Inverarity (inverarity) wrote,

Book Review: The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, by Douglas Adams

The zany, nerdy sci-fi classic about the meaning of life.

The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy

Pan, 1979, 216 pages

Seconds before the Earth is demolished to make way for a galactic freeway, Arthur Dent is plucked off the planet by his friend Ford Prefect, a researcher for the revised edition of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy who, for the last fifteen years, has been posing as an out-of-work actor.

Together this dynamic pair begin a journey through space aided by quotes from The Hitchhiker's Guide ("A towel is about the most massively useful thing an interstellar hitchhiker can have") and a galaxy-full of fellow travelers: Zaphod Beeblebrox--the two-headed, three-armed ex-hippie and totally out-to-lunch president of the galaxy; Trillian, Zaphod's girlfriend (formally Tricia McMillan), whom Arthur tried to pick up at a cocktail party once upon a time zone; Marvin, a paranoid, brilliant, and chronically depressed robot; Veet Voojagig, a former graduate student who is obsessed with the disappearance of all the ballpoint pens he bought over the years.

Where are these pens? Why are we born? Why do we die? Why do we spend so much time between wearing digital watches? For all the answers stick your thumb to the stars. And don't forget to bring a towel!

Even if you haven't read the book, you've probably heard of Ford Prefect and Zaphod Beeblebrox, Marvin the paranoid android, Pan Galactic Gargle Blasters, Vogon poetry, Deep Thought, and Babel fish. About the only source of nerd humor that has infiltrated pop culture as thoroughly as The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy is Monty Python, and you will probably love HHG in direct proportion to how much you love Monty Python.

For me, a little Monty Python goes a long way. I find the sketches amusing enough but they are not OMG!ROTFLMAO! funny and that guy (everyone knows a guy like this) who is constantly quoting lines from Monty Python? Needs a smack upside the head.

Surprisingly enough, I'd never actually read this book before it came up as my next assignment for the books1001 challenge, nor had I seen the BBC series or the movie. 216 breezy pages later, I can say that my life has not been changed by reading it, but it was worth reading just so now I'll really get all the jokes.

It takes a certain amount of tongue-in-cheek audacity to begin a zany, wildcap comedy with the destruction of the Earth. The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy begins with a bit of parallelism that reflects the moderate but not exceptional amount of writing depth Adams displays throughout the book: Arthur Dent awakens to find his house about to be demolished. When he protests, he learns that supposedly the plan has been on file for months -- unannounced, in a dingy, inaccessible basement.

Moments later, a Vogon Constructor Fleet arrives to demolish the Earth to build a hyperspatial express route through the solar system, telling the protesting Earthlings that the plans have been on file at Alpha Centauri for fifty years.

See, that's irony! Get it?

From puns and one-liners to subtle quantum physics jokes to much longer bits of humor with the punchline delayed until the end of the book, HHG is full of funnies, but most of the humor is just floating on the surface, one quip after another.

"Charming man," he said. "I wish I had a daughter so I could forbid her to marry one..."

"You wouldn't need to," said Ford. "They've got as much sex appeal as a road accident. No, don't move," he added as Arthur began to uncurl himself, "you'd better be prepared for the jump into hyperspace. It's unpleasantly like being drunk."

"What's so unpleasant about being drunk?"

"You ask a glass of water."

This is a book that careens from whacky situation to whacky situation in a series of hijinks involving a stolen spaceship, an ancient planet, and a supercomputer that has solved the answer to Life, the Universe, and Everything. This wasn't a deeply profound book, but after I got past the constant stream of one-liners (I admit a few of them did tickle me, like: "The ships hung in the sky in much the same way that bricks don't"), I found that there really was a story underneath the comedy, a fast-paced, carefully plotted if slightly absurd story. My first impression, that Adams was a failed screenwriter passing off a comedy sketch as a book, was wrong. He actually wrote a pretty tight little novel at the center of all these comic turns.

The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy is the first book in a "trilogy in five parts," the next four books being The Restaurant at the End of the Universe, Life, the Universe and Everything, So Long, and Thanks for All the Fish, and Mostly Harmless. Although Hitchhiker's Guide ends on a definite "To be continued" note, it's not really a cliffhanger, and I appreciated how deftly Adams wrapped up almost all the plot threads he'd started in one book, with some particularly clever use of seemingly minor elements introduced earlier.

That said, I'll save the rest of the series for when I've got nothing more compelling to read. I know Adams has passionate fans who just love his books, but I'm content to pat the Hitchhiker's Guide on its head and toss it back onto It was fun, but I did not catch the Adams bug and feel my heart immeasurably lightened, nor do I feel an urge to spend the rest of my life quoting lines from it.

A splitting headache and no tea

The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy has made it onto the screen twice. I hadn't watched either version before reading the book.

(I did, however, play the Infocom game back in the day. Hey kids, we actually paid money for games like this!)

After reading the book, I did my usual Netflix thang to see how it translated.

The BBC Series (1981)

The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy (1981)

This six-episode series was a TV adaptation of the BBC radio series, which Adams wrote the script for before he wrote his novels. The first book is actually covered in the first four episodes, while the last two episodes extend into book two, The Restaurant at the End of the Universe.

While the sets and rubber costumes are typical cheesy 80s BBC props, the computer graphics and special effects were actually pretty good for the time on such a low budget. This is a fun series to watch, as it includes a lot of visual gags and extra material that wasn't actually in the books. Since the script and the book both came from the same source and were both written by the original author, it's remarkably like watching the book on film. This is thus one of those rare adaptations that is not only faithful to the book, but adds to it.

Babel fish

The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy (2005)

The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy (2005)

I think my favorite part of this remake was the dolphin musical number in the opening credits.

The 2005 film updated the book with fancy 21st century CGI and some interesting choices for actors, but the humor was dumbed down to a grade school level. Any jokes that required more than a visual and half a second's thought to get them were cut, leaving a movie that was occasionally amusing but mostly brainless. Gawd, they even added a romcom element.

Apparently, this movie actually got good reviews and a generally favorable reception. This mystifies me. Skip it and see the 80s BBC series. This Hollywood abomination had all the depth and wit of Spy Kids.

My favorite HHG media adaptation, however, remains Marvin I Love You.

Verdict: Does The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy deserve to be on the list of 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die? It probably earned its place mostly for its prominent place in popular culture. It's been responsible for the naming of everything from IBM supercomputers to online translation engines, so its influence has certainly broken into the mainstream. But it's also a witty, clever, funny book that probably fills other people who are not me with happiness and joy; if you like this kind of humor, then Douglas Adams is at the top of his class. He packed a hell of a lot of funny and a pretty decent story into a very short book. So in that respect, HHG is an achievement that probably deserves its place on the books1001 list. Great literature, no, but a science fiction novel that remains popular and in print for over 30 years has proven staying power, and I think it has a reasonable chance of being remembered and read a hundred years from now.

This was my eleventh assignment for the books1001 challenge.
Tags: books, books1001, humor, movies, netflix, reviews, science fiction

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