Sometimes, writing a novel involves some fairly bizarre forms of research.
The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy is a comic institution. It was originally conceived and performed as a radio serial, since when it’s developed into LPs, novels, a TV show, three different stage shows, a comic book, a computer game and a Hollywood film. Oh yes, and two towels. It’s outlived its maker: Douglas Adams died unfairly young, in 2001, since when three further radio series, one novel, and the afore-mentioned film, have been added to the body of work.
One of the fascinating things about it is that HHGTTG, as it is conveniently abbreviated, doesn’t have a settled form. There’s an almost consensus core to the essential part, the story as originally developed in the radio series, but this exists in different forms depending on which format the story’s in at any one time.
The radio series was first broadcast on Radio 4 starting in March 1978. Despite a lack of promotion it went down well enough to be repeated that year, and indeed several times over in the next few years. I remember seeing the series’ name in the radio listings in the paper and being intrigued by it never getting round to actually listening to it until August 1979.
As part of my training to quality as a Solicitor, I had one final exam to pass, Solicitors Accounts. This was a short and intensive course, for which my Nottingham firm paid. It involved two weeks in class, a week of home revision and completing past papers, leading to a two hour exam on the Monday three weeks after starting the course.
The reason I mention this was that the course involved five days on Accounts, three days on Solicitors Accounts and two days of In-Class Revision, on the first of which our lecturer began by referring to HHGTTG. Apart from recommending the series, and reminding us that it was currently being repeated on Sunday afternoons at 5.30pm, he explained that the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy was a book that had on its cover, in large, friendly letters, the words “Don’t Panic”.
I’d done well enough on the course not to panic (the eventual exam is the only one in my life that I came out of knowing that I’d passed), but this reference to the book was the catalyst that made me determined to listen to it myself. So on the following Sunday, I tuned in to ‘Fit the Fifth’ (of Six).
Coming in that late to such a short series might have been a disadvantage, but then again, in such a short series, there is much less risk of the characters having been so established that they are portrayed in elemental fashion, depriving you of knowledge essential to understanding. I simply howled with laughter, that week and the next, and determined to listen to the rest.
But before I managed to listen to Fits the First through Fourth (which I didn’t manage to do until the first double LP came out and I bought it through mail order), I got to hear the Xmas Special at, appropriately enough, Xmas, and in February 1980, the five part series two, stripped over a single week at 10.30pm on Radio 4. (And apparently finished so late that the tapes for broadcast of the final episode were not pulled off the machines in the studio until about 8.30pm on the night of its broadcast).
I loved it. It made me laugh over and again. I got the LPs, I bought the first two books, I eventually assembled tapes of the entire broadcasting series, although these were not wholly original because parts of the series had been improved and upgraded after that very first broadcast. Douglas Adams has clearly had an influence on my own sense of humour, as a fellow-author friend identified a lot of Adams-esque lines in the opening chapter of my first completed novel, Even in Peoria (insert link).
I even enjoyed the TV adaptation (which was more than Douglas Adams did, apparently) though it was very stiff, and reliant upon special effects which were a long way from being effective. Moreover, it did demonstrate that the story was not all that well-geared to video, there being insufficient things for the cast to do, in support of speaking those gem-like lines.
All this was until the third book.
The excitement surrounding Life, the Universe and Everything was immense. When it appeared in 1982, it was the first new material since the second radio series. There were no plans for another radio series, the TV series wasn’t going to return, everybody fell on this book, to the extent that, in Manchester if nowhere else, the book sold out of all the major bookshops immediately, and I was lucky to find a new copy in a fairly scruffy collectors emporium.
I wanted so desperately to like it, to find it funny, but the story meandered (as had the radio series, to be honest) and the comic settings didn’t quite gel. I still think that it would have been immeasurably better as a radio series first: both the two novels to date were thin, as books, but were sustained by our memories of the series, the unconscious projection of the voices, the aural effects. Without that background, without voices for new characters, the novel couldn’t hold itself together.
Then there was the most truly Unfathomable Thing.
Let me go back to the first series, to Fit the Third, when Arthur Dent’s unconsidered use of the Infinite Improbability Drive converts two thermonuclear missiles into a very surprised sperm whale and a bowl of petunias.
There follows a brief but utterly wonderful soliloquy by the said surprised sperm whale as it comes to terms with its sudden existence in the short time it lasts. There then follows a line of utter comics genius: funnily enough, the only thing that went through the mind of the bowl of petunias as it fell to the ground was, “Oh no, not again.” Scientists have speculated that if we knew why the bowl of petunias thought that, we would know that much more about the Universe in which we live.
