Tuesday, May 29, 2018

The Meddler: Making Arthur a More Satisfying Hero in “Hitchhiker’s Guide”

Arthur Dent in “A Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” starts off as a very effective hero. We get everything we need in the first few pages to believe, care, and invest:

  • Believe: We get odd little specifics about his life, like the fact that his beloved house has oddly unpleasing windows. This makes us say, “oh, I’ve never heard that detail before, but it sounds like a real concern, so this must be a real person.”
  • Care: Arthur realizes the house is about to be torn down, and he’s been treated in a way that makes us burn with indignation.
  • Invest: Arthur then acts heroically to save the house, lying down in the mud to block the bulldozers. This is a hero willing to do what it takes.

So we’re off to the races, right? But we quickly have problems:

  • Arthur is, it seems at first, the only survivor of the destruction of the planet Earth, which is a perfect set-up for a hero, but one key reason is missing: Why? What did he do differently than everybody else?
  • The bigger problem is that Arthur then suddenly becomes very passive for most of the book. Once Ford sweeps back into his life, Arthur just stumbles after him, mouth agape, for basically the rest of the book (and the next two) passively taking in information and complying with Ford’s orders semi-competently.

So let’s meddle with it.  Two minor fixes:

  • We never have a sense of how Arthur and Ford became friends. I think that it would greatly strengthen Arthur as a hero to show a moment in the past where he did something nice for Ford. That nice action would then result in Ford saving his life someday, making Arthur more the hero of his own story.
  • It’s okay for Arthur to be trailing behind Ford for a lot of the book if he comes into his own in the final quarter, and the book kind of does that by having the rest of the gang get sidelined while Arthur meets with Slartibartfast the planet-builder, but that meeting is too inconsequential and Arthur doesn’t say much. Give Arthur a little moment where he convinces Slartibartfast to recreate the Earth just as it was (so that we can keep trying to find the question to the answer of Life, the Universe, and Everything).

The movie did a slightly better job with this: Giving Arthur a moment in his restored home before he decides to travel the galaxy some more, but ultimately it, too, was unsatisfying.

In some ways, this series is like “A Song of Ice and Fire”: a writer who seemed allergic to satisfying endings kept stretching out the story into sequel after sequel. In this case, the fears of Martin fans were realized: Adams died young after writing a particularly unsatisfying installment, before he could provide the happy ending Arthur deserved. Martin fans, beware!


Colleen said...

The movie also shows how Arthur and Ford meet: Ford, believing that cars are the dominant life form on Earth is almost run over trying to introduce himself to one. Arthur pushes him out of the way, saving his life (or at least from serious injury)

Matt Bird said...

I forgot that! A good solution to the problem.

James Kennedy said...

I see how you're right *in terms of your own theory* about this Meddling, but I just think that the "Hitch-hiker's Guide to the Galaxy" is a different kind of book that doesn't respond to your rules as readily as other texts, and that's possibly partially why it is so beloved . . .

Something, I feel, is gained when these rules about an active protagonist are broken, although I can't put my finger on exactly what. If all the loose ends about Arthur Dent are "fixed," and he turns into a totally active and empathetic and resourceful "hero," something fundamental about this story is destroyed.

A scholar once wrote to Douglas Adams, drawing his attention to 1601 Puritan text called "The Plaine Man's Path to Heaven" written by . . . one Arthur Dent! The scholar assumed that Douglas Adams, who after all went to Cambridge, was pulling an elaborate academic joke. According to Adams, it was totally a coincidence. But I think a deeper truth is revealed here. "The Hitch-hiker's Guide" isn't a hero's journey that is easily broken down into terms that translate into our Campbell-inflected paradigm. It's a different sort of beast, like Bunyan "Pilgrim's Progress," in which an essentially passive viewpoint character is guided through a world of wonders. Maybe it's a peculiarly English thing: look at the weird passivity of Alice in "Alice in Wonderland," or how all the companions in "Doctor Who" are basically just standing around while the Doctor does all the interesting active "heroic" stuff. Or indeed, look at Watson in the Sherlock Holmes stories. There is something very real here that is not assimilable in your checklist, or the standard model of "good storytelling," that people nevertheless find deeply satisfying. Arthur Dent should not be an effective traditional hero. The whole appeal lies outside that. This is an issue that I think is worth grappling with in greater detail rather than trying to shoehorn this story (and the English tradition of stories to which it belongs) into your scheme.

