- The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy
- The Restaurant at the End of the Universe
- Life, the Universe and Everything
- So Long, and Thanks for All the Fish
- Mostly Harmless
collected as: The Ultimate Hitchhiker’s Guide
which began with: The Original Hitchhiker Radio Scripts
- Author: Douglas Adams
- Published: 1979, 1980, 1982, 1984, 1992, 1986/1996, 1985
- Publisher: Pan Books
- Pages: 215, 250, 227, 204, 218, 815, 248
- First Line: “Far out in the uncharted backwaters of the unfashionable end of the Western Spiral arm of the Galaxy lies a small unregarded yellow sun.”
- Last Lines: “In spite of having taken what he regarded as an extremely positive piece of action, the Grebulon leader ended up having a very bad month after all. It was pretty much the same as all the previous months except that there was now nothing on the television anymore. He put on a little light music instead.”
- Film Version: 1982 (*** – tv); 2005 (*** - dir. Garth Jennings)
- First Read: 1987? 1988? Somewhere back then.
The Novels: I admired the talent of River Phoenix and Heath Ledger but wasn’t a huge fan. I have always preferred Pearl Jam to Nirvana and didn’t see the depth of Cobain’s songwriting skills until Unplugged was released months later. Others like Jim Henson and Hunter seemed to have much more behind them than still ahead. So no death of an artist, possibly no death of anybody that was not related to me, shook me as badly as that of Douglas Adams on 11 May 2001, ten months short of his 50th birthday. And unlike any other celebrity who died, this was someone I had actually met, at a book signing in 1994.
I was introduced to Hitchhiker’s by two very different people who at least had this book in common – my brother Kelly and my best friend John. I remember Kelly particularly mentioning one line, from early in the first book: “The ships hung in the sky in much the same way that bricks don’t.” Little did I know that that particular style – the reverse metaphor, would be one of the things that Adams would excel in (I am reminded of the scene in Fish, where Arthur meets Fenchurch for the second time and when he wants to drive her to London and she asks if he is headed there, ” ‘Yes,’ he didn’t say. ‘And I’ve got to step on it,’ he failed to add, omitting to glance at his watch.”). For John, it was all about the sheer hilarity of it. He was already two books ahead of me and the scene he loved describing the most is part-way through the third book when Zaphod is getting completely hammered, pouring drinks down both his throats:
“I can’t cope with it,” he said darkly, and sent a third drink down to see why the second hadn’t yet reported on the condition of the first. He looked uncertainly at both of her and preferred the one on the right.
He poured a drink down his other throat with the plan that it would head the previous one off at the pass, join forces with it, and together they would get the second to pull itself together. Then all three would go off in search of the first, give it a good talking to.
He felt uncertain as to whether the fourth drink had understood all that so he sent down a fifth to explain the plan more fully and a sixth for moral support.
