Please don’t let anyone Americanise it!

Born in Cambridge in 1952, Douglas Adams was best known for creating The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, a wildly successful project that began in 1978 as a science-fiction comedy radio series and eventually evolved to become something much larger, in many formats and in many languages, adored by many millions of people around the world. This typically entertaining letter, which was actually a fax, was sent in 1992 to US editor Byron Preiss, whose company at the time was producing a comic book adaptation of Adams’ ever-expanding opus. Having noticed some unnecessary changes, Adams was keen to give some feedback.

The Letter

January 13th, 1992

Dear Byron,

Thanks for the script of the novel… I’ll respond as quickly and briefly as possible.

One general point. A thing I have had said to me over and over again whenever I’ve done public appearances and readings and so on in the States is this: Please don’t let anyone Americanise it! We like it the way it is!

There are some changes in the script that simply don’t make sense. Arthur Dent is English, the setting is England, and has been in every single manifestation of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy ever. The ‘Horse and Groom’ pub that Arthur and Ford go to is an English pub, the ‘pounds’ they pay with are English (but make it twenty pounds rather than five – inflation). So why suddenly ‘Newark’ instead of ‘Rickmansworth’? And ‘Bloomingdales’ instead of ‘Marks & Spencer’? The fact that Rickmansworth is not within the continental United States doesn’t mean that it doesn’t exist! American audiences do not need to feel disturbed by the notion that places do exist outside the US or that people might suddenly refer to them in works of fiction. You wouldn’t, presumably, replace Ursa Minor Beta with ‘Des Moines’. There is no Bloomingdales in England, and Bloomingdales is not a generic term for large department stores. If you feel that referring to ‘Marks & Spencer’ might seriously freak out Americans because they haven’t heard of it… we could either put warning stickers on the label (‘The text of this book contains references to places and institutions outside the continental United States and may cause offence to people who haven’t heard of them’) or you could, I suppose, put ‘Harrods’, which most people will have heard of. Or we could even take the appalling risk of just recklessly mentioning things that people won’t have heard of and see if they survive the experience. They probably will – when people are born they haven’t heard or anything or anywhere, but seem to get through the first years of their lives without ill-effects.

Another point is something I’m less concerned about, but which I thought I’d mention and then leave to your judgement. You’ve replaced the joke about digital watches with a reference to ‘cellular phones’ instead. Obviously, I understand that this is an attempt to update the joke, but there are two points to raise in defence of the original. One is that it’s a very, very well known line in Hitch Hiker, and one that is constantly quoted back at me on both sides of the Atlantic, but the other is that there is something inherently ridiculous about digital watches, and not about cellular phones. Now this is obviously a matter of opinion, but I think it’s worth explaining. Digital watches came along at a time that, in other areas, we were trying to find ways of translating purely numeric data into graphic form so that the information leapt easily to the eye. For instance, we noticed that pie charts and bar graphs often told us more about the relationships between things than tables of numbers did. So we worked hard to make our computers capable of translating numbers into graphic displays. At the same time, we each had the world’s most perfect pie chart machines strapped to our wrists, which we could read at a glance, and we suddenly got terribly excited at the idea of translating them back into numeric data, simply because we suddenly had the technology to do it.

So digital watches were mere technological toys rather than significant improvements on anything that went before. I don’t happen to think that’s true of cellular comms technology. So that’s why I think that digital watches (which people still do wear) are inherently ridiculous, whereas cell phones are steps along the way to more universal communications. They may seem clumsy and old-fashioned in twenty years time because they will have been replaced by far more sophisticated pieces of technology that can do the job better, but they will not, I think, seem inherently ridiculous.

‘Disused lavatory’ has been changed to ‘unused lavatory’ and I’m not sure why. To me ‘unused’ suggests that something is new and unsullied, whereas ‘disused’ suggests that it has fallen into disuse and might therefore be in a derelict state, which is what I meant.

I’d be careful of underlining jokes. For instance, there’s a line that ends ‘which is odd, because on the whole it wasn’t the small green pieces of paper that were unhappy.’ All I’m saying there is that the banknotes were not the things that were unhappy. Not that they were positively happy. The point is that the banknotes are actually completely irrelevant. It isn’t their problem. So I’m not sure about having the queen grinning broadly on the notes. (Incidentally, I noticed a few years ago, when we still had £1 notes, that the Queen looked very severe on £1 notes, less severe on five pound notes, and so on, all the way up to £50 notes. If you had a £50 the queen smiled at you very broadly). Another thing to think about here is this: this opening section is about Earth as a whole rather than England, so given that dollars are still the most widely recognised currency on Earth, it makes quite good sense to show a greenback. Also dollars don’t change. English notes are always being redesigned the whole time as they get to be worth less and less.

One other thing. I’d rather have characters say ‘What do you mean?’ than ‘Whadd’ya mean?’ which I would never, ever write myself, even if you held me down on a table and threatened me with hot skewers.

Otherwise it looks pretty good.

Douglas Adams

Excerpted from The Ultimate Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy: 42nd Anniversary Edition, by Douglas Adams. Published by Pan Macmillan. Photo of Douglas Adams via Getty.