Thumbs Up — “Hitchhiker’s Guide” lives on

Editor’s note: The news that BBC radio was re-visiting “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” for a fresh series (“And Another Thing…”) prompted me to pack my CDs of the earlier incarnations for a recent road trip. And I thought I’d re-post a 2005 piece I did on Douglas Adams, the Guide and the then-upcoming movie which a little known Martin Freeman would star in. 

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Far out in the clearly charted backwaters of the unfashionable southern docks of the Titusville City Marina sits an ancient Catalina sailboat with the words “Don’t Panic” inscribed in large, friendly letters across its stern.

The message, having little to do with sailing, evades most folks. But the few — OK, not so few, more than you might imagine — get it.

Boats passing us on the Intracoastal always do a double take and grin,” says Orlandoan Carol Henrion, who owns the boat with husband Larry Tegethoff. “We frequently have notes clipped to the shrouds that say stuff like, `Hey, Ford! Meet us at The Restaurant at the End of the Universe. Signed, Zaphod,’ ” Carol says.

And “of course, we never leave the slip without a towel.”

Henrion sounds as if she is speaking code, as indeed are we. But with more than 20 million copies of “the five-book trilogy” of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy in print, and millions of fans around the world fondly recalling the radio and TV series and video game of Douglas Adams’ story — plus an eagerly awaited motion picture due Friday — it’s not exactly a secret.

Hitchhiker’s Guide tells the story of Arthur Dent, an Earthman rescued just as the planet is about to be demolished to make way for a bypass. His friend, Ford Prefect, is actually an alien, and a researcher for a travel book, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, sort of a Frommer’s for the interstellar. Ford grabs Arthur, and they zip off on adventures that bring them in contact with evil, bureaucratic Vogons; the legendary planet Magrathea, which used to build “custom” home planets; and with Zaphod Beeblebrox, the deranged, delusional and egomaniacal two-headed galactic president.

A 1978 BBC radio show that inspired a phenomenon, Hitchhiker’s Guide is for fans who may or may not be into science fiction, says British writer M.J. Simpson, perhaps the world’s foremost authority on HHGG or H2G2, as it is known. He ran a Web site, and is author of several works on Hitchhiker’s and a biography of its creator, due out in paperback in May.

“It explores what it means to be a human being and humanity’s place in the universe, but it does so with comic exaggeration,” says Simpson, noting Adams’ jabs at TV chat-show pundits, psychology and universal paranoia, man’s insignificance in the cosmos and government bureaucracy.

“Combine this with some absolutely sublime use of the English language, very obviously influenced by the master, P.G. Wodehouse, and you have something that will last forever,” Simpson says.

`CRACKING GOOD LINES’

The wordplay often takes a reader or listener a minute to catch.

After just reintegrating from a trip in a “matter-transference beam,” Ford asks novice hitchhiker Arthur how he feels.

“Like a military academy. Bits of me keep passing out.”

Jumping into hyperspace is “rather unpleasantly like being drunk,” Ford warns Arthur.

“What’s so unpleasant about being drunk?”

“You ask a glass of water.”

Think about it.

hit2“It was the coolest thing to have around, growing up after Star Wars,” says Garth Jennings, who directed the film version of Hitchhiker’s. Jennings first encountered Hitchhiker’s Guide on TV, “and I remember it was just this insane version of the same sort of universe Star Wars took place in. Lovely ideas, and cracking good lines.”

Every fan has his favorite.

“How about `the Ravenous Bugblatter Beast of Traal, a creature so mind-bogglingly stupid, it believes that if you can’t see it, it can’t see you’?” offers Neil Olcott, a fan from Poinciana. “You really have to think about that one,” he says, adding that although he has forgotten much in his life, “I still know where my towel is.”

As the Guide tells us, no self-respecting hitchhiker would leave home without the always-useful towel: “You can lie on it on the brilliant marble-sanded beaches of Santraginus V, wrap it around you for warmth on the cold moons of Jaglan Beta. . . wet it for use in hand-to-hand combat. . . and of course dry yourself off with it if it still seems to be clean enough.”

The good lines are there from the very introduction:

“Far out in the uncharted backwaters of the unfashionable end of the Western Spiral arm of the Galaxy lies a small, unregarded yellow sun. Orbiting this at a distance of roughly 98 million miles is an utterly insignificant little blue-green planet whose ape-descended life forms are so amazingly primitive that they still think digital watches are a pretty neat idea.”