These were books I had to read. And read them I did. Oh god, did I. How many times? Who knows by now. They were among the small group of books that went with me to Brandeis, which is when the fifth book was released, which I bought on the first day. The books are heavily highlighted with all my favorite bits (example, page 95 of Hitchhiker’s: “His left leg, which was in midstride, seemed to have difficulty in finding the floor again.” or page 114 of Restaurant: “Many worlds have now banned their act altogether, sometimes for artistic reasons, but most commonly because the band’s address system contravenes local strategic arms limitations treaties.” or page 145 of Life: “Wherever he touched himself, he encountered a pain. After a short while he worked out that this was because it was his hand that was hurting.” or the description of Los Angeles, where of course I was raised and was living at the time, from page 86 of Fish: “being like several thousand square miles of American Express junk mail, but without the same sense of moral depth. Plus the air is, for some reason, yellow.” – by the way, for those of you who doubt this description, in 1994, when I took my then girlfriend to L.A. for the first time, as we came over the Grapevine and had the city in sight, she said “What is that brown stuff?” and I replied “The air.” “You can’t see air,” she said. “In L.A. you can,” I replied.). The books were highlighted sometime in high school (which is why I have no quote from Harmless to add in). They have been so heavily read since then that I can barely see the highlighting anymore, though certain lines would I even have to know that they are highlighted? Lines like “Forty-two” (This, like many of the best things from Hitchhiker’s is actually spread across several lines, but if there are people who seriously don’t know what 42 is the answer to, I feel sorry for them), “the best drink in existence is the Pan Galactic Gargle Blaster”, the practical use of a Babel Fish (seriously, how much of the Internet originally existed in Douglas Adams’ head?), that the knack to flying is “learning how to throw yourself at the ground and miss” and “He knew where his towel was” had long passed into cultural knowledge before I had ever picked up the books. But there has always been so much more – the whole description of how the existence of the Babel Fish disproves the existence of God is my favorite bit in all the books but is too long to quote here. Or maybe my favorite bit is the opening of Restaurant: “The story so far: In the beginning the Universe was created. This has made a lot of people very angry and been widely regarded as a bad move.” Or, well, maybe it’s the bit about how “The Guide is definitive. Reality is frequently inaccurate.” which stems from the trial where they “summoned a qualified poet to testify under oath that beauty was truth, truth beauty and hoped thereby to prove that the guilty party in this case was Life itself for failing to be either beautiful or true. The judges concurred, and in a moving speech held that Life itself was in contempt of court, and duly confiscated it from all those there present.”
Because this kind of inspired lunacy appeals to me. See the picture to the left? The one with the inscription that Douglas Adams wrote in my copy of the book? That’s because I asked him to write that. Because, as I know, because I read it, and as he knows, because he wrote it, we are all living Outside the Asylum, that lunatic area where you need to have instructions on a package of toothpicks. It’s easier to make sense of it if you are insane. And these books are sometimes the only things that make sense.
Do I have to tell you about the books themselves? That in the first book, on the worst Thursday of Arthur Dent’s life, the Earth is destroyed and he ends up on a voyage to discover “the Great Question! The Ultimate Question of Life, the Universe and Everything.” (because, as it turns out, of course, the answer is 42).
Truth about life from the first book: “The History of every major Galactic Civilization tends to pass through three distinct and recognizable phases, those of Survival, Inquiry and Sophistication, otherwise known as the How, Why and Where phases. For instance, the first phase is characterized by the question How can we eat? the second by the question Why do we eat? and the third by the question Where shall we have lunch?“
In the second book, which I don’t love quite as much as the first because there is a bit too much of Zaphod, our group of heroes go for lunch to Milliways, the Restaurant at the End of the Universe and search for the true ruler of the universe. The ending, the first time I read it, seemed a little bleak, with Arthur and Ford abandoned on Earth two million years in the past, though looking back after listening to the radio series, I can hear “What a Wonderful World” in the background and it all feels okay (see below).
Truth about life from the second book: “Life is wasted on the living.”
In the third book, Arthur and Ford escape from prehistoric Earth and deal with the final solution of the Krikkit Wars, which, if it sounds like something more out of Doctor Who, is because Adams originally submitted it as a Doctor Who serial before re-writing as the third Hitchhiker’s book. We have the wonderful invention of Bistro Math (because “Numbers written on restaurant checks within the confines of restaurants do not follow the same mathematical laws as numbers written on any other pieces of paper in any other parts of the Universe.”) and the recurring bit about the songs that the people of Krikkit sing (beginning with “Arthur could almost imagine Paul McCartney sitting with his feet up by the fire one evening, humming it to Linda and wondering what to buy with the proceeds, and thinking, probably, Essex.”).
Truth about life from the third book: “In the end, it was the Sunday afternoons he couldn’t cope with, and that terrible listlessness that starts to set in at about 2:55, when you know you’ve taken all the baths you can usefully take that day, that however hard you stare at any given paragraph in the newspaper you will never actually read it, or use the revolutionary new pruning technique it describes, and that as you stare at the clock the hands will move relentlessly on to four o’clock, and you will enter the long dark teatime of the soul.”
