The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy
By Douglas Adams
February 7, 1987
Perhaps the most beloved melding of science-fiction and humor is Douglas Adams’s The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy. A skillful blend of silliness and cutting satire, the stir centers on one Arthur Dent, rescued from the destruction of the Earth by the his friend Ford Prefect, a researcher for the titular manual to thumbing one’s way across the Milky Way. Joined by the two-headed puppet president of the galaxy, his girlfriend and a manically depressed robot, Ford and Arthur travel to planets thought to be myth, eat fabulous meals at establishments perched at the edge of history and generally have a weird time of things.
The story got its start as a six-part radio serial for the BBC in 1978. After becoming a surprise hit, a sequel series was quickly ordered. But it was the novelization by Adams of the first four episodes of the first series that really launched Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy to iconic status. And with that popularity came an expansion of the franchise to more novels, a record album, a stage show, an early video game and even a television adaptation. But the one medium that seemed to elude the franchise was film. While Hollywood came knocking on Adams’s door early on in Hitchhiker’s success, it wasn’t until 2005 that Arthur, Ford and the rest successfully made it to the silver screen.
As with many projects that take years, if not decades, to come to fruition, the Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy movie went through many iterations while in development. Hollywood first approached Adams in 1979, but he turned an offer of $50,000 because it sounded to him as if the unnamed producer simply wanted “Star Wars with jokes.” A brief flirtation with ABC for an American television version fell through when the pilot was budgeted out to a cost prohibitive $2.2 million.
Soon afterwards, Monty Python’s Terry Jones approached Adams about a possible big screen adaptation of Hitchhiker’s. Adams had some connection to the Pythons already having written some material for the third series of Flying Circus. He had also written an unproduced television special for Ringo Starr with Jones’s Monty Python castmate Graham Chapman, a portion of which he would recycle into the Golgafrinchan B Ark segment in the first series of the Hitchhiker’s radio series and the Restaurant At The End Of The Universe novel. Rather than reiterate the same basic Hitchhiker’s story again, Adams suggested to Jones developing a story that was consistent with what had come before but would be welcoming to new fans. When the pair couldn’t quite make those two opposing ideas work, they parted ways, promising to work on a non-Hitchhiker’s project that never came about.
But the failure of the his attempted collaboration with Jones probably showed Adams that if there were to be a film of Hitchhiker’s, it would have to follow the same story as had been laid down in various media before. So when Adams met with producer Ivan Reitman in 1982, he would be more receptive to the idea of once again retelling the story of Arthur Dent and friends. Reitman was a hot commodity on the Columbia Pictures lot, having produced back to back comedy hits Meatballs and Stripes. The two hit it off and Columbia quickly optioned the book for Reitman.
And as Adams relocated to Los Angeles to begin the actual writing process, the first time he actual set about scripting a big screen version of Hitchhiker’s, he discovered that the structure of his story and the standard story structure for films were not very compatible. As he would later say –
The material just doesn’t want to be organized… Hitchhiker’s by it’s very nature has always been twisty and turny, and going off in every direction. A film demands a shape and discipline that the material just isn’t inclined to fit into.
And that struggle to shape Hitchhiker’s into a proper movie can really be seen in the draft of the project under consideration here. And interestingly, the real problem with this screenplay is the same thing that plagues the version of the story that did make it to the big screen nearly two decades later – The second act of the film’s three-act structure isn’t really needed and doesn’t contribute much of anything to the narrative.
To explain, we need to take a look at Hitchhiker’s in it’s original form – the first six half-hour installments produced for BBC radio. And the course of those three hours can be broken into your standard cinematic three act structure –
- Act 1 – Arthur Dent and Ford Prefect escape the destruction of the Earth, encounter the Vogons, finally meeting up with Zaphod, Trillian and Marvin the Paranoid Android.
- Act 2 – The group travels to Magrathea and have their encounter with some pandimensional mice/philosophers.
- Act 3 – The group arrive at the Restaurant at the End of the Universe before ultimately going their separate ways.
When Adams adapted the radio series into what would become the first book in the Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy novel series, he only dealt with the first four episodes of the radio series. The book ends with the group escaping Magrathea and Zaphod suggesting heading for a meal at Milliways, the Restaurant at the End of the Universe. This had the effect of giving the story, as encompassed by the book, a solid two-act structure. And Columbia had optioned the film rights to the book, so they were locked into the material as presented in that first novel. But films traditionally have a three act structure, so in both this 1987 screenplay and the version that made it to the silver screen in 2005, it feels like Adams is struggling to find a middle act where none is really needed.
