The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy (BBC, 1981)
Life, the Universe, and Douglas Adams (Greater Talent Network Inc., 2002)


 


Douglas Adams' beloved story, The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, actually began as a BBC radio series, was reworked as a book and, in 1981, was presented again by the BBC as a television miniseries. This miniseries was unavailable for many years after the original broadcast and video release, but has now been released on DVD as a two-disk set. The DVD release consists of the six episodes of the miniseries plus the original and remastered soundtracks on disk one, and no less than thirteen wonderful extras on disk two.

The Hitchhiker miniseries is an incredible piece of work, almost fanatically faithful to the original text. Entire scenes are played word for word from the book, including the notoriously hilarious Vogon poetry reading. Actually, this version of Hitchhiker really includes two novels; it begins with The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy and continues on with the story of The Restaurant at the End of the Universe. This gives us a chance to see a wonderful rendition of the talking food product served at Milliways, with the part of the bovine played entertainingly by Peter Davison of Dr. Who fame. Arthur, Ford, Trillian, Zaphod, Marvin, Slartibartfast, and the Book: all are present and beautifully accounted for in this production.

Simon Jones and David Dixon are perfect as befuddled Arthur Dent and mischievous Ford Prefect. Simon Jones is particularly good, playing Arthur as a sort of Cosmic Everyman, an ordinary man thrust into an extraordinary circumstance and doing his best to make sense of any of it. Sandra Dickinson as Trillian and Mark Wing-Davey as Zaphod are not exactly as I picture them from the book, but close enough as to make little difference. Wing-Davey is particularly good at capturing Zaphod's off-the-wall free spirit. And Peter Jones as The Book...perfect. Damn near perfect. He captures the educational tone of the travel guide yet mingles it brilliantly with subdued humor. The "Guide" entries, as read by Peter Jones, are my absolute favorite part of the series.

Special effects are exactly what you'd expect of a low budget television production more than two decades old. That is to say, they did their best with what they had but nonetheless there are some incredibly cheesy moments. On the other hand, some of the effects were quite technologically forward for 1981. Zaphod's second head is laughable by today's standards but it was really quite a good piece of technology for its time.

The extras on disk two include a behind the scenes look at the making of the series, interviews with the cast, and a lovely if brief look at the life of the late Douglas Adams. Truly, for the dedicated Hitchhiker fan this DVD set is an absolute must.

If Hitchhiker is a must-see for the dedicated fan, so much more so is a new film biography of Douglas Adams entitled Life, the Universe, and Douglas Adams. While a shorter bio and tribute appear on the second DVD of the Hitchhiker release, this is a full length look at the life and work of Douglas Adams.

This film, by Joel Greengrass and Rick Mueller, explores the details of Adams' life in a warm, funny, loving way. Life is sentimental but never mushy and, while an obvious tribute to the man, it never becomes one of those insipid eulogies that seem to sprout overnight like fungi whenever a celebrity passes on. This is a realistic look at a real live human being from the points of view of those who knew him best. Interviews with Adams' early teachers and comedy partners and friends, including Mary Allen, Terry Jones, and Berkeley Breathed and sister Jane Garnier, are interspersed with previously filmed interviews with Douglas Adams himself, as well as film clips of Adams giving lectures... and even video of Adams on vacation. Wonderful pop-up style factoids appear onscreen at opportune moments, and a Babelfish translates British English (batting=driving about aimlessly) for clueless Americans.

Readers of The Salmon of Doubt will find much of this film familiar. Many of the incidents recounted here are mentioned in Adams' own writing, compiled posthumously in Salmon. We see film footage of Adams, a passionate defender of endangered species, hiking in Africa wearing a rhinoceros suit. Mark Carwardine, Adams' collaborator on Last Chance to See, speaks of their travels. Adams himself speaks about his fascination with animals and nature. We learn where "42" came from, and when Adams first discovered the importance of having a towel on hand at all times.

As I mentioned, this is a film about a real human being, foibles and all. Mary Allen remembers Adams "exuberant, overenthusiastic" reaction to his early success...enthusiasm which led to him crashing his first Porsche! An extended section of the film discusses his insecurities, an issue that was probably at the heart of his legendary inability to meet deadlines (though Adams claimed he simply "loved the whooshing sound they made as they went by").

But this is also a film about a loving, caring, truly good man. The Douglas Adams pictured here was funny, witty, brilliant, and above all, kind. Friend Kanwal Sharma recounts how he seemed to always find himself upgraded to first class when he traveled; only later did he discover that Douglas was arranging the upgrades behind the scenes. Perhaps the most telling feature of this film is the warmth and joy that radiates from each speaker as they remember Adams. Though his work was incomparable, this film makes it clear that his legacy was something far more important.

I should mention especially that Neil Gaiman is a fantastic choice as narrator of Life, the Universe, and Douglas Adams . The best documentaries are often ruined by dry, dull narration but there is no hint of that here. Gaiman is as warm and funny as the subject of the movie is and his voice draws the viewer instantly into the film. I was captivated from the very beginning.

Fans of Douglas Adams will want to watch this film again and again. Even better, those not familiar with Douglas Adams will learn a thing or two about being an all around decent human being, and ultimately they'll want to watch this film again and again, too. I smiled and laughed all the way through this movie, even through occasional tears. See this film when you need a good laugh, and a good cry.



[Maria Nutick]



While not yet in distribution as of this writing, you can find information on ordering Life, the Universe, and Douglas Adams at www.douglasadams.com .