I mean, imagine that. That is perfect. That is unbelievably brilliant. It is utterly complete. It is weird, dissonant, eye-popping and hilarious. A moment of True Comic Genius, I worship at its feet. The one thing you don’t do, ever, is explain it. How can you explain it? How can you give an answer to why the bowl of petunias thought that which doesn’t immediately destroy that infinity of possibilities that are the real heart of the line: no explanation can ever be more satisfying than the answer beyond our reach.
No-one with any appreciation of comedy would explain it.
In Life, the Universe and Everything, Douglas Adams explained it. I couldn’t believe that he did that. It’s the worst, most egregious mistake I’ve ever seen a major writer of humour make. And his explanation was every bit as stupid and rotten and unfunny as it was going to be
The rot set in from there. So Long and Thanks for all the Fish was even worse. It was a non-event that, had it not been another HHGTTG book, would have been rejected for publication. And Mostly Harmless was, from start to finish, the work of a writer whose head was in a bad place. Like Spike Milligan’s unbroadcast scripts for a potential eleventh Goon Show series, the book was the work of a writer who, underneath, really did not want to be writing this again, a writer whose subconscious was determined to pull the whole house of cards down on himself, in a way that meant he could never be asked to do this again.
I didn’t even buy Mostly Harmless, I just waited until it was available in the library. I might have done the same with So Long and Thanks for all the Fish, I can’t remember. The truth is, Adams’ colossal blunder in Life, the Universe and Everything had destroyed my faith in him. And with this at heart, slowly I drifted away from those parts of his creation that had been good, that were good.
It was like the third and final series of The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin. Not only had that series been painfully unfunny, having attempted to use what was essentially negative and destructive humour in a positive, optimistic story, the failure of what had been reliable comic tropes to raise a laugh exposed too much of the mechanics of the series overall, with the unfortunate result that series 3’s lack of comedy spread backwards in time, polluting the series at its best.
So too did the Unfathomable Thing, and the two deadly dull novels spread backwards, exposing rather too bleakly the comic tropes upon which Adams relied, to the extent that I ended up losing interest in HHGTTG as a whole, going off it in fact, and disposing of everything.
What is strange is that, despite my decided indifference to the whole thing, so many years later, I have probably quoted from it far more often than from any single source. It’s lines are vivid, they’re instantly recognisable and they seem to have some sort of universal application in any kind of situation. If I had a quid for every time I’ve used some variation or other of Arthur’s line, “This is obviously some esoteric meaning of the word ‘safe’ with which I was previously unacquainted”, I could buy at least one of the seriously expensive R. A. Lafferty’s that I’m still seeking.
Which brings me, by a very roundabout method, to the demands of research.
I was writing a stretch of dialogue, of no particular significance save in how it highlighted the growing relationship between Main Lead and Second Lead. At a certain point, Second Lead used the HHGTTG line, “I can see this relationship is something we’re going to have to work on”. Perfect for the scene, and ideal to bring out a little something in Main Lead’s character by having her identify it.
But Second Lead is somewhat younger than Main Lead: is it believable that she should know the line in the first place? A quick check reveals that the HHGTTG film came out in April 2005, and as the book is set in May 2005: ideal. Except: was that line in the film?
In the absence of a handy source comparing every version of the story and itemising which lines appear in which, I had to download and watch the film (and no, the line isn’t in it, so we end up with an unexpected wrinkle in Second Lead’s background too, though the shared knowledge will support the gradual relaxation in their attitudes to one another).
I hadn’t seen the film before, except perhaps for the last forty minutes or so, on TV one time. It really is as bad as they all said at the time, isn’t it?
Ok, it’s a Hollywood Production, so we can’t expect all our four main characters to be English, even though the story’s earth-scenes are very specifically, not to mention stereo-typically English, and the humour is quintessentially Cambridge southern middle-class whimsy, but to have three of them be American was just not on.
As for the individuals, Zooey Deschanel as Trillian is the least offensive. Her performance is fairly undistinguished throughout, and whilst it was too much to expect her to spend the whole film in blue shorts and knee-socks with a horribly clashing pattern, I think it was decidedly stupid to dress her in baggy white tracksuit bottoms that flared manically: I’ve seen photos, she really isn’t twice as big from the waist down as she is in the opposite direction in real life.
