Nov 092012

Don't Panic
… because it has the words “DON’T PANIC” in large, friendly letters on the cover …

Who am I talking about?

In the late 70’s, this person created a low budget masterpiece and took the world by surprise. It was immensely popular, but also, it was amazingly and consistently good: it completely deserved the fame and attention it received, both for itself and for it’s creator.

The market demanded sequels, and so they came, two more, forming a trilogy. Later there would be another set. All of the sequels were good too, and were clearly the imagination of the same guy. They advanced the original story and provided more of the same entertainment that the world had fallen in love with when the first one came out.

But they weren’t at the same level as the first one. Maybe they couldn’t be, the first one was just so good. But we consumed them anyway, and they scratched our itch for the material, even though we knew they weren’t as good. Never truly bad, in fact good enough that some people swore by them, but the consensus was both clear and consistent in that the quality fell off a little each time and none came close to the original masterpiece.

Meanwhile, the creator seemed to became stuck by the success of his creation, and spent the rest of his career tinkering with the material. Not adding anything brilliantly new, but more like making adjustments. Was he revealing his full original vision? Or just bound by his success and basically plagiarizing himself for commercial reasons? We couldn’t really tell.

So who is it?

I am assuming most of you are thinking George Lucas, but that is incorrect. I am talking about Douglas Addams, creator of the very wonderful radio series/tv miniseries/book/movie Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.

He was struck by lightning (so to speak) while working for BBC radio and invented the tale of Arthur Dent, a sad sack of a fellow who begins by discovering that his home is about to be destroyed to make way for a bypass and ends up helping to save the universe. Sort of.

The radio series was immediately, immensely successful, and a TV miniseries quickly followed. Exactly the same material, but now visual, it was hugely successful as well.

Next, a book version, and this hit the mainstream not just in the UK but also in the US. It was brilliant, an entirely new way of writing about humor and science fiction. It was the same material as the radio show but we didn’t know, and we (the nerds of world circa 1980-ish) ate it up.

What is the answer to life, the universe and everything? 42. You probably know this already, but this book is why you know it.

Sequels followed, still brilliant, even if not quite as brilliant as the original. “The Restaurant at the End of the Universe”, and then “Life, the Universe and Everything” complete the original trilogy. Later we would get “So Long and Thanks For All the Fish”, “Mostly Harmless”, and “And Another Thing” (although that last one was written by someone else after Addam’s death and may not really count).

Sales everywhere; Addams became rich. And he embarked on a career that largely consisted of rewriting and republishing his original story. A computer game version (which I played and enjoyed). A comic book series. A play (which Addams did not directly write). Eventually in 2006, a movie, but it was the same material. By the time the movie was released, the material was thirty years old.

I wanted to like the movie, so badly, but … it was the same jokes that it had been when I first encountered the BBC TV series back in 1970-something. Better production values, better actors, but the same jokes. The movie did not do very well, we would not have to worry about more sequels. Meanwhile, Addams passed away.

In a parallel universe, George Lucas was following this exact same plot line, except his original masterpiece started out as a movie, and his lightning strike hit the world so completely that something like a cult sprang up around it.

Because of this higher visibility, whenever Lucas did something to his material, his fiddling was subjected to a matching higher level of scrutiny. We yelled, we screamed, we made bitter jokes. Meanwhile, when Addams came out with yet another version of his material, we cheered him on for embracing the new media (and to be fair, the computer game was pretty fun if way, way primitive).

When Lucas surprised us with new movies years later, we lashed him while lining up to see them. When Addams’ movie surprised us years later, no one excoriated him for wasting our time retelling his old jokes. Again. But then we barely noticed the movie at all.

And that is the difference. It is not that Lucas’s desire to “perfect” (in his mind, or “mindlessly wreck” in ours) his work is bad. It is not even that unusual. Our reaction is simply a facet of how successful his work has been.

Hitchhikers’ Guide was lovable, very much so, but it was a crush, a puppy love; our affections moved on. Star Wars is our true love, and like all true loves, it brings pain as well as pleasure.

Lately more pain than pleasure, but I have hope for the future.

🙂 😀 🙂

p.s. If you’ve never read Douglas Addams, do yourself a favor and get a copy of Hitchhikers.
p.p.s. Neil Gaimon wrote an entertaining and definitive biography of Addams and his works that I recommend almost as strongly as I recommend Hitchhikers itself.
p.p.s.s. Yes, yes I read Dirk Gently. Addams had Gently, Lucas had Indiana Jones. But still.

  4 Responses to “Don’t Panic: A Tale of Two Creators”

Comments (4)
  1. I was a little young to really get deeply entrenched when Star Wars opened at the movies. I was also in the hospital for eye surgery, six years old and terrified of what was going on, so not really interested in the new movie my older brother was going on about.

    Hitchhiker’s hit me at the right time – when I was the age to read it. I think this is part of why we forgive Adams’s work when it shone less brightly. Star Wars saturated pop culture, and its core was the movies. We’ve been mass marketed light sabers, not so much travel towels.

    Books can cause a fan rampage, but they can be pretty low radar compared to film. The majority of the world met Ford Prefect on the pages of a book, and, for me, reading is a quiet, intimate experience, often more affecting than images on a screen.

    Then again, about the same time I was unimpressed by Ewoks on screen, I saw Spock die inThe Wrath of Khan, and that tied me as a fan to Star Trek, no matter what movies came after. I still cry, 60-70 views later.

    So maybe it all comes down to who we are as fans when we first meet a creator’s work, and how much that experience changes us.

  2. I never watched the series, but a friend of mine, a ‘Doctor Who’ extreme fan, did watch and bestowed on me and other co-workers nicknames from the series. This prompted me to eventually read the book(s), of which I enjoyed, despite its apparent rambling and tongue-in-cheek humor (British humour being that much different than American humor). I still sometimes remember fondly the days, where I was referred to as Slartibartfaust, by my friend Marvin, along with the rest of our co-workers, Trillian, Zaphod, and the rest.

    Thanks for the jump start of reminiscing my younger years.

  3. While I know that many “die hard” fans of the book did not like the (recent) movie, I did. I had seen the original mini-series years before, so I was familiar with the story. The movie was…different. Yes, the same old jokes, but still different. I thought the casting in the movie was excelent(Alan Rickman as the voice of Marvin the depressed robot – Brilliant!) It’s a different media – trying to compress a 6-part, 3-hours+ mini-series into a less than 2-hour movie is always challenging. And it wasn’t just a re-hash of the mini-series either. Yes, a lot of the familiar elements were there, but there was also new stuff (the ending was completely different). And I suspect that may have contributed to the overall ‘dislike’ by the fans. You might want to give it another try; just set aside “all you know” about the books, mini-series, and radio programs, and enjoy it for what it is – a movie.

  4. I suspect you are trying too hard to make it look like George Lucas. You might want to ask some British types, but I suspect that both sequel books (Restaurant at the End of the Universe and Life, the Universe and Everything) were also taken from radio drama/comedy.

    The was another movie made by those associated with Mr. Adams. After finishing the movie, they proudly showed it off to all their investors. It bombed. They went back, fixed the sound track and other details and eventually released “Holy Grail” to eternally pepper the conversations of geeks everywhere. After watching the movie, I could only say that it was definitely Arthur Dent and the Hitchhiker story, and if Douglas Adams was still alive, I think he could find the funny left on the cutting room floor and put it back in.

What do you think?

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