In the fourth book, Arthur returns to a mysteriously re-created Earth (this is never explained, it just happens, which, you know what, is just fine) and falls in love with Fenchurch. This book is quite a change, and quite good for it, with the romance spicing things up (including a hilarious bit dealing with the previous potential for romance for Arthur, including asking about the end of Restaurant, with Arthur and a beautiful young girl: “What then? What happened next? And the answer is, of course, that the book ended.” There is also a wonderful bit about the use of Dire Straits, which is, by the way, completely true. And the book doesn’t have Zaphod – it focuses on Arthur with side bits on Ford.
Truth about life from the fourth book: “Since the Electricity Board had cut him off without fail every time he paid his bill, it seemed only reasonable that they should leave him connected when he hadn’t. Sending them money obviously only drew attention to himself.”
Then there’s the fifth book. The fifth book is quite tricky. It’s probably my least favorite and that’s not saying anything new because I’m guessing it’s most everyone’s least favorite. It writes off much of what has happened. Faced with the same problem that Tolkien had when beginning LOTR, that he had Bilbo with a happily ever after ending at the end of The Hobbit, he had to figure out how to write something more. Well, Adams simply dumps poor Fenchurch into a space/time warp and makes Arthur’s life miserable again. And writes in a whole different history for the characters, or at least one of them. And sort of destroys Earth and recreates it. But it still has good characterization for both Arthur and Ford, and has a wonderful long sequence, covering several chapters, where Ford has to break into the Guide and then break out again.
Truth about life from the fifth book: “The major difference between a thing that might go wrong and a thing that cannot possibly go wrong is that when a thing that cannot possibly go wrong goes wrong it usually turns out to be impossible to get at or repair.”
And so, those are the books. Five of my favorite books in all the world. And there won’t be any more. But at least I can always go back to these. And deep down, I know that the answer really is 42. Because that’s the only thing that, for the last 25 years, has continued to make sense to me.
Don’t Forget to Read: Don’t Panic: Douglas Adams and the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Neil Gaiman. Yes, by Neil Gaiman. A guide to how the whole series came to be. I have a small bookcase next to the bed. Neil and Douglas share the top shelf, with this book in between.
There’s Also: The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy: 25th Anniversary Illustrated Collectors Edition. It has a great introduction that takes up almost 70 pages.
Radio drama has never really been my thing. Perhaps the wrong era? Or perhaps the wrong country? But, when I decided to go back to the books to write this piece, I decided I needed to listen to the original radio series. After all, at work, I had already in the past couple of years gone through the Star Wars Radio Drama (very good in parts, especially those parts not in the original film, but, like the animated series, I could never quite deal with the fact that the voices aren’t from the original actors) and the Lord of the Rings Radio Drama, with Ian Holm as Frodo (very good, throughout, though I didn’t love the actor who did Gandalf). Unlike those two, I didn’t actually own a copy of the original radio series of Hitchhiker’s. However, it was easy enough to find them all on YouTube, and so, for twelve mornings at work, I was spending a half hour with the original radio show coming out of my headphones.
And lo and behold, it was brilliant. Of course, so much of what I have long loved about the books was all there in the radio show. And the narration by Peter Jones of the parts from the Guide was fantastic. I imagine they would have used him again for the film had he not died in 2000 and so Stephen Fry was the perfect replacement. But lord, Jones was amazing. And there was other good work, especially Simon Jones as Arthur. And, of course, there is perhaps the best part – the wonderful work of Stephen Moore as Marvin the Paranoid Android, intended as a one-off joke and then developed into so much more (there’s a great moment in Fit the Sixth – yes, the parts are called Fits – when they are facing certain death and they ask Marvin if there’s anything he can tell them and he replies “Yes.”, but then continues “I’ve got this terrible pain in all the diodes down my left side.”
