Sunday, May 8, 2005

The Real Hitchhiker's Guide--all 42 (or so) versions

4 media represented here.Okay, I promised to write about the "real" Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. Here goes!

Friday night I went looking for The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy in every medium we own, which is very nearly every medium in which the story has ever existed.  I was only partially successful:

  • The five-book trilogy in hardcover, along with the two Dirk Gently books, Last Chance to See, The Meaning of Liff and The Deeper Meaning of Liff--check.
  • The Original Hitchhiker Radio Scripts--check.
  • Don't Panic by Neil Gaiman--check.
  • Hitchhiker's Guide and Bureaucracy text games from Infocom--check
  • DVD set of the BBC tv series--check
  • VHS, both the tv series and a making of--missing.  This only duplicates the DVD set anyway.
  • a VHS tape containing an episode of The South Bank Show, in which Ford, Arthur, Marvin, Dirk Gently, Douglas Adams and his long-suffering editor briefly appear in the same house--actually, I'm not quite sure where this is at the moment.  But I love it.
  • Audio cassettes of the 5 volume Hitchhiker's Trilogy, plus the two Dirk Gently books and Last Chance to See, all read by Douglas Adams--check.
  • HG booksThe first four Douglas Adams books on tape, read by Stephen Moore (the original voice of Marvin)--all missing except So Long and Thanks for All the Fish.  Well, they're here somewhere.
  • The two double LPs, an original production adapted from the radio series--couldn't find it in the thousands of LPs in the front room.
  • At least one Hitchhiker's 45, particularly one called, I think, Marvin, We Love You--no idea where to look.
  • The BBC radio shows, all four series--hard to say.  My brother Steve taped the first two series for us a quarter century ago, but they're probably in a box somewhere.  They may even be in this room, but I doubt it.  John has the third one on mp3, and the new fourth series is pending in that format.
  • Audiocassettes of a 6-hour BBC production that doesn't seem to be quite the same ones as the radio shows or the LPs--check.
  • The official Hitchhiker's towel, with a printed quote from the Guide about towels--"on display" in a box stuck in a disused storage room.  Phooey.

HG tapes I want to read, watch, listen to them all.  Now.  And I can think of at least one other iteration that I didn't even list!

So which is the "real" version?  The radio show that started it all?  The books that recorded the story in written form?  The wonderful BBC tv show?  The books again, as read aloud by Douglas Adams himself?  What about the UK editions which have the original English words rather than the occasional Americanism?

Answer: they all are.  Douglas Adams is said to have liked the fact that no two versions were quite the same.  The Frogstar ships appear in some versions and not others.  There's a huge statue of Arthur Dent Throwing the Nutri-Matic Cup--but not on tv.  Until the film, Arthur Dent was always Simon Jones on radio and on screen, but Ford Prefect was played by a different actor on tv.  But it's established in the books that there's more than one version of reality, and that makes them all real, somewhere.  I like that.

And if they're all canonical, then the movie, largely written and rewritten by Douglas Adams over a period of many years, is canonical too.  But of all the universes Arthur Dent inhabits (which the exception of Mostly Harmless, which I pretty much hate), the movie one is the one I like the least.  Although I enjoyed it more than I feared I would, I have major reservations about the portrayals of Arthur (too cowardly and not sarcastic enough), Ford (not weird enough or knowing and competent enough) and Zaphod (who should not be stupid, only intellectually lazy, self-obsessed and monumentally shallow).  The acting was good (well, maybe not by the guy who played Ford, who was too low key and played with his towel too much), but the interpretations of these characters diminished them quite a bit. The only character who was distinctly improved this time out was Trillian (although the astrophysicist angle is lost here), while Marvin and Slartibartfast and Prosser held their own.  John Malkovich's character, specially created for him by Adams, is mildly interesting but ultimately pointless.

Still, most of the new material worked for me, to the extent that it made any sense.  The problem was that sometimes there was some ultra-important bit of information missing.  For example, the rake-like objects that kept hitting our semi-heroes on Vogsphere for no readily apparent reason are a lot more interesting if you know that they're called "slapsticks," and that they're designed to train Vogons never to have an original thought.  Unfortunately, one would never know that except from interviews with the movie's producer.

