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How Hollywood hitched a ride on 'Galaxy'

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Twenty-seven years ago, Douglas Adams wrote a BBC radio series about Arthur Dent, an Englishman who has barely gotten out of bed when Earth is destroyed by extraterrestrials to make way for an interstellar freeway.

Fortunately, Dent escapes by stowing away on a passing spaceship. Unfortunately, Dent happens to be clad in pajamas and a bathrobe at the time. And so the last surviving member of the human race is stuck traveling across the universe dressed as if he's on his way to a slumber party.

Thus begins "The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy," a quirky sci-fi comedy that went on to become a bestselling book (which spawned four sequels) as well as a popular BBC television series. Now, after two decades in development limbo, "The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy" has finally made it to the big screen. The movie, released Friday, stands to introduce a whole new generation to the writings of its creator, who died in 2001, and deepen the book's already considerable impact on pop culture.

"Douglas Adams was a genius," says humorist Dave Barry via e-mail. "He's the only writer ever who could begin a book with the destruction of the planet Earth and having you LAUGHING OUT LOUD about it."

No doubt about it, "Hitchhiker's" is a tad unusual. During Dent's interplanetary odyssey, he not only meets a two-headed humanoid and a manic-depressive robot, but also inadvertently stumbles across "the answer to the ultimate question of life, the universe, and everything." (The answer, as it happens, is the number 42.) Even stranger events transpire, including a scene in which a whale materializes in space and finds itself contemplating ontological questions as it plummets toward a planet below.

"He'd always wanted ... to write comedy mixed with science fiction, which nobody had done at that time," says Shaye Areheart, Adams's editor at Harmony Books. "He had spent a number of months traveling around Europe with his guitar [and] with a copy of a book called 'The Hitchhiker's Guide to Europe.' As legend goes, one night in either Austria, Spain, or Greece - it was told in different ways at different times - he was lying under a night sky looking up at the stars and planets and said to himself, 'Somebody should write 'A Hitchhiker's Guide to the Universe.' "

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