On Thursday morning, Arthur Dent (Martin Freeman) learns that his house will be demolished to make way for a highway bypass. He lays down in front of the bulldozers in his bathrobe. His friend Ford Prefect (Mos Def) convinces him to go to the pub. Over beer, Ford explains that he is an alien from near Betelgeuse and writes for a publication called Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, a literally universal guidebook. Later that day, the Earth is to be demolished by the Vogons to make way for a hyperspace bypass.

The Vogon fleet arrives in orbit and Ford rescues Arthur by stowing away aboard a Vogon ship. They are found and thrown out an airlock but rescued by the starship Heart of Gold. Aboard the ship is Ford’s cousin Zaphod Beeblebrox (Sam Rockwell), the newly elected President of the Galaxy, who has stolen the ship with Tricia “Trillium” Macmillan (Zooey Deschanel), an Earth woman Arthur has met. He also met Zaphod, but he only had one head at the time. Also on board is Marvin the Paranoid Android (body by Warwick Davis, voice by Alan Rickman), a clinically depressed robot.

Zaphod is looking for the answer to the ultimate question of life, the universe, and everything, because of the disappointing answer given by the supercomputer Deep Thought, which was 42. He thinks this can only be found on the planet Magrathea, which can only be reached using the Heart of Gold’s improbability drive. On one attempt, they arrive at Viltvodle VI, where Zaphod’s opponent Humma Kavula (John Malkovich) lives. Kavula offers the coordinates for the point-of-view gun, created by Deep Thought, which makes anyone shot by it see things from the shooter’s perspective. Trillian is captured by the Vogons and the three try to rescue her. Trillian learns that Zaphod signed the destruct order for Earth, thinking it was an autograph.

They escape the Vogons, followed by Galactic Vice-President Questular Rontok (Anna Chancellor). They arrive at Magrathea and the improbability drive changes the automated defense missiles into a bowl of petunias and a whale, improbable as that seems. They enter a portal and learn that after Deep Thought decided the answer to everything is 42, it designed another computer to come up with the question, which was Earth. They are captured by unknown entities. On Magrathea, Arthur is met by Slartibartfast, (Bill Nighy) who builds planets, particularly enjoying all the little fiddly bits around the fjords. He takes Arthur to a feast provided by the pan-dimensional beings who created Earth, who are mice. They want to find out the question by removing Arthur’s brain, but he escapes.

Questular and the Vogons arrive outside and open fire. They take shelter in a caravan, but Marvin, left alone, uses the point-of-view gun to make the Vogon force too depressed to shoot. Arthur decides to explore the galaxy and visits the Restaurant at the End of the Universe.

The idea for Hitchhiker’s Guide came to Douglas Adams as he lay drunk in a field in Innsbruck, Austria, with a copy of the Hitchhiker’s Guide to Europe. The radio play was originally broadcast in the U.K. by BBC Radio 4 in 1978, then BBC World Service in the U.S. and CBC Radio in Canada. In 1980, a second series was broadcast, and the first series was adapted for television. As the stories progressed, Adams wrote novels to go with them—a Trilogy of Five Novels. They are The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (1979), The Restaurant at the End of the Universe (1980), Life, the Universe and Everything (1982), So Long and Thanks for All the Fish (1984), and Mostly Harmless (1992). There were also two record albums, a computer game, a stage show, a comic book, a video game and a towel.

At the same time, he was writing episodes of Doctor Who, sketches for Monty Python’s Flying Circus, and several novels. He died in 2001 at the age of 49, two days before an asteroid was named for Arthur Dent. In 2005, another one was named Douglas Adams. The film was directed by Garth Jennings, the screenplay written by Adams and Karey Kirkpatrick. Production did not begin until after Adams’s death. The voice of the Guide was Stephen Fry, the weird Vogons were by Jim Henson’s Creature Shops. Reviews were mixed. I think one reviewer got it right by calling it, “Funnier than Spaceballs but not as funny as Galaxy Quest.” I find that my best memories of the story actually come from the British TV show. The big-screen production was impressive and sometimes beautiful, but loud and frenetic, and I missed the dry British humor.

The film was first optioned in 1982 by Ivan Reitman and was to star Bill Murray or Dan Aykroyd, but they went with Ghostbusters instead. There was a plan for Jay Roach to direct with Hugh Laurie as Arthur Dent and Jim Carrey as Zaphod Beeblebrox, but that fell through too. Deep Thought explains the significance of 42 at 42 minutes into the movie. The Apple logo appears on Deep Throat because Douglas Adams owned the first two Apple computers sold in the U.K. and his friend Stephen Fry the third. Slartibartfast began as Phartiphukboriz and was gradually changed syllable by syllable until the censors were happy. The Vogon language on the prisoner release form is in Pittman shorthand. The Encyclopedia Galactica of Isaac Asimov’s Foundation novels were an important influence. Douglas Adams had wanted Hugh Grant to play Arthur Dent. Don’t panic!