(My own theory about "Hitchh=-hiker's" is that the true hero of the novel isn't Arthur Dent, but rather Douglas Adams' imagination and voice. Especially if you listen to the original radio show, you can feel the thrilling leaps of Douglas Adams getting himself into narrative trouble through his innovations, and then solving those problems by innovating his way out of that too, until the whole story becomes a series of exhilarating 90-degree turns into funnier and more abstruse territory, a superabundance of cleverness, generosity, and world-building. Douglas Adams' talent and heart and voice are the heroes of the book. That's what we fall in love with.

Harvey Jerkwater said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Harvey Jerkwater said...

I second James Kennedy. Hitchhiker's is not Arthur's story. It's not Ford's. Nor is it Zaphod's, Trillian's, or those wee planet-ordering mice. The book is a pleasurable rambling mess-around that Arthur experiences and we experience it with him as our proxy. And we love it. If you ask people about the book, they don't talk about Arthur or Ford, they talk about the crazy images, events, and wordplay. There's not much of a character journey here, despite all the travel. Hitchhiker's isn't a very good story, but it's a great book.

Moving from prose to film changes what works and what doesn't in a story. Movies can spend long minutes on a swordfight that would be a boring mess on a page; books can turn a conflict-free solitary moment into the height of drama or the pinnacle of comedy through interiority. As Hitchhiker's artistic and commercial success shows, a "hero's journey" is not at all necessary in a book (although it probably helps that the books are short).

If Adams focused the story on Arthur, it would have been about Arthur. And then we wouldn't have been able to indulge in the zaniness of the alien worlds as much, because we'd be seeing it as Arthur interfered with it. We don't care about his reactions, we want to see the cool stuff and we don't want anyone to get in between us and the cool stuff. We're on a vacation, man! We're gallavanting around a high-comedy universe! Who gives a crap that Arthur Dent has mommy issues or something?

Also: the comedy is rooted in the disconnect between the scale of events and the characters' reactions to them. Arthur is the last survivor of the human race. The planet Earth was destroyed. And what does he want? Tea. He wants some goddamned tea. Which is both very funny and very human.

Maybe Hitchhiker's is like a musical. What it lacks in certain traditional virtues it more than makes up for in others. If the songs are catchy and the dances cool, audiences can overlook the weak characters and stories of musicals. Moreover, strengthening the characters or stories might interfere with the songs and dances, drawing attention away from the important stuff. Hm, not sure about this parallel.

James Kennedy said...

Totally agreed, Harvey. If one analyzes "The Hitch-hiker's Guide to the Galaxy" in terms of Matt's checklist (as "the solving of a large problem") that seems to miss the point of the story's charm, and risks misunderstanding the whole work.

I'd be interested to see Matt weigh in on this issue: is "Hitch-hiker's" essentially freeform and thus unanalyzable, or is this story (and stories similar to it, like "Alice in Wonderland") an example of an alternate structure that has its own peculiar rules and regularities that can themselves be analyzed? I suppose that this different kind of story would not be characterized as "the solving of a large problem" but rather as "a tour through a world of wonders" or some such.

For hundreds of years Euclidean geometry was seen as rock-solid, the last word when it comes to the analysis of spatial relations. Then in the 19th century mathematicians said, "What if we tweaked one of the fundamental propositions (that parallel lines never meet) and see what other geometries we can deduce?" This move gave rise to other perfectly valid systems, the non-Euclidean geometries . . . and it turned out that, in the light of 20th century physics, these seemingly-fantastical geometries actually align more closely to the real observable world than Euclidean geometry!

So it goes with Matt's checklist. He has propounded the equivalent of Euclidean geometry of storytelling. Now I'd like to see how he can analyze the non-Euclidean cases. It seems like a fruitful direction. Otherwise Matt will just keep on seeking out confirmation after confirmation of his standard view, which will cause the analysis to become stale. It will also cause him -- as happened here, with his analysis of Arthur Dent -- to identify things as "wrong" that need to be "fixed," but in fact they actually work (they just don't work in his standard scheme).

Matt Bird said...

But Arthur does start out as a standard, very-satisfying hero in the opening pages, as I've shown. Adams wasn't coming from mathematics, like Carroll, he was coming from TV writing. And the changes I've recommend aren't radical at all. Basically I'm saying the book might have benefitted from adding three pages: a one-page flashback to where Arthur earned Ford's friendship, and then later two pages or so where Arthur casually mentions to Slartibartfast that we'd be happy to go back to formulating the question if he just put us back exactly the way we were. Surely three pages isn't much to ask. I'm not asking for a radical re-write, just a nudge.

(And I'd argue that Alice is actually a rather satisfying hero. She's certainly not passive. Her boredom causes her to run away from her sister and get into an adventure, where she keeps solving problems cleverly and standing up for herself, then stands up to the big villain, declares it all to be a house of cards, and wakes herself up as a result. The rabbit doesn't say, "Come with me!" She doesn't have someone telling her "Now eat the cake, you idiot!" She's making her own decisions) (Arthur isn't, but again, that fine, as long as he comes into his own near the end. Is that too much to ask? Just for two pages?)