Now it should be noted that Adams is not the sole writer credited on this draft, an Abbie Bernstein also has their name on the cover page. That makes it hard to ascertain who is exactly responsible for what material in this draft. (Bernstein has a very minimal IMDb entry – Just an episode of the syndicated series She-Wolf Of London from 1990 and two short films from 2010.) In interviews years later, Adams would not name whom it was who did a rewrite on the script while the project was in development with Reitman and Columbia, but he did say that it was one of the worst scripts that he had ever read. Adams has also stated that after he and Reitman amicably parted ways, that Reitman went off to make Ghostbusters, the rights to the book went back to Columbia with no futher development being done on the property.
Given that Ghostbusters was shot in 1983 and released in 1984, but this screenplay is dated February 9, 1987, there is some questions raised about Adams’s version of events. Was he merely mistaken about no further development being done one the project after he and Reitman stopped working on it? Or was he fudging the timeline of when they parted ways somewhat for the sake of giving the story a good punchline – “[H]e went on to make a movie called Ghostbusters, so you can imagine how irritated I was by that.”? Is this the same draft that Adams so disliked or something done by another writer later?
What we do know is that the middle act of new material that appears in the 2005 Hitchhiker’s film was conceived and initially written by Adams. So it is within the realm of possibility that he also was the originator of the middle act in this draft from nearly two decades earlier.
In this middle act, Ford, Arthur and the rest of the contingent aboard the starship Heart Of Gold take a sidetrip to Ursa Minor Beta, home to the publishers of the Guide. There, Ford goes to file his years-late entry on Earth while Zaphod very coincidentally stumbles across a major clue to the whereabouts of the legendary planet of Magrathea and Arthur has a misunderstanding with some Ursa Minor police which ends with him being arrested. After Ford extricates himself from the arms of his girlfriend, a former guide fellow researcher who has been promoted to editor, he teams with Zaphod and Trillian to free Arthur from Ursa Minor Beta’s rather unusual criminal justice system before heading on their way to Magrathea.
To be sure, there are some interesting ideas here and there in this second act. The justice system on Ursa Minor Beta is a nice satire of courtroom television shows of the time like The People’s Court. And it would have been interesting to see how the sequence played just a few years later once the OJ Simpson trial started. The development of the romantic relationship between Arthur and Trillian is a welcome exploration of something that Adams had previously only ever lightly touched upon before. The two are also allowed to have a moment where they actually get to mourn the destruction of Earth, something previously glossed over in versions of the story.
But ultimately none of this is of any real consequence to the overall film itself. The Arthur and Trillian relationship moments could have have been integrated into the screenplay’s first and third act while the action of the middle act could have been jettisoned and never be missed.
What is more frustrating is seeing Adams (or is it Bernstein?) truncating well known bits in the first and third acts of the screenplay in order to make room for the new, but ultimately extraneous, material. For Hitchhiker’s fans, the radio series and books can be holy writ and deviation from that text, even when done by author Adams himself, can carry the whiff of heresy. Ironic, as there are notable differences between the book and radio versions. But even with those variations in plot, the phrasing of certain jokes, descriptions and key points of dialogue never wavered. So it is somewhat disconcerting to read a line that was originally “Time is an illusion, lunchtime doubly so” shortened down to “Time is an illusion, especially lunchtime.” The revision robs the line of its original literary, lyric and rhythmic qualities.
Most of these line changes are just cosmetic and in some cases feel like studio notes. Having stranded-on-Earth alien Guide researcher Ford Prefect claiming to be from Asbury Park, New Jersey instead of the English town of Guilford as he does in the books and radio series feels like some mostly harmless (yes, I know what I did there) pandering to a potential American audience.
As we know, this version would ultimately stall out at Columbia, no matter what the circumstances. In the early 1990s, former Monkees member Michael Nesmith would team up with Adams in another attempt to film Hitchhiker’s but the twin faulty perceptions that perhaps it was past the project’s freshness date and that science-fiction comedy didn’t work on the big screen kept any studio from wanting to take on the project. The latter mindset changed in 1997 when Barry Sonnenfeld’s Men In Black proved that a science-fiction comedy could do big business at the box office. The following January, Disney subsidiary Touchstone Picture snapped up the rights to the books for Austin Powers: International Man Of Mystery director Jay Roach and Adams soon found himself back in Hollywood once again working to bring Arthur, Ford and the rest to the big screen. A few drafts, followed by a non-Adams authored draft and then Adams tackling the project anew found him finally getting the script to a point where he was actually happy with its structure. But while he and Roach were happy with the script, Disney put the project into turnaround only to have it revived after Roach’s Meet The Parents, which was released in October 2000, was a hit.
Sadly, though, Adams would not live to see the film make it to the big screen, as he would die of a heart attack the following April. But the screenplay he wrote would make it to the big screen, with some minor polishes by Karey Kirkpatrick, under the direction of Gareth Jennings. And while he did not get to see the final result of his work done over the years, when looking at his own journey, it is easy to see what Adams meant about the development process in Hollywood – “It’s like trying to grill a steak by having a succession of people coming into the room and breathing on it.”