HG new additionsI've detected a trend in moviegoers' reactions. Hardcore fans who can't bear major changes don't like it. Fans with a more relaxed attitude toward canonicity kind of like it, while acknowledging its limitations.  People who have a passing familiarity with previous media like it a lot. People who haven't read or watched or listened before generally hate it.  Really, if someone hasn't watched or listened or read any other versions by now, that probably means the person doesn't appreciate this kind of humor--and the shortcuts the film takes are only going to confuse a novice. 

All in all, I'm not sure that adds up to a successful movie on its own terms, but I agree with Sarah's idea that it makes a nice tribute to Douglas Adams.

I have had more fun with two other recent HG releases. The first, The Anthology at the End of the Universe,  has really cool essays with titles like "Beware of the Leopard," "That About Wraps It Up for Oolon Colluphid," and "Wikipedia: A Genuine H2G2--Minus the Editors."  And that's just the first three pieces in it.  I didn't like everything in the book, but the ones I did were well worth the price of admission.

Douglas Adams on the location of the HG seriesThe other new purchase is the official Douglas Adams biography, Wish You Were Here.  I haven't gotten too far into it yet--after all, I've been busy!--but I've read one touching and unlikely fact from Adams' real life.  He died clutching his towel.

Oh, I should probably tell you which version of Hitchhiker's Guide I enjoy the most. Much as I love the books, I think I have to go with the 1981 BBC television series.  I've watched it at least 42 times--well, I may be exaggerating, but not by much.  Simon Jones is outstanding as Arthur, and David Dixon is brilliant (and visually very convincing) as Ford, and Mark Wing-Davey rises above the silly prosthetic second head to give a wonderful fun portrayal of Zaphod as he should be: intelligent, shrewd, shallow, egomaniacal, opportunistic, and hipper-than-thou. 

Among the books, I especially love So Long And Thanks for All the Fish, which takes place after the end of the tv series.  Fenchurch makes a great, quirky love interest for Arthur, and I love that he finally gets to be happy for a change.  I've never fully forgiven Adams for messing all that up in Mostly Harmless.

Meanwhile, though, I'm lengthening this entry while listening to the first radio series, which John tracked down for me.  Thanks, John!


BBC's H2G2 page

Karen's Favorite Authors page


ryanagi said...

Interesting. I think I will fall into the "people who have a passing familiarity with previous media" category. I'll bet I really like the film.  I got a boxed set of Hitchhiker's, Restaurant, Life, and So Long as a gift from a friend of mine back in 1988 or so. I read all of them in less than a week, loved them, but then never read them again. I've never heard any of the radio programs or seen the TV shows or movies.  I've always wanted to go back and re-read the books, but there are so many books and so little time.

chasferris said...

Wow, Hitchhiker to you is what Sherlock Holmes is to me.  Who played the best Holems? Basil Rathbone? How do other Holmes stack up? Were the filmed Holmes stories any good? ETC  At one point you could pick the collected works of Sherlock Holmes stories and read adoud at random, and within six or seven workds I could tell which story you were reading.  
How could anyone be as ignorant of Hitchhiker as I?  Well, you inspired my journal entry, maybe you will inspire my reading and seeing Hitchhiker.

sakishler said...

People's reactions to Mos Def's portrayal of Ford are really interesting. You're certainly not the only one I know who didn't like it, yet there are those who liked it a lot - yesterday my sister said he was the best thing in the movie!

Me, I thought he did an adequate job, but the movie just didn't have enough Ford material in it to show us if he could really deliver the essence of Mr. Prefect. That's probably the main thing I'm going to look for if we get a sequel.

I thought the lowkey approach to the character was an odd interpretation, and not what I would have done, but still an interesting and acceptable choice.


fdtate714 said...

Well, silly me.  I just read the five-book "trilogy" and a couple of Dirk Gently books.  I would really love to see the TV series.  I don't go to many movies in the theaters, but I'm going to have to see the movie soon.

deabvt said...

Great stuff, thanks.