Reading by Ear: The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy

The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams

It’s unfair, really. While the PINES library system has the audiobook of Brideshead Revisited as narrated by the incomparable Jeremy Irons, I can’t get my grubby paws on it, since it’s not in my immediate library system, composed of my library and two nearest ones. They won’t ship audiobooks and DVDs over for no reason. I may become a librarian just to fix this gross oversight. (Actually, it’s because they fear that the Georgia sun might damage the goods, which is a totally valid concern.) In any case, deprived of a free copy of Brideshead Revisited, I cast around the audiobooks at a loss—until I saw The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy as narrated by Stephen Fry on the shelf, which came home with me. (I should note that this was the first thing I did upon moving home, even before actually moving home.)

The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy begins on a very bad day for Arthur Dent; he’s just recently learned that his house is going to be knocked down to make room for a bypass. But it’s an even worse day for the Earth, as it is scheduled to be demolished for much the same reason, but on a galactic scale. And humanity doesn’t even know. Luckily, Arthur Dent’s friend, Ford Prefect, isn’t human—he’s an alien researcher for The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, an extremely useful and practical resource for seeing the universe for less than thirty Altairian dollars a day. Ford rescues Arthur and the two begin hitchhiking across the universe, eventually running into Zaphod Beeblebrox, the fugitive Galactic President, and Trillian, Zaphod’s girlfriend and the last Earthwoman in the universe.

Absurd isn’t quite the right way to describe The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy; there’s a method to this madness. It’s wacky, irreverent, and flexible. I read the first three installments in this series in middle school and quite enjoyed the 2005 film adaptation (which reminds me, I need to rewatch it!). Adams himself never took the view that this story could only be told one way; it’s a text that leaps across mediums and changes in the process, as any text translated into different mediums should. While there’s a lot of dry humor here, a lot of the fun comes organically from the characters and the charmingly blunt manner of the Guide itself. All of this is to say that this series has a very unique flavor to it; if you like British humor, you’ll be more inclined towards it, I think, but ultimately it’s a hit or miss thing for most people—would you be charmed or amused by the prospect of mice running the Earth, elderly gentlemen who manufacture luxury planets, and one singularly British guy being put upon by the entire universe and taking it rather well? I certainly am.

But it’s the sheer amount of wacky humor that might put some people off. The plot, such as it is, is mostly a frame for quite good jokes to hang off of, full of utterly absurd situations for Arthur to try and react to. When the plot takes a turn for the deeper, Adams glosses over it neatly. For instance, when Arthur and Trillian try to wrap their minds around the fact that their entire planet is gone, they can’t; Arthur, to his credit, is disturbed by this blankness. I don’t see this as a problem, but a lot of my favorite comedies have a little more meat on their narrative bones, such as Hot Fuzz, which manages to be screamingly funny, well-structured, and touch on friendship and community in the process. The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, in contrast, just sort of… ends. Technically, it wraps up the story of the mice, but our main characters escape a shoot out, decide to go get lunch, and that’s it. It’s a funny moment, but I wanted something a little stronger narratively. But it’s still remarkably clever and witty.

Stephen Fry is a brilliant narrator for this series—in fact, Adams wanted him (and got him!) to be the voice of the Guide in the 2005 film adaptation. While I love Fry, I think I’ve only seen him in some episodes of A Bit of Fry and Laurie and, of course, in Wilde. I was surprised to discover his range—not that I didn’t think he had one, but the way he characterizes Arthur, Ford, and Zaphod vocally is subtle and brilliant. His natural speaking voice is so recognizable that it was fantastic to hear his voice step back and another one take over. He’s crisp, clear, and clearly paying attention to the material. I do have one more thing to say about the audiobook presentation—the music. Is it standard practice to include a musical accompaniment at the beginning and end of an audiobook? I find it distracting and, especially at the end, jarring.

Bottom line: The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy is a light, wacky, and irreverent romp, relying heavily on its fantastic wit and less on its story. The audiobook is narrated brilliantly by Stephen Fry. Worth a look if you like to laugh.

I rented this audiobook from the public library.

12 thoughts on “Reading by Ear: The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy

  1. I like Stephen Fry, but I’m not a fan of the Hitchhiker books. There’s just not enough to them, and I enjoy the humor but I want more. Have you seen the film? Not to cast aspersions on Martin Freeman, who was very good, but it’s missable; however, it might be worth watching just to hear Alan Rickman doing the voice of Martin the Paranoid Android. Alan Rickman was born to do that voice. I’m giggling thinking about it.

    I want to hear Jeremy Irons reading — well, anything. Basically anything. I’d listen to Jeremy Irons read the phone book. He has the best voice ever.

    (I might not listen to him read Lolita. I go back and forth on that. His voice is awesome. But maybe too creepy if reading Lolita.)

    • I have seen the film—I saw it in high school when it came out and I’ve got a soft spot for it. The cast is fun and I love the retrofuture vibe, as well as Zaphod’s costume. I want to look that cool! It isn’t perfect, I know, but I dig it.

      Dude, I can’t even bring myself to read Lolita—listening to Jeremy Irons read it would cross signals that should never be crossed.

  2. This is one of my all time favorite books and definitely my favorite audiobook (though I have the ones narrated by Douglas Adams, which are fantastic). I like the lack meat, sometimes funny is all I need.

    I think it’s better to think of the whole series as one book, then it kind of makes a little more sense… or not really. I’m glad you enjoyed it! 🙂

  3. I love The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. The audio-book version that I’ve listened to, is actually read by the author. However, I love Stephen Fry so this is a version that I will definitely have to look out for.

  4. I’m on the complete opposite side of the fence from Jenny. I love the series! I also have a soft spot for the movie. Of course it’s not as good as the book, but I still loved it. I think Fry would be the perfect narrator for it too. You’ve got to get your hands on Brideshead, I’ve listen to that version and it’s divine.

  5. Stephen Fry is a very good narrator – he did all the Harry Potter books in the UK, and surprised me by how distinctive and natural his voices were for all the characters. He made it absolutely clear who was speaking without resorting to silly tics or really high-pitched voices for the female characters.

    With HHGTTG, although Adams liked re-writing all the plots across different media, I don’t think the books work as well as the original radio series. The first series ends quite organically (because Adams assumed that the BBC wouldn’t commission a second), and the second ends in a very wide-open way (because Adams assumed the BBC would commission further series, and didn’t – or rather did, but not for another 20 years). Reading the scripts actually gives quite a good indication of Adams’ motivations for writing certain jokes, which may explain why there doesn’t seem to be an overall story arc. Peter Jones is the voice of the Book, for me; while I love Alan Rickman, his Marvin sounds exasperated, not depressed.

    • I’m actually listening to the US Harry Potter audiobooks at the moment, and I’m not particularly fond of Jim Dale. I sincerely hope he improves. I just didn’t have the means to get my hands on the Fry audiobooks. Something to get in the UK when I’m there this winter, I suppose…

      Good point! I haven’t explored the radio series, so I think I’ll give a shot next time I’m in the mood.

  6. You’ve summed up my feeling about this book pretty well. I had fun reading it several years ago, but it mostly felt like a plot to hand jokes on—good jokes, to be sure, but not much more than jokes.

    And I’ve listened to the Jeremy Irons Brideshead. It is gorgeous, but how could it not be?

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