The tone is set. The die is cast. Earth and earthlings, science and religion are mere punch lines in the running gag that is the universe. And the book, drolly narrated by Stephen Fry in the new film, provides commentary, galactic history, science and trips into the fantastic.

“Adams was great with ideas, but he’s even greater with words,” says Martin Freeman, the “Everyman Briton” (as Jennings puts it) who plays that Everyman, Arthur Dent, in the film. “He doesn’t throw the silly ideas out. He makes the [uber-translator animal] Babel fish — a preposterous idea — feasible.”

The book within a book is a best seller across the galaxy. Why? Because it’s cheap. And, “it has the words `Don’t Panic’ inscribed in large, friendly letters on its cover.”

The marriage of comic wordplay and thoughtful science fiction has been catnip to movie studios, though they’ve been a bit put out trying to wrestle it into film form. A movie has been in the planning stages since the early 1980s, when Ivan Reitman was going to direct from a Douglas Adams script, with Bill Murray or Dan Aykroyd in starring roles. Monty Python’s Terry Jones had a shot. More recently, Austin Powers director Jay Roach had his hands on it; Hugh Laurie, Jim Carrey and Nigel Hawthorne were to star.

But before it came to pass, the 49-year-old Adams died in 2001. The finished film is based partly on his script and directed by Jennings, best known as half of the music-video-directing duo Hammer & Tong.

FANS ON ALERT

The film will be what fans are referring to as the “ninth” medium for H2G2. It began on radio in 1978, became a record album, then a series of novels, then a TV series, a computer game, various stage shows, a comic book and most appropriately, a towel.

Most of those fans are in their 40s and 50s now. They talk about passing the books on to their children and grandchildren. But although they’re not as numerous as hobbit-huggers, or as fanatical as wearers of Mr. Spock’s ears, H2G2 fans are voicing concern over their baby finally making it to the screen.

Like many fans, Byron Rambo of Sanford passed on his love of the books to his teenage kids and just hopes “the movie can re-create the feeling of the book.”

“I will keep an open mind, because Lord of the Rings was true to the books,” says Cheryl Osborne of Geneva, who also says she never takes a long road trip without a towel. “Who said these books weren’t educational?”

Others are downright leery.

“This is one of those books that should be a 10-hour movie,” says Larry Sawdo of Mount Dora.

Michael A. Scibetta of Orlando worries, too, about what he calls Hollywood’s efforts to squeeze “10 pounds of sausage into a 5-pound casing.”

“I’m braced to see the film,” says Candice Critchfield, a Maitland towel-owner who speaks in H2G2 tongues. “I swear to Zarquon — if the filmmakers have screwed up, I’ll find them and feed them to the Bugblatter Beast of Traal, see if I don’t.”

But Karen “Karie” Wilson of Apopka, who fell for the TV series she calls “Monty Python Meets Doctor Who,” plans to see it, fan-buzz and reviews be hanged.

“I do wonder what the Vogons will look like,” she says. “They were pretty ugly in the TV series.”

Susan Gilliland of Haines City wonders if ex-rapper Mos Def (The Italian Job) is up to playing hitchhiker Ford Prefect, whom she sees “as a Han Solo type. . . casually cool, worldly, unobtrusively sexy and quite intelligent.”

Director Jennings is aware of fan “interest.” Early fan-buzz reviews have either embraced or excoriated the film, depending on the fan’s intensity. Simpson, the expert, announced, in a huff, that he was shutting down his planetmagrathea.com Web site after criticizing the movie and taking abuse for that criticism.

“I can quite understand their concern,” Jennings says. “We all feel passionate about this stuff. We kept to the spirit of Douglas Adams’ work, even if we didn’t have every single line from him in it.”

Freeman says he is “not sure at all how this will go over with the fans. But we’ve made a movie we can be proud of, I think. These are people we want to please.”

Acknowledging that the movie isn’t as verbal as the books or radio series, Jennings isn’t taking any chances. Peter Jackson had all of New Zealand to lay low in, had Lord of the Rings failed to meet expectations.

“I don’t think we copped out on this,” Jennings says. “But if we had, I’d have to be looking for a place I could hide.

“And not tell you, or any of them, where.”

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