Thursday, May 19, 2005

Hitchhiker's Guide and philosophy

I want to start another post now, because I would like to kick around something that occurred to me watching the film of HHGG. Douglas Adams was a neodarwinist by conviction, and a close friend of Richard Dawkins. It would be really interesting to explore the connections between HHGG - conscious or otherwise - and the philosophy of neodarwinianism. The earth would be the belief that there is a God (for Adams, as for most modernists, the fact that God is dead doesn't mean that he was once alive, it means that he never existed, so the earth is only a belief in a God, not a God). But the earth is destroyed, which leaves Arthur and Trillian with their "tendrils of guilt" flapping around in space. The things that provide the ground for our belief are taken away.

(Spoiler coming up here - look away if you don't want to know what happens in the film) So in the film, when the earth is put back just like it was before it was destroyed, the script writers were doing something that Douglas Adams possibly would never have done in earlier days. The whole point about Arthur and Trillian is that they are radically disconnected from their foundation - there is no way back for them in the radio series. Neither in the books - when substitutes for earth all turn out to be less satisfying than the original.

Even if there are sequels, Arthur and Trillian have the security of the fact that the Earth has been restored, and that although they have chosen to go elsewhere, then if things get too bad, they can always go back to ZZ9 Plural Z Alpha. This wasn't an option in earlier versions of the story, and in those earlier versions, the difficulties that Arthur has with his lifestyle are in large measure down to the fact that there is nowhere else he can go - there is no "second planet", as the Vogon processor asks Trillian shortly before her death sentence is imposed. This is a fundamental difference in the worldview of the films and where they might go now, and the other versions.

And it isn't an option for a neodarwinian, despite the twisting and turning of Richard Dawkins. If we destroy the possibility of anything absolute from which we can derive our significance - if all we have is ourselves - then even if our genes allow us to discover our true nature, then we still can't escape from the system. We are still no more than our genes. Some people can live with this - I have a friend (at least, I count her as my friend!!) who finds it reassuring to believe that at the end of her life, she will just return to dust. Arguably, Douglas Adams thought the same - what's important? Be reasonable. Have fun. Have a nice cup of tea.

There were various other things that were frankly cinematic cliches rather than being faithful to Adams' original vision. For example, in the books and radio version, Marvin manages to get a terribly beweaponed but stupid robot to destroy himself with no weapon at all. The "Point of View Gun" is conceptually the sort of idea that Adams would love, I imagine. However, having the light in Marvin's eyes go out, and then come back on again was Disney cliche - the last time I saw it (I think) was in Ice Age. Also, the love interest between Trillian and Arthur, whilst really nice (yes, from the point of view of the storyline, I genuinely wanted them to get together) is a resolution that Adams didn't have in the original story. Again, I think it is inevitable in the medium - in a film, you aren't playing for gags in the same way that you are in a 28 minute radio episode. The extra depth to relationships has to be there probably to sustain interest over an hour and 50 minutes.

I thought the Ford character was great. Zaphod started well but seemed to spend just about the whole of the second half of the film effectively stoned - perhaps a consequence of (SPOILER AGAIN?) having half of his brain removed. However, he just lacked the driven-ness of the radio series - in which there was more to his motivation - it was for more than fame that he stole the Heart of Gold, although this only became apparent right at the end of the Secondary Phase.

In terms of sets and so on, the visualisation was all pretty good - the Vogon ship suitably grotty, the heart of gold suitably gleaming (though I would really, really like to see more made of the robots on board - "Share and Enjoy"), the planet Vogsphere suitably officious and unpleasant. It was always going to be uneasy in this medium, and the story really has more in common with fantasy than science fiction, but I enjoyed the film, and hope to see sequels. I am, however, disappointed that more wasn't made of Adams' original material.

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