How Hollywood hitched a ride on 'Galaxy'

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

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.

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.

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"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.

Adams's quest to write something memorable was both his strength and weakness. The author crafted his novels with the meticulous precision of someone setting up a line of dominos along the Great Wall of China - each and every word was carefully selected to give sentences the perfect weight and equilibrium. Not surprisingly, he found the process so painful and daunting that he tended to procrastinate rather than face the blank page. As Adams himself once put it, "I love deadlines. I love the whooshing noise they make as they go by." (Sonny Mehta, Adams's editor at Pan, came up with a novel solution: He once locked the author in a hotel room until he finished writing a book.)

Unfortunately, Adams's sluggish work habits stalled production of the movie. During the '90s, he diverted his attention to devising innovative computer games, and in 1994 he even played guitar on stage with Pink Floyd. Though several big-name producers had expressed interest in Adams's drafts over the decades, the writer struggled to adapt his sci-fi comedy into a workable screenplay. Yet his enthusiasm for the project never waned, and he even went as far as relocating his family to California following a deal with Disney in the late 1990s.

After Adams's untimely passing, however, it seemed the film would never be made. Yet the producers persevered. They hired Karey Kirkpatrick, writer of "Chicken Run," to rework the problematic script. Mr. Kirkpatrick went back to the original radio plays and read the books. He was also given access to Adams's computer hard drive so that he could see earlier drafts of the screenplay.

"I've always said that the book is a very long setup: You meet the characters and then you go right to the end," says Kirkpatrick. "The book is sort of missing its middle, or the 'second act' if you're using film-structure jargon."

Kirkpatrick amplified a romantic plot in which an attractive galactic hitchhiker falls for Dent (even if he is dressed like Hugh Hefner). The writer also worked on a new character, a cult leader named Humma Kavula (played by John Malkovich in the film), that Adams had invented.

For Adams, the most important element of the script was his philosophical ideas, says Nick Webb, author of "Wish You Were Here: The Official Biography of Douglas Adams." "He was one of the first people who really thought about what information technology could do for us," says Mr. Webb, noting that Adams came up with the idea of the guide long before the Internet and PDAs arrived.

Strip away Adams's comic riffs about planets with pink oceans and the universal utility of the common bath towel, and one also discovers a subtext in the book about the vastness of infinity and mankind's place in it. As Mr. Gaiman puts it, "the delight of the universe Douglas was creating ... was taking all the small human concerns and then painting them on an intergalactic scale ... and realizing that they're still small human concerns."

For his part, Kirkpatrick admits that the script had to lose some of the book's sharp observations, since they didn't translate well to film. But, he says, the movie was careful not to compromise the book's tone or idiosyncrasies.

The film was directed by a British team professionally known as Hammer & Tongs (real names: Garth Jennings and Nick Goldsmith), who set about the daunting challenge of making a science-fiction comedy for audiences who aren't used to science-fiction comedies, at least not the type without Will Smith. "Hitchhiker" boasts good actors but no big-name stars - it's anyone's guess how it will fare.

"I've seen 'Hitchhiker's' and I would say it's better than most stuff you're going to see out there," concludes Kirkpatrick. "I'm very hopeful that people will find it. It's definitely not going to be criticized for being like other things out there."

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