And Marvin also provides a scene that works so brilliantly well and doesn’t exist in any other version of the book, because it only works well on radio – it wouldn’t work at all on the page and it would be too obvious on screen. The scene is just after they have landed on Magrathea in Fit the Third. They are walking around, astounded at what they are seeing, and we get some incidental music, rather appropriate to the scene: the opening music from “Shine on You Crazy Diamond.” As the scenes progresses, the dialogue continues with the music in the background. And then suddenly, Arthur says “Do you realize that robot can hum like Pink Floyd?” It’s brilliant and hilarious and a scene that absolutely only works in radio.
One of the other great things about the radio show was how it would end each week. It would end with a cliff-hanger, of course, but also with a little bit from Peter Jones at the end. Such as the ending of Fit the Second: “Find out in next week’s exciting instalment of the Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. And that programme will be repeated through a time warp on the BBC Home Service in 1951.” Or the ending of Fit the Fifth: “If you would like a copy of the book The Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy please write to Megadodo Publications, Megadodo House, Ursa Minor, enclosing £3.95 for the book plus five hundred and ninety seven billion eight hundred and twelve thousand four hundred and six pounds seven pence postage and packing.” (These quotes, by the way, are from The Original Hitchhiker Radio Scripts, and in a footnote, Geoffrey Perkins, the producer of the radio series, who edited the book and wrote the introduction (which also has “another introduction by Douglas Adams, largely contradicting the one by Geoffrey Perkins”, notes “Several listeners attempted to pay the five hundred and ninety seven billion eight hundred and twelve thousand four hundred and six pounds seven pence postage and packing on the Book by placing a penny in a Building Society and asking us to send our payment collectors through a time warp to collect the money when it had accumulated sufficient interest to pay for the book. Having done this we would like to advise the people who made such deposits that their stock will be rendered worthless in the Intergalactic stock market collapse which takes place in three hundred thousand years time.”).
One of the great things about the radio series is that it isn’t completely covered by the books. Different things happen, like they get to Milliways in a different way (though it’s the same as in the television series), they end up getting away from Milliways in a different ship (though the television series replicated the book and not the radio series) and, once they started the second radio series, much of what happened was completely different from the books, including the very end, when Arthur steals the Heart of Gold and flies off on his own (well, sort of, as he has Marvin and Lintill, who’s not in the books at all, with him). But the original ending of the first radio series had a beautiful poetry to it. It ends with Arthur and Ford stuck on pre-historic Earth (yes, it ends where the second book ends even though much of what happens in the second book wouldn’t happen until the second series) and walking off together. And then we get that beautiful song of Louis Armstrong’s and it fades out perfectly to “What a Wonderful World.”
Like the film (see below), the BBC television series (as opposed to the BBC radio series) does many things right and many things wrong. But, unlike the film, what it does right mostly stems from the radio series and what it does wrong mostly stem from the budget and technological limits from making a television series in 1981. In other words, some of the major differences between the show and the film are the same as the differences between old Doctor Who and new Doctor Who. There is an element of charm and ridiculousness about the makeup and effects from the old Doctor Who while the new series always looks phenomenal. There are those who prefer their Hitchhiker’s (and Who) to have an element of charm and cheeziness. And there are those who prefer their Vogons (and Silurians) to actually look like a vile alien race and not like an actor in a ridiculous green costume.
That being said, there are the good things about the series. First of all, because it is done in six episodes and has time, it uses the time. Nothing feels drastically rushed as it does in the early scenes of the film. You have time for what were already by this time, after being in the radio series, on the album and in the first book, classic lines, like “Time is an illusion. Lunchtime doubly so.” You also, for the most part, have the same actors who were on the radio series. There were two major changes – those who played Ford and Trillian. The change for Ford works well because David Dixon, who plays Ford in the series, looks and acts just odd enough to embody who Ford should be. The change for Trillian is almost irrelevant – it wasn’t going to matter who you put in that hair and that makeup and those costumes because Trillian, until she was re-written a bit for the film, just isn’t that fleshed out a character (Adams says as much in the behind-the-scenes extras on the DVD of the tv series – and by the way, the behind-the-scenes are some of the best things about getting the DVD because there is a wonderful retrospective on Adams made just after he died). As for the rest – well they came in straight from the radio show itself, including the three most vital – Simon Jones, who embodied Arthur Dent so much namely because Adams wrote to his strengths when doing the radio show, Peter Jones who is absolutely superb as the book (and in fact narrates one of the behind-the-scenes videos as if he were still the book) and Stephen Moore, who most people imagined could never be topped as Marvin (at least until Alan Rickman came along). We even get a couple of amusing guest appearances – the Captain of the Golgafrinchan ship is the same actor who was the truant office in A Clockwork Orange (which was apparent in the inflections in his speech) and the Dish of the Day is a heavily made up Peter Davison, in scenes that would have been filmed just before he was offered the role as The Doctor.
