Douglas Adams, who went off to seek the Ultimate Answer in 2001, has a large fan following for his novels, but I think a fair proportion of that base isn’t aware that the books in fact began as a BBC radio series, and the number who have actually listened to said series is probably very small. I’m a fan of radio drama, so I’m listening to them and I can definitely recommend them for two main reasons.
First, one of the wonderful things about the Hitchhiker franchise is that it doesn’t have a proper canon. Every adaptation is a variation on a theme, always starting with the Vogons destroying Earth and the main cast meeting up on the Heart of Gold, but then branching out in different directions, some more similar than others. Thus, every new version–the books, the text adventure, even the lukewarm movie–can be enjoyed separately and carries an element of surprise while still maintaining the basic elements that make it so good.
Second, the first two books were based on the radio series, while the latter three* were not. Since I think many fans will agree with me that the series took a precipitous and irrevocable plunge beginning with the third book, it seems that all the best Hitchhiker material came out of the radio series. Listening to it, this is largely true.
The radio series mostly contains material found in the books, but it’s varied and reorganized enough to feel like a different experience. Many of the best-written bits (such as Zaphod’s explanation of how the universe began) are included in the books verbatim. The books mainly adds descriptions, some of which change the feel of the scene (Trillian throwing a pencil at the radio, rather than simply switching it off), which are woven in skillfully, but the story still proceeds well without them.
The radio version contains a few extra plotlines (Zaphod and Trillian get eaten by the Bugblatter Beast of Traal, but it turns out fine), plus jokes in the credits that obviously couldn’t be incorporated into the books. The second book also changes the order of the plot: originally, the group gets transported to the Restaurant at the End of the Universe after the computer bank they’re hiding behind on Magrathea explodes. This is why they all think they’re dead when they arrive, a bit that doesn’t make much sense in the books.
Knowing that the story was originally produced for radio explains other things, too. The number of delightful bits that read like monologues (for instance, “The Restaurant at the End of the Universe is one of the most remarkable ventures in the entire history of catering…”) make sense because they originally were monologues. It also explains why so many of the books’ asides (“two thousand years after a man got nailed to a tree for saying that we should all be nice to each other”) read like beginnings, and often like recaps: They originally were the beginnings of various episodes. The generally talky nature of the books (“I’m a perfectly safe penguin and my friend here is rapidly running out of limbs!” “It’s all right; I’ve got them back now…of course, they’re longer than I generally like them”), although it works fine in print, is also explained.
I can’t say that the radio version is unequivocally better than the books. It isn’t. The many small additions to the books give them a more robust feel and are often great lines in and of themselves; the radio series’ pacing is a little fast. Additionally, the sound quality is a weakness–a problematic weakness in radio. The voice acting is fine, but not great, and Zaphod in particular lacks the egotism he should constantly be oozing. The theme music is annoying. The sound effects and robot/alien/computer voices sound like a bunch of tinny, computerized nothings that might be downright confusing to someone who didn’t already know what was happening. I didn’t find that this interfered with my enjoyment much, but it did leave me with the frustration that it could have been better. Then again, I felt that way about the movie and the third through fifth books, so perhaps it’s an inherent problem of a franchise stuffed with so much potential.
One can argue both ways about whether the books or the radio series are the proper canon of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, but that isn’t the reason I recommend the radio series. The reason is that there is no “official” version of the story. Every version adds another layer to the experience, and the radio broadcasts are a layer that a true Hitchhiker fan should not miss out on.
*No, I’m not counting Eoin Colfer’s addition. I haven’t read it and I fear to.
Image from commons.wikimedia.org.