Thus speaks the cover of The Hitchhiker’s Guide To the Galaxy. The book within Douglas Adams’ novel of the same title, it is the guide to anything that anyone might want to ask about life, the universe, and everything, and a lot that they don’t think to ask.
Arthur Dent didn’t know that he would have to ask about life, the universe, and everything. He’s more preoccupied with trying to keep his house from being knocked down by a demolition crew. His concerns pale in comparison to the shocker his friend, Ford Prefect(!) is about to reveal to him: Earth is scheduled to be blown up to make way for an interplanetary bypass. Arthur doesn’t have time to let it sink in. He doesn’t even have time to get into something other than pajamas. He just has to clutch a bath towel and helplessly hang on to Ford, who sticks his thumb out as a gigantic spaceship appears.
After that, all bets are off. Really off. Like, indefinitely. Arthur is thrust into a world of poetry-reading, bureaucracy-crazy Vogons, shovels that pop up whenever one thinks, a nutty two-headed President named Zaphod Beeblebrox, and two homicidal mice who just want to know what the heck the significance of the number forty-two is. It all might be fine and dandy, except that Arthur’s planet got blown up. And he blew his big opportunity with Trisha, a girl he met at a costume party.
Arthur’s got more going for him than he thinks. He finds Trisha piloting a stolen spaceship, the Heart of Gold, and she’s changed her name to Trillian. He also finds the ship’s Improbability Drive may leave him as a sofa or a sock doll vomiting yarn. Still, the Drive can turn enemy missiles into various random objects such as a bowl of petunias, so it’s not without its charms. Fortunately, he has the handy-dandy Guide to cheerfully explain almost everything. In the end, it’s all a big toss-up and it doesn’t do to worry too much. Just hold on to the towel, keep your wits about you, and above all, DON’T PANIC.
Douglas Adams originally conceived the idea for Hitchhiker as a radio series for the BBC while literally hitchhiking around Europe in 1971 with a copy of, not-so-oddly enough, A Hitchhiker’s Guide To Europe. He was lying drunk in an Austrian field when he started wondering what it would be like to hitchhike around the galaxy. It was an idle query, and Adams didn’t think he would be the one to actually write the book.
It wasn’t until after a failed attempt at comedy writing for the BBC that Adams’ idea came back to him. Originally titled The Ends of the Earth, it consisted of six stories that each wound up with the world exploding. This led to what we know as The Hitchhiker’s Guide To the Galaxy. Here’s the fourth episode of the first series (season, to Americans like me), broadcast on March 29, 1978:
Hitchhiker built a large audience rather quickly, and Adams published his stories in novel form in 1979. Naturally, TV was the next step, but producers were reluctant to take on the property due to the sheer weirdness of Adams’ characters. Zaphod Beeblebrox was a particular problem because of his two heads. It was 1981, after all, and effects were much more primitive.
The TV series is wonderfully campy. It was clearly done on a low-budget, so there are minimal sets and props, but that’s half the charm. Arthur was played by Simon Jones, who had also played the role on the radio show. Zaphod (Mark Wing-Davey), whose extra head was animatronic (and frankly, a little creepy) looked like a refugee from a hair band. Trillian was Sandra Dickinson, who looked and sounded like a slightly toned-down Cyndi Lauper. Ford (David Dixon) is an average looking guy no one could pick out of a lineup except that his outfits are a little pattern-crazy. The food looks a little crazy, too–Ford and Arthur eat what look like blue hot dog buns with guacamole on top while on the Vogon spaceship. It was the 80s, of course. We liked stuff to be crazy colorful back then.
Speaking of colorful, what many fans remember about the TV show are the charming animations sprinkled throughout every episode, which was the Guide helpfully explaining every oddity the characters came across. Everything from the Babel fish to the sudden departure of dolphins from earth to Vogon poetry are defined and illustrated. Pretty impressive for a device shaped like a Mattel handheld football game and stored in a coffee can.
The series incorporated elements from subsequent novels, and at times sounds as though the dialogue had been lifted directly from the radio scripts. It’s no biggie, but when Trillian says “Look at these strange markings on the cave wall,” in one of the Magrathea scenes, it feels like guilding the proverbial lily.
Adams had mixed feelings about the TV series. It didn’t really live up to what he had envisioned, and he wasn’t a fan of writing for TV. For that matter, he didn’t even like writing novels. Adams preferred radio, where everything was more spontaneous and collaborative, and other forms of writing were more finicky.
In spite of his fondness for the auditory Hitchhiker, Douglas Adams looked to have a feature film made, and in 1999 he moved to Hollywood with his wife and daughter to make that happen.
Unfortunately, it wasn’t to be during Adams’ lifetime. He died of a heart attack in 2001 at the age of 49.
In 2005, The Hitchhiker’s Guide To the Galaxy premiered in theaters to a mixed reception, and after watching the series and the film back to back, I can see why. There’s more emphasis on the characters and less on the Guide explaining the story. There are quite a few animated interludes, and whatever expositions aren’t animated are done in voiceover. It does stray from the book, and sometimes it’s too cute for its own good. It also falters in the middle, because the plot-ish arc features Zaphod having to go to Magrathea for some reason even he doesn’t know. The movie sacrifices quite a bit of the original British dryness for American zany-ness, which doesn’t always play well, as the show is very culturally bound. Part of the problem is that Adams died before the film went into production, leaving behind various unfinished script drafts, and a cohesive interpretation of them really isn’t there.
However, the film has a lot of pluses. The trailers, for one thing. The opening sequence, for another:
The casting in the film is excellent. Martin Freeman is an especial highlight as Arthur Dent, because he plays hapless adventurers so well (and this was years before he was Bilbo Baggins). His face is a constant study in incredulity, and he’s joined by sturdy supporters such as Zooey Deschanel and Mos Def, who are there to reassure him that yes, it’s all happening.
The film may not be for the purists, but it doesn’t matter, because it’s just fun. It’s every sci-fi film anyone has ever seen, only hepped up on happy pills. It embraces the idea that everything is potential schtick, something that certain people nowadays have cast off because they’re too busy looking to be offended. Bottom line: Hitchhiker in any form is not meant to be taken seriously.
And here’s something a lot of Hitchhiker fans wonder about: What’s the deal with the number 42?
Well…Adams thought the number sounded funny. That’s about it.
Anyway, I don’t know about anyone else, but I don’t mind that The Hitchhiker’s Guide To the Galaxy takes sly digs at life, the universe, and everything. Sometimes you just gotta laugh and hang on for the ride. Don’t forget your towel.
Thanks for reading all. Another review approaches in a few days, followed by the Alfred Hitchcock Blogathon. Hope to see you then…
Life, the Universe, and Douglas Adams. Dir. John Bush. BBC Omnibus. August 4, 2001.
Simpson, M.J. Hitchhiker: A Biography of Douglas Adams. Boston: Justin Charles & Co. 2003.