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How Hollywood hitched a ride on 'Galaxy'

By Stephen HumphriesStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / April 29, 2005

Twenty-seven years ago, Douglas Adams wrote a BBC radio series about Arthur Dent, an Englishman who has barely gotten out of bed when Earth is destroyed by extraterrestrials to make way for an interstellar freeway.

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Fortunately, Dent escapes by stowing away on a passing spaceship. Unfortunately, Dent happens to be clad in pajamas and a bathrobe at the time. And so the last surviving member of the human race is stuck traveling across the universe dressed as if he's on his way to a slumber party.

Thus begins "The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy," a quirky sci-fi comedy that went on to become a bestselling book (which spawned four sequels) as well as a popular BBC television series. Now, after two decades in development limbo, "The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy" has finally made it to the big screen. The movie, released Friday, stands to introduce a whole new generation to the writings of its creator, who died in 2001, and deepen the book's already considerable impact on pop culture.

"Douglas Adams was a genius," says humorist Dave Barry via e-mail. "He's the only writer ever who could begin a book with the destruction of the planet Earth and having you LAUGHING OUT LOUD about it."

No doubt about it, "Hitchhiker's" is a tad unusual. During Dent's interplanetary odyssey, he not only meets a two-headed humanoid and a manic-depressive robot, but also inadvertently stumbles across "the answer to the ultimate question of life, the universe, and everything." (The answer, as it happens, is the number 42.) Even stranger events transpire, including a scene in which a whale materializes in space and finds itself contemplating ontological questions as it plummets toward a planet below.

"He'd always wanted ... to write comedy mixed with science fiction, which nobody had done at that time," says Shaye Areheart, Adams's editor at Harmony Books. "He had spent a number of months traveling around Europe with his guitar [and] with a copy of a book called 'The Hitchhiker's Guide to Europe.' As legend goes, one night in either Austria, Spain, or Greece - it was told in different ways at different times - he was lying under a night sky looking up at the stars and planets and said to himself, 'Somebody should write 'A Hitchhiker's Guide to the Universe.' "

Adams's books are filled with outlandish episodes that reflect his love of Monty Python, the comedy troupe he befriended during the 1970s. What holds these surreal sketches together is understated British humor, often expressed through the story's eponymous book-shaped guide, a computer repository for all knowledge and wisdom that Dent consults during his journey. Adams (who was as tall as an NBA forward) never stooped to cheap gags or scatological jokes. Profoundly influenced by literary humorist P.G. Wodehouse, Adams's greatest talent was his witty wordplay.

"The delights of 'Hitchhiker' are the delights of watching Douglas create these absolutely memorable sentences," says Neil Gaiman, the bestselling fantasy novelist and author of "Don't Panic: The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy Companion."

" 'The spaceships hung in the air in exactly the way that bricks don't,' is a sentence that is perfectly constructed to create a laugh. And to create a laugh in its imagery. If you get anyone who's read 'Hitchhiker' books into a conversation, they'll actually start quoting lines, mostly very, very accurately."

As a result, much of the author's jargon has entered the popular lexicon. The phrase "life, the universe, and everything" has become commonplace, while the number 42 has a cosmic significance wholly unsuspected by the earliest mathematician to discover the six and seven times tables.

The influence of "Hitchhiker's," which has sold 20 million copies, can be seen in everything from Radiohead's breakout single, "Paranoid Android," to BabelFish, the language-translation software named after the mysterious creature Dent inserts in his ear to help him decipher what aliens are saying. In 2003, BBC television polled hundreds of thousands of British readers about their top 100 books of all time. "The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy" came in fourth, narrowly edging out Harry Potter.