Hitchers Can’t Be Choosers

With the movie version of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy making its DVD debut tomorrow, I thought it worth pointing out that a similar reimagining has recently become available — namely, the radio play version of Life, the Universe, and Everything (or “The Tertiary Phase,” as it’s entitled).

For those of you (probably a mere few in this audience) who are unaware of Hitchhiker’s history, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy started out not as a novel, but a Douglas Adams-scripted BBC radio play. It basically ran for what might be considered two “seasons,” later dubbed “The Primary Phase” (1978) and “The Secondary Phase” (a special “Christmas episode” aired in December of 1978, though the remainder didn’t run until 1980). Alas, they’re no longer available in the U.S. (unless you’d care to shell out $330 for a poor-quality used MP3 disc set), but can still be ordered from Amazon’s U.K. store.

From there, the “reimaginings” began. Adams was approached in 1981 about adapting the surprisingly successful story into a novel (while at the same time it was being adapted into several stage play versions). Unfortunately, he was only two thirds of the way through The Primary Phase when his editors demanded that he turn over his book, pronto. He quickly cobbled together a new ending to occur at that two-thirds mark, and unfortunately had to drop a large portion of the ending material. When the book, the original Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, became a runaway best-seller, Adams penned a sequel, The Restaurant at the End of the Universe, pasting together content from both the remainder of the Primary Phase and the complete Secondary Phase (dropping most of the original storyline from the latter). That, too, sold wildly, and the story was adapted into a BBC television series (which mostly followed the original Primary Phase, with some additions from the stage play version).

After all of this success, Adams decided to write a third book in 1982, Life, the Universe, and Everything, thus completing what would become known as the “Hitchhiker’s Trilogy.” This book differed from the previous two in that it was not adapted from prior material, but was a completely original storyline, following from the events of the second book. (Another adaptation included the successful Infocom game, which has since been reissued online, and a version of which I’m playing with my daughter on my Palm — there’s just something about playing Hitchhiker’s Guide on a device somewhat analogous to the Guide itself.)

Of course, the remaining storyline from The Secondary Phase would make no sense at this point — various events, causes, and characters having been completely reworked or even eradicated — so in essence, Adams started from scratch. Which brings us to the first problem in reversing the original process and adapting the book back to radio: The Tertiary Phase no longer follows the storyline of the original radio play. When we begin, our characters are back where they were not at the end of the Secondary Phase, but the Primary. Confusing, yes — readers of the books will be completely at ease, but were you to listen to the radio plays in sequence, you’d suddenly find yourself completely out of place. (There is a throwaway line implying that the events of The Secondary Phase were merely an alcohol-induced hallucination, but this falls more than a little flat.)

The reason? Douglas Adams passed away before the project truly got under way. So while he was aware of the project’s existence (and even went so far as to suggest that he should play the voice of the beast Agrajag), he was not able to contribute to its adaptation. And with Adams’s stamp so clearly a part of the Hitchhiker’s mystique, any attempt to make radical alteration would be doomed to failure, at least in terms of public reception. Still, I think at least a token explanation of the revised chain of events — a prologue episode, perhaps — would have made the overall experience much richer.

The second problem with the adaptation is its very nature. The first two books originated as dialogue-driven radio plays, a format which — though it limited the original story to what could be presented in that fashion — adapted itself fairly readily to the novel form. In writing the third book, however, Adams had no such restrictions — he was able to open up the scope of the story, using his singular wit for narration as much as for character conversation. In adapting it back to radio play format, however, such a scope necessitates an awkward amount of description rather than dialogue, a substantial departure from the earlier Phases. It’s not quite a mere audiobook reading, but it more closely approaches that form.

And the third problem is merely one of time. Not only had Adams passed away since the original, but so had Peter Jones (the very distinctive original voice of “The Book”), Richard Vernon (Slartibartfast) and David Tate (Eddie the shipboard computer). As all three characters appear in the later stories, they would have to be recast — a particular issue in the case of Jones, who was such an integral part of the original.

Still, even with those shortcomings, the result is eminently enjoyable. Almost all of the surviving cast returns — and they even manage to come up with a particularly creative way of explaining the Book’s voice change (William Franklyn takes over the role, but a substantial portion of Jones’s original recording is used in a “Guide upgrade” transition). Perhaps most astonishing, Adams himself gets to have his wish fulfilled — by incorporating audiobook recordings of Adams performing Agrajag, he does in fact get to play the role. And, of course, the story itself is as compelling as ever — different in tone from the prior stories (which were more episodic as opposed to plot-driven), but truly part of the same larger whole.

Also broadcast (and due to be released on CD soon) are The Quandary Phase (adapting So Long and Thanks for All the Fish) and The Quintessential Phase (adapting the final book in “the increasingly inaccurately named Hitchhiker’s Trilogy,” Mostly Harmless). From an overall story standpoint, these two tales deviated significantly from the established “formula” — So Long being more of an Earth-bound relationship tale, and Mostly Harmless being a fairly grim wrap-up. But I’ll still no doubt pick them up as soon as they’re available.

I may not be able to recommend you do the same just yet, but I think it’s likely a safe bet; despite all of their shortcomings, these are still probably better than most of the garbage out there.


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