But the best thing about the tv series is what it is able to do with the book on-screen. In the original radio series there were all these funny narrative bits done by Peter Jones, much of which became classic bits in the books. But on the tv series they were able to expand on that. The makeup and costumes and primary visual effects in the show may not have looked all that great even in 1981 and may look bloody ridiculous today, but the computer animation scenes from the books still work as well as they did back then. The film would do the same thing – take funny bits that were asides and turn them into computer animation to help show what the Guide has inside. But this worked much better on the tv series because it had the time to ease into them and give them room to breathe. Like, when you get to Disaster Area, that ridiculously loud band, we get a wonderful computer graphic comparing them to other loud bands, such as What, Lead Balloon and Tumbling Meteors – a nice little jab at three iconic British bands. That kind of thing worked so well on the show partially because it looked good, partially because Peter Jones did such a brilliant job of narrating it, and partially because they had the time to flesh it out properly.
One last thing about the television series. It ends precisely where the first radio series ended (and where the second book ended) – with Arthur and Ford stranded on prehistoric Earth. And like the radio series, it fades out with Arthur and Ford walking away, talking, and the wonderful music of “What a Wonderful World.” In spite of how ridiculous much of the show was and that Trillian looked so bad that it drove Veronica from the room, I had her come back and watch those final moments with me. And then it changes from the shot to a computer layout of the shot. And then it fades back and we see the perfect words to make it go out on a nice note, something they couldn’t quite do in the radio show, and, since they ended the film in a different place, this is the one place we get this lovely ending. We see the following words on the screen: Earth. Mostly harmless.
How you feel about the film might very well be tied up in how you feel about the opening song. You know, the silly little ditty “So Long and Thanks for All the Fish”, sung by the dolphins before they flee the planet. I rather enjoyed it – found it silly and fun. Most of those I know who felt the same liked the film. Those who thought the song was awful or stupid or annoying tended not to like the film. It’s not a perfect analogy, but I think perhaps those who could buy into that opening could also buy into the rest of the film.
Now, I am two minds on the film. I keep catching parts on television and really enjoying them. But watching the whole film again didn’t work quite as well. The opening feels so very rushed, and they are obviously trying to get so many key points into the film that I imagine those who don’t know the books by heart feel lost and those who do know them feel a bit let down. Actually, those who don’t know the books by heart probably never saw the film. After all, millions upon millions have read the books (“Over 8 Million Douglas Adams Books in Print!” says the front of my copy of Hitchhiker’s – that same copy I’ve had for over 20 years) and the film wasn’t exactly a huge success (it came out just three weeks before Revenge of the Sith and with an at least somewhat overlapping fan base – certainly just about everyone I know is a big fan of both – it made barely more in its theatrical run than Sith made on its first day). I suspect the hope of the filmmakers was that it would bring in more people who had never read the book and that the millions of us who were already fans would see it again and again. Instead, it ended up being a bit of a disappointment to everyone.
