer to turn out to be 42 and wanted something more profound and impressive for the audience. DNA later described him as a man who would order chocolate chip ice cream and then complain about the lumps. Reitman eventually parted company with the project, which ploughed on into the late 80s generating increasingly awful draft scripts, all of which had DNA's name on them despite his not writing a single word (a source of some anger for the reputation-conscious writer).
The project entered its second, non-Columbia phase in the early 1990s. By this time it was in turnaround, being passed from one company to another with little progress being made. By 1993 DNA was actively attempting to buy back the film rights and in early 1994 a script was prepared. The project gained a producer in November that year - twelve years after the initial sale of the film rights - in the form of liquid paper tycoon and ex-Monkee Mike Nesmith. There was very little progress over the next few years, as no major studio was willing to bankroll such an off-the-wall project.
This changed at the start of 1998 when a deal was struck with Hollywood Pictures and Jay Roach announced as the director. The main catalyst for this progress was the mega-success of Men in Black and the scramble to option similar properties (DNA himself said he found some elements of MiB suspiciously familiar). Roach's involvement is interesting: as director of the Austin Powers series, he's shown an aptitude for comic fantasy and British-style humour (he also has straight SF on his CV as writer and producer of Ron Silver's not-bad low-budgeteer Lifepod).
Initial optimism seemed to fade as the millenium rolled around with nothing to show for it except casting scuttlebutt - some good (as Arthur, Hugh Laurie), some bad (also as Arthur: Bruce Willis) and some just plain ugly (Jim Carrey as Zaphod). And then early last summer, the whole project was thrown into doubt by DNA's tragically premature death. It now seems to have two possible futures: to either go ahead without its creator's guiding hand, and be offensively awful, or to quietly and finally follow him into oblivion. A report in the Independent on July 20th last year suggested that the film's script would be published in the same volume as Salmon of Doubt - something which strongly suggests it's no longer a viable cinematic concern.
I personally think this is for the best. In the absence of the movie, our only indication of what a screen Guide would be like is the TV series. The series is excellent given the circumstances of its production, but too often humour which works by suggestion in the books or the radio series is demolished by the very fact of its visualisation (the classic example being Zaphod's second head). And it would be exceptionally difficult to make DNA's satirical, self-effacingly British style of humour work for an international audience.
If there was ever going to be a good Guide movie, surely the time for it would have been twenty years ago: the Guide was at the height of its popularity, and at that time the domestic British industry was willing to take on ambitious, quirky projects. In Terry Gilliam there was a UK-based director whose visual flair would have been ideal for the project. It's tempting to view Gilliam's 1981 picture Time Bandits as the Guide movie that never was: though Bandits is a children's film, it shares something of the wry, cynical sensibility of the Guide. An early-80s Guide movie might not have been perfect, but it would at least have been interesting, and could have received the DNA seal of approval - sadly, something now forever deprived to any future adaptation.
I'd be the first to admit that my research for this article was far from exhaustive, and I'd consider it only proper to amend any major howlers before consigning this piece to the vaults for posterity. Please let me know where I've slipped up; all help will be credited (and gratefully received).