Hitch a lift
Picture an alternative dimension in which Disney hadn't transformed The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy into a flashy blockbuster: where Stephen Fry hadn't been cast as the voice of the guide to life, the universe and everything, and Mos Def, a hip-hop star, didn't play Ford Prefect, the alien who whips Arthur Dent from Earth before it's vaporised to make way for an intergalactic expressway. Now erase the original 1978 BBC radio show, the television series, stage play, and computer game. If Douglas Adams's sci-fi comedy were just a book, could teachers persuade children it was worth reading?
One plus is that Adams, who died in 2001 of a heart attack at age 49, delighted in the unexpected. He digresses wildly: a council officer in charge of demolishing Arthur's house six minutes before the Vogons do the same to Earth is a descendent of Genghis Khan and has a predilection for little fur hats. Mysteries are left unsolved: Ford's father's home planet was destroyed by the Great Collapsing Hrung Disaster, but "no one ever knew what a Hrung was nor why it had chosen to collapse on Betelgeuse 7".
Disbelief is not so much suspended as mangled by the improbability drive powering the Heart of Gold, the ship Arthur bounces round space on. Thanks to the drive a nuclear missile turns into a sperm whale and Arthur is plucked from space with a second's worth of oxygen left in his lungs.
There's also the irreverent humour: Vogons are not just ugly, they have "as much sex-appeal as a road accident".
The crux of the story is about our quest for the meaning of life, the universe and everything: a meaty enough subject for pupils to get their teeth into.
English consultant Adrian Burke used the Guide - the electronic encyclopedia Ford writes for - as a starting point for a Year 8 lesson at King Ecgbert School, Sheffield. Guide definitions mix colloquial and formal language. Consider the entry for Babel Fish, which you put in your ear to understand alien languages: it "excretes into the mind of its carrier a telepathic matrix", but the notion that it is proof of God's non-existence is "a load of dingo's kidneys". Adrian says: "The idea was to get pupils to experiment with convention and to shift between different kinds of language. They enjoyed pushing the boundaries of what is usually written in encyclopedias. One girl defined a chair as a rectilinear design that you put your podgy bum on." Pupils can email their definitions to the BBC's online Guide (see left).
Ben Willis, a teacher at The Bishop's Stortford High School, got his Year 7 class to imagine they were hyperspatial engineers from the planet Magrathea whose job it was to build planets for the super-rich. Pupils described the planets, and thought of tips for travellers to their planets. The work was then collated and turned into a travel brochure.
"Their ideas had me in stitches," he says. "There was one planet where days were 10 seconds long so there was this strobe effect which resulted in people becoming psychotic. There was another where the currency was human hair."
In the 1980s Gary Snapper, of the National Association for the Teaching of English, incorporated the book into a scheme of work on computers' efforts to take the place of humans. He looked at Marvin, the depressed android and Eddie, the Heart of Gold's gratingly cheerful on-board computer in The Hitchhiker's Guide, and Edwin Morgan's poem "The Computer's First Christmas Card", in which a computer battles to write a seasonal greeting in a limited number of spaces before malfunctioning and wishing us a Merry Chrysanthemum: "I looked at what happens when you use processed language, how language issued by a computer may not have a full understanding of the social functions of language."
News archives about the angry response to the discovery that Donald Rumsfeld's signature on the condolence letters to the bereaved relatives of Iraqi casualties was machine stamped might be considered, too. (Guidance on how to teach controversial topics is at www.citizenshipfoundation.org.uk) Older pupils could look at the episode in Philip K Dick's Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep (filmed as Blade Runner) when bounty hunter Rick Deckard "retires" android opera star Luba Luft and suffers a pang of conscience because the line between human and robot has blurred for him.
The Hitchhiker's Guide was not just the first in Adams so called "trilogy" of five books. After the radio show there was the 1981 TV series and now, after 25 years in the pipeline, the Disney film.
Andy Wright, a writing consultant working in schools in Knowsley, got A-level and GCSE pupils to look at how the comic genre persists across the different mediums: "I would look at Arthur Dent, he is hopeless and passive. As the Earth is destroyed around him he's saved by accident. On the radio the humour of the character is conveyed through the voice - the home counties accent. I can hear Simon Jones saying: 'I'm really sorry to interrupt, but would you mind awfully telling me what the bloody hell is going on'. On the TV show it's the physical look of the man, the tartan dressing gown, whereas the novel relies on the author's description. I would ask which pupils thought was the most effective. I think the book is.
It puts the readers' response at the centre."
Simon Jones, who played Arthur Dent in the radio and TV series, and cameos in the Disney film, disagrees: "The radio series was the most effective, the books were an afterthought. On radio the only limits are your imagination. If Douglas tells you everyone is balancing in a Neutri-Matic cup in deep space you believe it."
Whichever version of The Hitchhiker's Guide is studied, there is no getting away from its anarchic energy. The free-flow of ideas and the flouting of convention should excite students to fiction's possibilities. Adams demonstrates that in stories nuclear missiles can turn into sperm whales and mice and dolphins can thrash humans in IQ tests. Or put another way, that anything goes.
* The BBC's Guide is at www.bbc.co.ukh2g2. There are 7,000 edited entries, including one on how to hypnotise a chicken, which can be accessed by keying in www.bbc.co.ukdnah2g2pda to appropriate mobile phones
* To play the Hitchhiker's Guide Adventure Game go to www.bbc.co.
* The original television series is on BBC2 from May 3 at 11.20pm.
* A new radio series based on Adams's final two books in the "trilogy", So Long and Thanks for All the Fish and Mostly Harmless, begins on Radio 4 on May 3 at 6.30pm.
* The film is in cinemas now.
LESSONS ON THE FILM
In the film, a headline on The Times, which catches on one of the bulldozers demolishing Arthur's house says: "Dolphins Vanish". Get pupils to imagine they are investigative journalists writing a story on the dolphins that fled Earth before it was demolished. Who would they interview? Ecologists, dolphin trainers, the crowd that last saw them performing? Interview in pairs and take notes. Write an article from the interviews.
* If Earth was to be rebuilt what would pupils leave out and what would they change? Write an instruction manual for Magrathean engineers telling them how to build the White Cliffs of Dover, Ayres Rock, and so on, and any new countries or landmarks. Write a Guide entry describing the new Earth or get pupils to write persuasively about why their new Earth should be the one built.
* Take a poem the class has studied and turn it into a piece of Vogon poetry. Stress that the sense must be retained, but it should sound or look awful. It could be a question of the way it is read, the language used, andor how it is set out on the page.
* Discuss how Adams broke with convention in the book. Is this evident in the film? The destruction of the Earth is done with humour - someone carries on reading the paper. So it is not in the mould of Independence Day et al. The ideas are still relentless - there is no dumbing down. However, the love story between Arthur and Trillian is played up and whiffs of Hollywood. Is the film catering for a more mainstream audience? Bear in mind the book is a bestseller.