Hitch-Hikers’ Guide to the Galaxy is great despite many bits that are not great
Somewhere, somewhen a Hitch-Hikers’ Guide fanzine published a letter from me (foolish enough to use my own name) that can only be described as mardy. It was the product of a young fan trying to reconcile his massive love for the Guide with the apparent weakness of many parts of it.
Signifiers of quality that English Literature tells us to look for aren’t there: Characterisation? Ford Prefect, Arthur Dent, Zaphod Beeblebrox and the rest react the same way throughout. Motivation? No-one is driven to do anything, except find a good party and stay there. Plot? Choose your medium — the plot keeps getting switched around like it is of no consequence. There are no decisions. It is, arguably, One Thing After Another. Depth? With the aforementioned variations, there is pretty much one storyline that was repeated medium after medium: Discworld this is not.
So what is so great about Hitch-Hikers’? And it is great. It is ‘listen to hundreds of times’ great. It is ‘visit Salisbury branch of Marks & Spencer and say “hello towel” to the towels’ great.
Zaphod: Kerpow! Splat! And here we are … lying dead…
Zaphod: Standing dead, in this, er, desolate…
Zaphod: Standing dead in this…
Arthur: Five Star!
Ford: Bit odd, isn’t it?
When we complement a film we may say it has a ‘good script’ — but that could mean plotting, pacing, characters or the words they are saying. In Hitch-Hikers’ it is almost solely the latter: Hitch-Hikers’ dialogue — as Douglas Adams wrote it and the excellent cast delivered it — is snappy, rhythmic and tremendously funny. Jokes are set up and knocked down; Words play in tight routines; Surreal concepts, topsy-turvy ideas and witty asides pop in and out to keep your ears on their toes. It took me a long time to realise it is not about space at all.
Zaphod: You mean they want to arrest me over the phone? Could be, I’m a pretty dangerous dude when I’m cornered.
Ford: Oh yeah, you go to pieces so fast that people get hit by the shrapnel.
It is notable that while Adams was happy to shift large chunks of plot around from radio to book, the words stayed intact. It is notable that when Hammer & Tongs ignored a lot of the original dialogue, their 2005 film became a pointless space romp.
Management Consultant: Address the chair.
Ford: There isn’t a chair! There’s only a rock!
Management Consultant: Well, call it a chair.
Ford: Why not call it a rock?
There is something else about Hitch-Hikers’ that is harder to define: It’s the splash-of-cold-water look at our world. The ‘when you think about it isn’t it all absurd’ perspective. The distance of ‘what would our culture look like to an alien’ flipped on its head, because Hitch-Hikers’ makes us the alien and projects Earth’s crazy-normal world onto the stars.