Douglas Noel Adams (11 March 1952 – 11 May 2001) was an English writer, humorist, and dramatist. Best known as the author of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, which started life in 1978 as a BBC radio comedy before developing into a “trilogy” of five books that sold more than 15 million copies in his lifetime, a television series, several stage plays, comics, a computer game, and in 2005 a feature film. But Douglas Adams, whose 61st birthday is celebrated by Google today, practically perfected comic SF that was neither full of knowing in-jokes for the cognoscenti, nor knockabout parody.
Intergalactic travel may seem ripe for comedy, but Adams ultimately succeeded in mining a very rare yet rich seam of comedy that meant he was loved by both the science fiction community and the mainstream book audience who might not consider themselves science fiction readers. It’s hard to fathom what his secret was – if we could, then more people would be doing the same.
According to Adams, the idea for the title occurred to him while he lay drunk in a field in Innsbruck, Austria, gazing at the stars. He was carrying a copy of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to Europe, and it occurred to him that “somebody ought to write a Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy“. He later said that the constant repetition of this anecdote had obliterated his memory of the actual event.
Despite the original outline, Adams was said to make up the stories as he wrote. He turned to John Lloyd for help with the final two episodes of the first series. Lloyd contributed bits from an unpublished science fiction book of his own, called GiGax. Very little of Lloyd’s material survived in later adaptations of Hitchhiker’s, such as the novels and the TV series. The TV series itself was based on the first six radio episodes, and sections contributed by Lloyd were largely re-written.
BBC Radio 4 broadcast the first radio series weekly in the UK in March and April 1978. The series was distributed in the United States by National Public Radio. Following the success of the first series, another episode was recorded and broadcast, which was commonly known as the Christmas Episode. A second series of five episodes was broadcast one per night, during the week of 21–25 January 1980.
While working on the radio series (and with simultaneous projects such as The Pirate Planet) Adams developed problems keeping to writing deadlines that only got worse as he published novels. Adams was never a prolific writer and usually had to be forced by others to do any writing. This included being locked in a hotel suite with his editor for three weeks to ensure that So Long, and Thanks for All the Fish was completed. He was quoted as saying, “I love deadlines. I love the whooshing noise they make as they go by.” Despite the difficulty with deadlines, Adams wrote five novels in the series, published in 1979, 1980, 1982, 1984, and 1992.
The books formed the basis for other adaptations, such as three-part comic book adaptations for each of the first three books, an interactive text-adventure computer game, and a photo-illustrated edition, published in 1994. This latter edition featured a 42 Puzzledesigned by Adams, which was later incorporated into paperback covers of the first four Hitchhiker’s novels (the paperback for the fifth re-used the artwork from the hardback edition).
In 1980 Adams also began attempts to turn the first Hitchhiker’s novel into a movie, making several trips to Los Angeles, and working with a number of Hollywood studios and potential producers. The next year, the radio series became the basis for a BBC television mini-series broadcast in six parts. When he died in 2001 in California, he had been trying again to get the movie project started with Disney, which had bought the rights in 1998. The screenplay finally got a posthumous re-write by Karey Kirkpatrick, and the resulting movie was released in 2005.
Perhaps it was Adam’s ability to strip down the ingredients of a science fiction novel to the bare basics and rebuild them from the ground up, pointing out the inherent ridiculousness in a lot of what he had to play with, but without ever poking fun. His books passed the Bovis test with flying colours: reality was the basis of his comedy, found in ordinary people, such as Arthur Dent, dealing with being dropped into a science fiction adventure, and through an examination of those strange alien races who, Adams posited, would probably be people like us, with the same neuroses and senses of humour. Just with more heads. Adams showed that the funniest laughs are found in the real world.
Douglas Adams’s gravestone, Highgate Cemetery, North London