Cult classic puts less hi-fi in its sci fi to keep quirky Brit tone

When British writer Douglas Adams suffered a fatal heart attack in a Montecito, Calif., gym in 2001, his long-cherished dream to make a Hollywood movie from his cult sensation “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” nearly died with him.

Instead, his untimely exit at the age of 49 proved the catalyst that rescued the project, that had started as a radio series for the BBC in Blighty in 1978 before becoming a hit novel and TV skein.

More than two decades after Adams took his first stab at a screenplay, the sci-fi comedy is set for wide release April 29 in the U.S. and April 28 in the U.K., produced by Spyglass Entertainment for Disney.

Shot last year in Blighty for less than $50 million, it’s directed by hot Brit promo helmer Garth Jennings, with a cast including Sam Rockwell, Martin Freeman, John Malkovich, Mos Def, Zooey Deschanel and Bill Nighy.

It follows the misadventures of Arthur Dent (Freeman), a bemused Englishman whisked into a spaceship when Earth is destroyed by bureaucratic aliens to make way for an interplanetary freeway.

Dressed in a bathrobe and aided by the eponymous guidebook, he embarks on a reluctant quest across space and time with a motley bunch of extraterrestrial companionsfor the answer to the ultimate question of “life, the universe and everything” (which, as everyone knows, turns out to be 42).

The challenge facing the filmmakers is to deliver a movie that satisfies “Hitchhiker’s” possessive fans, while also reaching out to a wider, younger audience with little knowledge of it.

Early test screenings delivered a promising response from both groups, sparking Disney’s distribution machine to crank belatedly into gear for a movie that marketeers had previously seen as a quirky English project for a cult audience.

In a sign of the studio’s hopes for the film, it moved the release two weeks earlier, giving a clear three weeks before “Star Wars: Epsiode III — Revenge of the Sith” likely crushes everything in its path.

Yet “Hitchhiker,” for all its transatlantic cast, remains distinctively British in its sensibility, its humor unmistakably cut from the same cloth as Monty Python.

The “Hitchhiker” book may be on the high school curriculum in Iceland but it isn’t widely read in Idaho. It remains to be seen how Adams’ unrepentant atheism will play in the U.S. “God and religion don’t do well in this film,” Jennings admits.

Disney production prexy Nina Jacobson says it was a deliberate decision to make a movie that didn’t feel too American.

“We decided that Garth ought to be given an enormous amount of freedom to make a movie you could almost not believe came out of the studio system. We knew the fans wouldn’t buy a movie that felt too Hollywood, or too Disney,” she explains.

Translated into 24 languages, the book’s intellectual humor has been embraced by successive generations of college kids from Boston to Beijing, establishing the charismatic Adams as a guru for those who find the notion of gurus and higher meanings absurd.

Last year, for example, “Hitchhiker” came in a surprising fourth in a BBC poll listing the 100 best-loved novels of all time — beating Harry Potter at the height of its popularity.

Adams started working on a feature version in the early ’80s, but despite inventing countless new twists and turns, he never managed to discipline his material into a coherent movie. He teamed up with Jay Roach and Spyglass topper Roger Birnbaum in the mid-’90s, but at the time of his death, the project had stalled.

His demise changed everything. Spyglass hired “Chicken Run” scribe Karey Kirkpatrick to solve the structural problems that had defeated Adams, teasing out a romantic triangle Adams had left undeveloped.

When Roach stepped away to make “Meet the Fockers,” Spike Jonze recommended Brit promo team Hammer and Tongs, aka Jennings and his producer Nick Goldsmith. They pitched an inventive way to slash the budget by half, triggering the greenlight from Disney.

“Making a $100 million plus version of this very anarchic and subversive material was terrifying, and hard to justify,” Jacobson says. “But there was a meeting with Garth and Nick when I finally understood how we could do it.”

Birnbaum explains: “Garth said everyone has seen outer space and aliens. No one is going to top ‘Star Wars,’ so let’s be clever and funny and show less — let the audience’s imaginations deal with space.”

Their vision meant putting the priority on jokes rather than spectacle, using cinematic sleight of hand and animatronics wherever possible instead of expensive CGI.

Adams’ business partner, exec producer Robbie Stamp, helped pave the way among initially skeptical fans at sci-fi conventions, schmoozing Internet geeks with sneak peeks and unleashing viral marketing efforts on the Web.

He also gave Kirkpatrick access to Adams’ computer, which contained many unused ideas. One of these, a crazed evangelist, became a crucial character (Malkovich) in the reworked screenplay.

Shortly after getting the greenlight, Jennings and Goldsmith went to meet Adams’ family at a book launch.

“It literally took half an hour to convince his mother we were really making it,” Jennings recalls.

She ended up with a cameo in the movie. “It’s definitely been an emotional project all along,” Jennings says.

“Douglas’s desire, his belief that this could be a fabulous movie was so strong,” Stamp says. “The film will hopefully be a vindication of him.”

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