The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy is turning 42. Here’s Set The Tape’s guide to Life, The Universe, and Everything about Douglas Adams’ seminal work.
It may be apocryphal (appropriate for a story about the origins of the Guide), but the story goes that an 18 year-old Douglas Adams was lying, drunk and penniless, in a field in Europe, looking up at the stars, when he first had the idea that someone should write a ‘Hitchhikers Guide To The Galaxy’. As an adult I can sympathise, but the truth is I first encountered Adams’ wonderful universe when I was just nine years old, with limited knowledge of alcohol and personal finance, but first-hand knowledge of where my parents kept their towels.
An excited school friend, with the kind of parents you can absolutely imagine spend their evenings listening to Radio 4, told me that the TV show was being repeated and I needed to check it out. And I did. I doubt I understood one word of the humour at the time, but they had a depressed robot! They had an Infinite Improbability Drive! They had a two-headed Zaphod Beeblebrox… which, with the benefit of hindsight, looks horrendous now, but for a kid growing up on 80’s Doctor Who? It was amazing.
Skip forward to age 11 and I’m being shown around the library of my new secondary school (High School, for the non-Britishers). In amongst all the boring talk about where to find books on history, maths, science and all the other things I’d spend the next 5 years studiously ignoring, was the fiction section. “We have all sorts of books that you can borrow,” the librarian said. “Like The Hitchhikers Guide To The Galaxy by Douglas Adams.” She may have said other things too, I have no idea. By the end of the day, I had that book in my grasp.
This time I got the humour. I’d have to wait till I got home to read, because whenever I tried to sneak in the odd chapter in school breaks, I’d inevitably end up laughing out loud to myself and getting funny looks from schoolmates. I don’t know if you’ve ever been 11 years-old in an Earth school, but let me assure you this is not a great look.
Having been one of only two outside writers to ever have a writing credit on Monty Python’s Flying Circus, then a writer and script editor on Doctor Who, Adams brought The Hitchhikers Guide To The Galaxy to BBC Radio 4 in 1978, on the initial pitch of a series of self-contained apocalyptical comedies called ‘The Ends of the Earth’. But he realised the audience needed an outsider character to relate the story: an alien, an alien writer, an alien writer he decided to call Ford Prefect because that alien writer’s shoddy research had lead him to believe that the motor car was the dominant species on the planet and thus such a name would be “nicely inconspicuous”. But which publication should our alien writer be writing for? And then the idea returned: The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy!
Because this is Douglas Adams, the “self-contained episodes” idea went straight out the window and only the first episode would actually feature the Earth being destroyed. Instead it became the continuing story of Earthman Arthur Dent being inconvenienced around the Universe.
Douglas Adams was a strange breed of writer, largely because he had an obvious talent for it, yet apparently didn’t enjoy actually doing it that much. In a 2012 interview with the BBC, the late Terry Jones, a long-time friend of Douglas Adams, commented “He was such a brilliant writer. Maybe that’s why he hated it – he put so much effort into it”.
Adams had a chaotic approach to his work, once famously remarking “I love deadlines. I like the whooshing sound they make as they fly by”. He was renowned for turning in scripts for episodes at the very last second, sometimes making edits, changes or even writing whole new lines of dialogue for his characters whilst his actors were in the studio recording the lines.
Despite this, the resulting series was so successful that Pan Books were soon offering him a deal for a novelisation, for which the writing process was, by all accounts, torturous. Although he had the basis for his novel in the radio scripts he’d already completed, it was important for him to perfect his prose before submission to the publisher. He apparently went through draft after draft after draft before Pan eventually just demanded he turn in whatever he’d managed so far. Hence the first book in the series ends only two thirds into that initial radio series.
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Adams returned to radio for a second series in 1980 before buckling down for a follow-up novel. The Restaurant At The End Of The Universe melded the remaining last third of the first and more or less the entirety of the second radio series together, finishing with the original ending of the first series. Thus was the continuity of both forms of the story completely confused. The television series came next in 1981, but was essentially an adaptation of the first radio series, before Adams stuck to novels, starting with Life, The Universe and Everything in 1982. The plot would borrow heavily from an unmade Doctor Who story he’d pitched some years prior.
A fourth book, So Long and Thanks For All The Fish appeared in 1984 and was the first completely new entry into the series. In something of a departure from previous form, this time the story was largely a romance whilst introducing more mysterious elements into the plot, something Adams would explore more in his two Dirk Gently novels. The brilliant comedy remains however, such as with truck driver Rob McKenna, a man who knows only too well that he’s a miserable bastard but has no idea he’s a Rain God. As far as he’s aware, he’s just very unlucky with the weather. The book ends with the reveal of God’s Final Message to His Creation, which I absolutely will not spoil here… but it’s well worth reading four books for.
Adams took a break from galactic hitchhiking to write his two Dirk Gently novels and the non-fiction Last Chance To See before returning one final time for the fifth novel, Mostly Harmless, in 1992. The book would have more of a mixed reception this time, being much darker novel than anything he’d written before, a product of him having, in his own words, “…a thoroughly miserable year”.
He was notably unhappy with how the book turned out and would later intend to correct this with a sixth entry into the series, but sadly this was not to be. On the 11th May 2001, aged only 49, Douglas Adams would suffer a fatal heart attack following a workout at a private gym in California.
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Instead, came the 2002 release of The Salmon of Doubt, a collection of short works, eulogies and eleven incomplete chapters for a new novel he’d been working on, ostensibly a third Dirk Gently novel, but which may have been transformed somewhere along the way into the sixth Hitchhikers book. Adams himself seemed undecided. It’s wonderful, but personally if I ever get famous enough that people think it would be a good idea to poke around my hard drive after I’ve died to print all the half-written things I’ve drafted over the years, know this: I will come back and haunt you. Full-on Amityville style.
Adams had dreamt of turning his creation into a Hollywood movie since the release of the first book, a process he would eventually describe as being like “trying to grill a steak by having a succession of people coming into the room and breathing on it”. Sadly, he wouldn’t get to see it, coming as it did in 2005.
The remaining books would eventually get adapted back to radio by Dirk Maggs, John Langdon and Bruce Hyman, and in 2014 a friend and I were invited to a live recording at the BBC Radio Theatre. It was my perfect day, starting as it did with the house band warming the audience with a cover of Pink Floyd’s ‘One Of These Days’ and ending in a nearby pub with the actual cast! If my daughter ever reads this, please know that your birth was the best day of my life, but this one came really close.
Douglas Adams remains a literal and literary hero. So long Douglas, and thanks for all the laughs.
Look out for the rest of our H2G2 @ 42 coverage, coming soon!