Tuesday, May 10, 2005

To examine influences on Hitchhiker is to examine influences on the audience as well as the creators. There were specific and conscious influences on the way the Hitchhiker tales were told. For example, at several levels it harks back to '>Gulliver's Travels (but then, quite a lot of successful science fiction, from H.G. Wells to Star Trek, also does). The ordinary person on a journey into weirdness is the basic plot of '>Pilgrim's Progress to '>Alice in Wonderland. But the type of comedy it applied had a context that was just as important in how it was received as how it was created. People had to find it funny, after all, and there were precedents that helped make a receptive environment.

The Beyond the Fringe/Monty Python Oxbridge impact has already been duly described. They in turn influenced others who influenced the public. Douglas Adams' fascination with the Beatles has also been noted, but they also shaped humor in this period, through their music, their personalities and John Lennon's writings, as well as their films, "'>A Hard Day's Night" (1964) and'> Help!" (1965). The whole spirit of the Beatles---which was partly a working class Liverpool expression and understanding reflected in Alan Sillitoe's novels, the Liverpool poets, etc.--- permeated the 1960s and well beyond it. It's there in transmuted form not only in Douglas Adams but more recently in J. K. Rowling's Harry Potter books.

They all influenced one another in the heady 1960s of England Swings. Richard Lester worked with the Goon Show players and directed the Beatles films. John Lennon's only solo film work was in Lester's "'>How I Won the War" (1967) which was an extended Beyond the Fringe sketch, a visual "Aftermyth of War." Lester's "'>The Bed-Sitting Room," (1969) written by The Goon Show's Spike Milligan, with Peter Cook and Dudley Moore in the cast, was Oxbridge crossed with Samuel Beckett and Dr. Strangelove. Later, the Monty Python film, "'>Life of Brian" was financed by George Harrison, and they returned the favor by making "'>The Rutles," a Beatles parody that Harrison loved but Douglas Adams felt was too mean-spirited.

There was at least one American influence, and possibly another. Intelligent science fiction comedy in print had been pioneered by novelist and short story writer Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. (who Adams acknowledged as a major influence.) Novels such as '>Cat's Cradle, '>God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater and '>Slaughterhouse Five demonstrate a similar teeming inventiveness and pointed sense of humor. Vonnegut's alter ego, fictional science fiction writer Kilgore Trout, came up with imaginative ideas very congenial to the improbability drive, the restaurant at the end of the universe and other Adams inventions in Hitchhiker.

The other possible influence was the West Coast gang of four known as Firesign Theatre, who started out in radio but achieved fame with a series of 1960s comedy albums that staked out new ground between the surrealistic and the psychedelic. Their 1971 album, '>"I Think We're All Bozos on This Bus," portrayed a Disney-style park with a theme of the future, set in the future. It is an extraordinary piece of aural comedy, probably the best and most unified lengthy piece that Firesign did. It seems unlikely that Adams hadn't heard it, or at least heard of it. But it is very American, and resembles Hitchhiker only in the general tenor of the comedy.

In fact, without an assist from the improbability drive, it's unlikely that Hitchhiker would have been made in America, unless of course it could be made badly. For intelligent humor about a subject, the subject itself has to be taken seriously, and that's generally not the case in America regarding science fiction. Science fiction was introduced in the U.S. essentially through pulp magazines in the 1930s, with their lurid covers and often bad writing. Despite excellent exceptions in prose and on screen, cheesy 1950s movies and Saturday morning space hero shows for children added to the image of science fiction as already ridiculous to begin with.

But science fiction was introduced to England in the 19th century by works of recognized literary quality: chiefly by Mary Shelley's Frankenstein and The Time Machine by H.G. Wells. Wells' early "scientific romances" were praised by literary contemporaries like Henry James, Joseph Conrad and Ford Maddox Ford. His work was taken seriously as an innovation in the literary novel.

Many distinguished English authors, from C.S. Lewis to Kingsley Amis, and of course George Orwell and Aldous Huxley (and more recently, South African-born Doris Lessing and Canadian English author Margaret Atwood) wrote works in the science fiction vein. All this helped make the gentle and literate humor of Douglas Adams, not only in Hitchhiker but in his Dirk Gently books, congenial to the English public.

That makes the Hitchhiker movie all the more impressive. Created in Hollywood for Disney, it still managed to maintain the spirit of Adams' humor, when it could have been turned into an American parody with all the subtly of '>Mars Attacks!

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