I outraged a friend the other day by suggesting that the changes made to Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy for the 2005 film were completely justified. I argued that the book had no plot structure whatsoever, and it would have made for a crazily chaotic film to stay true to it. My friend was horrified that I would insult such a classic, and I was forced to repeatedly affirm that Hitchhiker’s Guide is in fact one of my all-time favorite books.
Yet I stick to my claim that the classic ‘trilogy in five parts’ had no plot structure, and that some of the characters were quite weak (particularly the only female in the story). So why do I so firmly believe that Hitchhiker’s Guide is one of the greatest books ever written? Obviously, because it is so delightfully silly. Who wouldn’t love a book in which poetry is a deadly weapon?
This led me to the thought: Can silliness overcome all other failings of a story? Or to put it another way, if a story is silly enough, does it need anything else to be enjoyable?
Naturally, my first instinct was to create a scatter plot with silliness on the x axis and overall quality on the y axis. (What? That wouldn’t have been your first reaction?) It looks like this, with examples placed on the extreme corners to help you see how it works:
A film like American History X is extremely good, but not at all silly. The Princess Bride is both very good and very silly. The reboot of The Day the Earth Stood Still (2008) fails miserably on both counts. Most films (or other types of fiction) would fall somewhere in the middle of chart.
Yet you will notice that I offer no example in the last corner of the chart: silly, but not good. Does such a film exist? Is it even possible? Let me know what you think!
Please note that in this sense, ‘silliness’ is not synonymous with ‘campiness’ and certainly not with ‘intended to be humorous.’ Silliness is the stock and trade of such masters as Lewis Carroll, P.G. Wodehouse, and Monty Python. Silliness is serious business.