So what does the film do wrong exactly? Well, it tries to rush things way too fast. Part of that goes on the director, Garth Jennings, who had come from music videos, and so naturally would rush things. Part of that is on the script – that they were trying to get too much of the books in there and felt the need to rush through the opening scenes so there would be enough time for the actual story. And so people who don’t know the story by heart are lost and are just trying to hear what the characters are saying and those of us who do know it feel like the lines we want to hear are getting lost in the rush of things. I also think there’s too much of Sam Rockwell. Not that he’s wrong as Zaphod – he’s absolutely right as Zaphod. It’s just that, no matter the format – book, radio show, film – there’s only so much Zaphod I can ever take. Yet, he’s clearly popular, as evidenced by how major a part he played in the second radio series and second book. And so, it’s a bit hard to know what to do.
What does the film not do wrong? And by this, I don’t mean that they did it right. I just mean that they didn’t do it wrong. And that’s the extra bits of the plot. You could say that purists of the book may shout about the whole added subplot of Humma Kavula and wonder what the hell it’s doing there. Well, there’s three responses to that. The first is that it carries the plot far enough that the film is not too long and that it doesn’t have to grab other bits to keep it from being too short. The second is that Douglas Adams himself added that character at one point and that a considerable part of the screenplay was already in existence before he died. The third is that purists of the book have nothing to gripe about in the first place. Films of books are not required to show fidelity to their source – only to be true to the characters. And if there is any book that does not require fidelity, it is Hitchhiker’s. The television series did not have fidelity to the books, the books didn’t have fidelity to the radio series, and the radio series didn’t even have fidelity to itself (for a great example of how everything contradicts everything else, read Adams’ Introduction to Ultimate). The story has always been evolving and every iteration has a lot of similarities but some differences from the one before. That extends to the increase of the romance between Arthur and Trillian. There wasn’t likely going to be another film, so there would be no Fenchurch, so it’s nice that Arthur gets some measure of happiness. And some of the changes are good – by adding in Humma it adds the perspective gun and that has the great scene where Trillian fires it at Zaphod (“It won’t work on me. I’m already a woman.” she says when he tries to get her back) and the great finale when Marvin uses it – a fantastic example of changing something from the source but staying true to the characters.
And now for what the film does right. Well, the casting. I never watched the British version of The Office so I wasn’t familiar at the time with Martin Freeman. But looking back now, he’s become the very embodiment of British normality as Watson and Bilbo and it’s only right that he was Arthur Dent. No one could be more of Arthur Dent, and no hard feelings there, Simon Jones. And then there is Mos Def. He wasn’t at all what I pictured as Ford, partially because of the tv series. But now I can’t imagine anyone else as Ford. Reading the books again, with some of the best Ford scenes (the bar scene in Fish where “The particular way in which he was choosing to dice recklessly with death today was by trying to pay for a drinks bill the size of a small defense budget with an American Express card, which was not acceptable anywhere in the known Universe.” or his attack on the office of his editor at the Guide in Harmless), my mental image is absolutely one of Mos Def. In fact, I want, more than anything in television right now, for Mos Def to appear in a Doctor Who episode and be known to the Doctor: “Hello, Doctor.” “Hello, Ford.” That would be all I would need. And given Adams’ Who connections, this reference belongs there. I especially love the scenes on Humma’s planet, where he approaches the bar and when he is trying to explain himself to the giant woman. And of course, there is the single best thing about the film – better than the perfect everyman of Freeman and better even than the inspired casting of Mos Def and even the brilliant decision to have Stephen Fry be the book (he’s fantastic). I am certain that old-time fans of the radio series were concerned that no one could possibly compare with what Stephen Moore did with Marvin. But Alan Rickman is quite simply amazing. Every line he says is brilliant – to the point where everything on the DVD menu hinges around lines of his from the film. And they even, wisely, gave him the last line of the film, and he delivers it perfectly: “Not that anyone cares what I say, but the restaurant is at the other end of the Universe.”
But that’s not all. Because of course there is the screetch of brakes and the Heart of Gold suddenly turns and flies in the other direction. And then the improbability drive is engaged and we go through more iterations, and there, just for all of us who had loved all these stories so much for so long, is the final gift of the film, the thing that seemed to make everything they might have done wrong be okay. That final shot as the ship morphs into the one thing we all want to see: the smiling face of Douglas Adams.