I agree with you both that it's more Adams's story than Arthur's or Ford's, which is fine. What we love most is the wordplay and ideas. That's a perfectly acceptable form of novel. But that's no reason not to add those three pages that would have made it a far more satisfying stand-alone novel. Character and wordplay is not an either/or proposition, as the opening pages show.

Matt Bird said...

And get with the program, man: hitchhiker isn't hyphenated. Can't you see that on the cover? Have you ever even read this book?

James Kennedy said...

> And get with the program, man: hitchhiker isn't hyphenated.
> Can't you see that on the cover? Have you ever even read this book?

Out-nitpicked! Game recognize game.

I agree that Arthur is written more like a traditional hero at the beginning, and sure, that's necessary to get us to invest in the story . . . at first. But I prefer the story as it is. It's a mystery why Ford wants to take Arthur with him, yes, but that odd absence of a reason is psychologically more effective (for me) than if Douglas Adams had spelled out a mechanical, tit-for-tat reason. Ford is an alien, after all. There should be hiccups in his behavior we don't understand. (To get theological, in certain forms of Christianity, grace is characterized as an entirely unmerited gift from God, bestowed freely and gratuitously. When Arthur gets saved from the Earth blowing up *for essentially no reason*, we feel the lack of reason more deeply than a traditional rationale, and it dovetails nicely with the book's fundamental tension: between generous goofballism and pitiless nihilism.)

I don't think "Alice in Wonderland" is best understood as the story of a girl who "solves problems" and "stands up for herself." In my opinion, that rephrases the events of the story in a way that's amenable to your checklist, but misses the spirit of the story.

Eric C said...

You know, I think that Arthur's unheroicness has a cultural element to it.

Compared to Americans, I feel that a larger portion of the British psyche is dedicated to a sort of... resignation in the face of how things are. Overwhelming forces such as tradition, class, etc, etc.

Matt is reading Arthur's laying down in the mud to prevent his house from being demolished as him exhibiting a kind of heroic agency that the narrative later denies him, showing that he a man of enough determination to have checked up on the plans even when they were in the leopard bathroom and so forth, but I suspect that the author and original intended audience would have read that more as a foolish humanizing foible not unlike his desire for a cup of tea after the inevitable failure.

Arthur loves his ugly house and wants things to stay the way they are, but there was never much chance of his civil resistance overcoming the weight of the government, not any more than humanity could have talked their way out of the Earth being blown up at the last second. His desire to try anyway may not be meant as heroic as much as charmingly childish.

The story and universe of Hitchhiker's is frankly Kafkaesque, it's just that where German-Jewish Kafka is horrified by the arbitrary meaninglessness of things, the British Adams laughs, and the American Bird finds it obviously wrong not to assert meaning and personal agency anyway.

I think that the series managed to get the success it did because, cultural skews aside, most people can relate on some level to laughing in the face of it all.

If I was going to put it in terms from earlier in the blog, Arthur begins the story with a false philosophy - that you can fight against greater powers to protect your comfortable, meaningless little way of life. Over the course of the story he kind of realizes that No, you really can't. (That's not completely right, though I think I have the general thrust of it - in later parts, Arthur does keep trying to some degree, just with a different attitude, one that appreciates his simple life as the sold sandwich-maker in an incomprehensible alien society while it lasts, and copes a lot better when it is taken away from him by powers beyond his ability to resist. His growth as a character is very much more about accepting that he is NOT heroic. This is a world where the best you can get out of the cosmos for several eternities of suffering is a sign reading "We apologize for the inconvenience," and somehow despite knowing that isn't enough, it's still kind of enough.)

James Kennedy said...

I like your take, Eric. Different cultures tell different kinds of stories.

Matt has ably delineated the characteristics of the American active-hero problem-solving kind of story. But there are other kinds of stories, and when Matt tries to force them into his American scheme, it warps the analysis.

I think Eric also makes a good point that Hitchhiker's is multivalent -- Arthur resisting the bureaucrats at the beginning might read as active agency to Americans, while it might read as charmingly childish to the Brits. The story works both ways.

Terry Brennan said...

I've just read Bird's series about the differences between novels and movies, and I think that adds a lot to this discussion. Movies require more active protagonists than movies, which may be why the book protagonist can be passive. The movie didn't do well, perhaps because of its passive protagonist.
I like Eric's comments about British passivity and character, and this it's why the book works. It's basically hobbits in space, and in a much more meaningless, power-driven space than Middle Earth.