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— by Jennifer Vineyard

The scene: A man is trying to stop his home from being bulldozed to make way for a highway bypass. Meanwhile, unbeknownst to him, his larger home — the Earth — is about to be obliterated to make way for an intergalactic hyperspace bypass.

Recognize that premise from a mile, or a galaxy, away? Then you're already a fan of "Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy."

MTV Overdrive Exclusive: Watch a scene from "Hitchhiker's" featuring Mos Def and Martin Freeman, and check out clips from an MTV interview with Mos.

But even if you've never read, seen or heard the books, the TV series or the radio plays that have spun off, like spiral galaxies themselves, from Douglas Adams' cult classic over the years, you're probably familiar with some of its jokes, quotes, concepts and even bits of the story — whether you're aware of it or not.

For instance, the title of Radiohead's album, OK Computer as well as what might be the band's most famous song, "Paranoid Android"? Right: both are "Hitchhiker's" references. Fox Mulder's apartment number, 42, on "The X-Files"? That's the "Hitchhiker's" answer to the ultimate question of Life, the Universe, and Everything — if only we knew what the specific question to ask actually was. The "Men in Black" movies likely wouldn't exist, at least not in their massively popular incarnations, without the inspiration of "The Hitchhiker's Guide." And fantasy titans like George Lucas, Terry Prachett ("Discworld") and Neil Gaiman ("Sandman") all count themselves major fans of Adams, whose "Hitchhiker's Guide" first turned up on British radio in 1978, evolved into the first novel of a best-selling series in 1979 and spawned a TV miniseries in 1981.

If you're British, you might very well have grown up absorbing the story via every possible medium, as did Martin Freeman — Tim from the BBC series "The Office" — who plays the character of Arthur Dent in the highly, highly anticipated movie version (opening this Friday, April 29, and also starring Mos Def, Sam Rockwell and Zooey Deschanel).

"Zaphod Beeblebrox wasn't a weird thing," Freeman said of another of the book's (and the movie's) primary characters. "I always knew who Zaphod Beebelbrox was, who Ford Prefect was. Everyone [British] who knows 'Hitchhiker's,' and even those who don't, have heard of Arthur Dent. They might have heard of Zaphod, too, but they wouldn't know how to pronounce his name."

 The culture of "The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy"

If you're a Yank, on the other hand, chances are that all you ever knew of the "Hitchhiker's" phenomenon — and it is a full-blown phenomenon — were the books. And you likely thought that the first book in the series was the very first form that the story took.

California native Zooey Deschanel, who plays Trillian (a woman who left Earth with the two-headed Zaphod B. years before it was about to be destroyed to make way for the hyperspace bypass — are you following so far?) was exposed to Adams' astonishing imagination when a schoolmate passed the book along to her when she was 10 years old, calling it "the coolest thing ever." Kids and adults alike latched on to the wacky, whimsical tale, with its silly and profound philosophical musings and its narrative tangents: for example, dolphins are smarter than humans precisely because they muck about in the water all day; really bad poetry can make you gnaw off your own limbs to escape having to listen to it; and so on. At the same time, with its SubEthaNet, the book eerily foretold the ubiquity of the Internet (as well as PDAs and Blackberries, in a sense, with the existence of the Guide itself).

"Everyone thought we were all sophisticated, reading 'Hitchhikers,' " Deschanel says. "But there was no way I got it. You just don't get how funny it is to search for the ultimate question in the universe when you're 10 years old."

"Douglas is saying that space and the universe is not that very different from the Earth — it's what you make of it," the film's producer, Nick Goldsmith, says. "The whole message is that we spend too much time thinking about other things that aren't important. It's about who we are, what we are. It's about life. I don't actually see it as a sci-fi thing at all."

 The history of "The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy"

"It just had that way of making you think you were the only one who really got it," says director Garth Jennings. "I was even dubious at first of taking it on, because I didn't want to ruin the memory of it, the jargon, the stupid phrases, like calling each other 'zark' and 'frood.' It was this huge secret joke that everyone was in on. It sold 20 million copies — that's a big cult. Isn't that ironic? 'It's just for me, so I don't know what you tens of millions of other people are doing.' "

Jumping into a strange but famous fantasy classic can be a daunting prospect, especially when it seems to have its own special lingo. " 'Sass that hoopy,' 'zark' and frood.' What does that mean?" Sam Rockwell (Zaphod) says with a laugh. "It's like another language."

But on a certain level, "Hitchhiker's" is essentially a story you already know.

NEXT: The story was constantly evolving — 'a living, breathing thing.' ...
Photo: Touchstone Pictures

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