As for Ford Prefect, Mos Def underplays his part so much that it’s necessary to use expensive earth-digging equipment to get him noticed, but that’s nothing compared to Sam Rockwell as Zaphod Beeblebrox. Now Rockwell was up against the fact that Mark Wing-Davey nailed, I mean absolutely nailed the part of Zaphod from line one, so Rockwell’s stoner antics had no chance of convincing, but it’s an even bigger disappointment that the film – twenty-five years of advancing special effects and CGI on from the TV series – completely bottles the second head and the third arm bit.
Ok, that’s not entirely true: the second head bit is one that pops up out of Zaphod’s throat half a dozen times, and then gets cut out and basically forgotten, no doubt with a sigh of relief from the special effects department, who really aren’t putting themselves out on this, whilst the third arm CGIs out in the middle three or four times before retiring to Napoleonic rest underneath Zaphod’s shirt.
The artificial second head and clearly false extra right arm of the TV series were completely primitive but at least the TV series gave it a go.
Apparently, Adams once said that of the main cast, only Arthur Dent really needed to be English. Far be it from me to contradict the creator, but he’s talking bollocks there, and completely misunderstanding the form of his writing and his own comedy, which is quintessentially English. However, we are at least on stronger ground with Arthur in the film, except that we’re not that much better off.
I think Martin Freeman is superb as an actor. Quite apart from Tim in The Office, especially in his relationship with Dawn (there is one moment in the second Xmas Special where he completely incarnated me, and I very rarely find any kind of art getting that deeply into my psyche), and he is absolutely perfect as Watson in Sherlock and the only possible Bilbo in The Hobbit, but whilst he’s quite the best out of the principal cast, even he isn’t quite right in the film.
Because again, good as he is, Freeman is competing against Simon Jones who, almost as thoroughly as Mark Wing-Davey, nailed his part first out. Freeman’s voice is a little too northern, a little too downscale to match Jones’s somewhat fruitier tones, which were a perfect match for Arthur from the beginning.
Plus, partly because the increased romantic element to the plot requires it, and partly because Martin Freeman just is that kind of actor, this Arthur is more of a hero than in any other version. Jones’s Dent was a bedraggled last Earthman, alone in the Galaxy, forced to wander round in dressing gown and pyjamas, as out of his depth as he would be at the base of the Marianas Trench, and completely dependant upon Ford and even Zaphod for survival. It’s significant that, instead of having gone to sleep in a pyjama jacket, Freeman’s Dent sleeps in a t-shirt. He’s that much more dynamic, and vocally that much more forceful.
In fact, a lot of the problem with the earliest part of the film is the voices. It’s one of the things about a radio series: the voices are all important. Freeman’s good, but he just doesn’t sound like Arthur Dent, because he doesn’t sound like Simon Jones, and he’s also trying to say his familiar lines in a way different from his Jones read them.
It’s the same with Alan Rickman as the voice of Marvin, the Paranoid Android. Rickman’s good, he’s very good as he always is but, even more than with Freeman, he’s reading someone else’s lines. His voice isn’t altered by any sound-effects so it’s even more recognisably him, which makes it glaringly more obvious that it is not Stephen Moore who, you guessed it, absolutely nailed Marvin first time out.
There are many more points I could make about the film, such as the utterly superfluous Anna Chancellor as Vice President Silly Name, the cleverness of the Point of View Gun being rendered ineffectual by forgetting the sub-plot about getting it for Humma Whatshisname, you know, the guy who’s ransoming Zaphod’s other head, and I’m just not going to go anywhere near the ‘So Long and Thanks for all the Fish’ song and I really wish the film hadn’t either (that was an opening credits nose-dive that Citizen Kane would have struggled to get to get out from).
On the other hand, Bill Nighy was very good as Slartibartfast (many years ago I read the first novel as bed-time reading for my then girlfriend’s ten year old son: he collapsed in hysterics every time that name came up, and later complained that the radio show wasn’t as good, because it didn’t sound like me reading it), but just like everyone else, he’s just that little bit off through not being Richard Vernon. And there’s a nice touch as the TV version of Marvin appears in the Vogsphere office.
Oh, and I did laugh once, at one of the new lines, when everyone turns up on Vogsphere intent on rescuing Trillian, only to have to face Vogon bureaucracy, and Arthur sets himself up as the leader, because he’s British: “We’re experts at queuing”.
But overall, it was awful, and although the film made a profit, I am not in the least surprised that there was no suggestion of proceeding with the flagged sequel, The Restaurant at the End of the Universe.
And, like I said, the bloody line wasn’t in there. A shame I couldn’t have found that out without having to watch the film, but when you’re writing a book, you have to go where the necessity for research takes you.
I wonder if I can work in a reference to Nicole Kidman in Moulin Rouge somewhere…