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Battle of the cosmic narrators: God vs. the Guide
Between the charred Bentley headlights of Amazon Prime’s Good Omens in our rearview mirror and the recent announcement that a new The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy adaptation is being developed for Hulu, the spec-fic Britcoms of my youth have been coming home to roost with a vengeance.
It’s been making me nostalgic (though, let’s be real, it takes precious little to get me nostalgic) and curious as to which one would come out on top in a friendly mental match of “who’s better.” They’re both cult-classic British comic sci-fi novels with deeply devoted fandoms, but how do you compare apples and Babelfish?
I don’t know, maybe those snarky, all-knowing narrators stealing the show left and right? That’s right, if we really do want to get into “but Dr. Doom could totally beat Magneto” territory here (answer: they should fake-marry for tax purposes), we need to throw God and the Guide into the Battledome.
In this corner, we have God — the Almighty, the Alpha, the Omega, and the Very Emotionally Unavailable, as rendered by Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett. Due to God’s unavailability in the novel (a scheduling conflict, I’m given to understand), we’ll only be looking at God as envisioned in the Amazon Prime miniseries.
In the other corner, we’ve got the galactic bestseller The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, the Narrator, the Voice, the Book, and, hereafter for clarity, the Guide. “The standard repository for all knowledge and wisdom” across the stars, the Guide has made appearances in every adaptation of Douglas Adams’ novel — the radio series, the television series, the other radio series, and, of course, the film adaptation.
I have selected five categories on which to rate these cosmic narrators: Authority, Voice, Theme Music, Visualization, and Ineffability. Game, set, match!
The Guide is widely considered the ultimate in reference material across the galaxy in all its incarnations, trusted even more than the Encyclopedia Galactica. Throughout the entirety of the very poorly named Hitchhikers’ Trilogy, we regularly see characters directly consult the Guide to determine their next move. Given that the galactic publishing audience assuredly outstrips the population of Earth, it also outstrips the population of the faithful on Earth. It’s quite likely more sentient beings in the galaxy trust the Guide more than they trust the good ol’ KJV.
That said, the Guide is only a book, no matter how accurate and useful it is. Good Omens is predicated on the idea that God is not only real but that Her authority is so absolute and unfathomable as to render it completely ineffable. Whether or not the aliens Adam summons up recognize Her authority or not, they are, nonetheless, subject to it.
Throughout its career, the Guide has had three voices. Peter Jones voiced the Guide in the first radio series and television series, with William Franklyn taking over for the second radio series — but I think you’ll find the Guide epitomized in the casting of Stephen Fry in the 2005 film adaptation.
One of the Guide’s most useful features is the words “DON’T PANIC” printed on the front (which, honestly, I could use 24/7 these days). Perhaps it’s my second-generation Anglophilia acting up with the weather, but Stephen Fry’s voice has basically the same effect. His Guide is as comforting as it is warmly sardonic.
However, Good Omens cast Frances McDormand as God (and tragically did not put her onscreen as the Almighty to quirk a mighty eyebrow, but that’s neither here nor there). McDormand’s eternally wry and authoritative voice is perfect for both explaining the narrative and ragging on Her agents and adversaries without ever sounding too caustic or invested.
Honestly, these are two such fantastic pieces of casting that I think this category really is a case of apples and Babelfish.
God starts off this category already behind because, tragically, She does not have Her own theme song. It’s her voice and hands that take center stage, as all of the musical licensing fees have, of course, gone to acquiring the rights for Queen songs, leaving Our Lady in the lurch.
The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy as a franchise, however, maintains a close relationship with the Eagles’ “Journey of the Sorcerer,” a song so good it makes me want to willfully have an out-of-body experience. It’s serviced as the theme song to the radio series, the television series, and the other radio series, and, in the 2005 film adaptation, a slightly sci-fi rearrangement serves as our introduction to the Guide itself, as the camera pans lovingly over the flex-tablet in space.
Only the power of Freddie Mercury could have possibly rivaled the Eagles, alas, so the Guide takes the cake.
Point: The Guide
One difficulty with adapting comedy across mediums is adapting jokes that work in one to work in the other, especially when the comic voice is so specific. For instance, one of my favorite footnote jokes in Good Omens relies so heavily on the comic timing of the reader glancing down the page that it would never work on television. The adaptations for both Good Omens and The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy solve this problem by cutting and pasting in some of the best bits from the original novels as dialogue, with a few visual flourishes to punch things up.
Good Omens takes a bit of an abstract approach; the most extensive visualization of a joke from the novel is when God explains how to lose an Antichrist in Three-Card Monte. Otherwise, we tend to get all the greatest hits (like Crowley’s method of gardening) as voiceover over scenes.
In all its various incarnations, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy adds a little more flavor to the proceedings by adding in more jokes. In the television series, hand-drawn animation underscored the Guide’s entries, like showing the outcome of war as an arcade game score. The film does much the same, supplementing the Guide with segments animated by Shynola. While explaining the Babelfish, for instance, the Guide intones over an animation of a farmer discovering the cow he’s milking has, uh, misinterpreted their relationship proceeding to boil his hands.
Point: The Guide
While the Guide is occasionally abstract, opaque, or just completely inaccurate (“definitively accurate,” to quote the book itself), it is never ineffable. Its function—to be a helpful compendium of knowledge for the budget traveler of the galaxy—is quite clear. Even when it touches on a subject as ineffable as “love,” it can at least offer sound advice: “Avoid at all costs.”
However, the entire point of Good Omens is that God’s plan is completely ineffable, not only to the average human but also to all celestial and infernal beings. The entire turning point of the climax hinges on the argument that the plan currently in motion is certainly a very important plan, but is it … the Ineffable Plan?
There’s simply no contest here; God sweeps the category.
So that’s two points to God, two points to the Guide, and a tie for the outstanding category, leaving us in a dead heat. Both of these are cult classics for a reference, and all adaptations manage to thread the needle superbly.
Looks like we’ll just have to wait to see how the Hulu adaptation of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy turns out to tip the scales in one direction or the other. Or, perhaps, we’re not meant to … for reasons ineffable.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are the author's, and do not necessarily reflect those of SYFY WIRE, SYFY, or NBC Universal.