There are some days you remember very clearly. In May 2001, I was attending the first annual Young Vermont Writer's Conference in Burlington, Vermont, and it was there I really learned that I wanted to write. My new friend Erica and I got out of class and had the chance to check the Internet, where we learned some devastating news: Douglas Adams had just died. It was the first time I really remember an idol of mine passing, and we both commiserated over his death. His first novel The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy was a magical book to discover as a teenager. It was an absurd, ridiculous book that I loved and read many times over, laughing each time I came across it.
Douglas Adams was born on March 11, 1952, in Cambridge, England. His parents divorced when he was five, and he was a shy, self-conscious child. While interested in math and science, he rarely excelled in these subjects. When he did read, we was mostly a fan of Eagle, a British comic book. It was at school that he became interested in writing, and eventually, acting. He left school at the age of 18 and earned an early admission to Cambridge University. The school was of particular interest to Adams, who was a fan of John Cleese, a former member of the school’s Footlights comedy group.
Before attending Cambridge, however, Adams left England and decided to take odd jobs in order to hitchhike across Europe on his way to Istanbul. It was this trip that would serve as inspiration for one of his most famous creations: The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy.
Adams began his journey with little money and a stolen copy of The Hitchhiker's Guide to Europe. He recounted the story in the introduction to an omnibus edition of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy: "[I was] drunk in a field in Innsbruck, Austria...not particularly drunk, just the sort of drunk you get when you have a couple of stiff Gössers after not having eaten for two days straight, on account of being a penniless hitchhiker." Adams was having a rough trip: nobody could understand him, and he was becoming increasingly frustrated with the isolation. While lying in that field in Innsbruck, a thought struck him: "If only someone would write a Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy as well, then I for one would be off like a shot."
He promptly forgot about the idea and continued on, returning home when he fell ill with food poisoning, and enrolled in Cambridge University. There, he found that the Footlights weren't quite as interesting as he'd expected, and ended up joining another outfit, CLUES, the Cambridge University Light Entertainment Society. He did poorly at Cambridge, but eventually graduated in 1974, where he went on to work another series of odd jobs, working in an office, writing sketches for the radio, and attracting the attention of one of England's top comedians, Graham Chapman, of Monty Python. The two worked together during the final years of Monty Python, with Adams being one of the few non-Pythons to be granted a writing credit in the show, and even appeared in a few of the sketches.
By 1976, the pair had drifted their separate ways, partially due to work on Chapman's autobiography. Adams by this point had begun to work on combining science fiction and comedy, working on a number of concepts, which never quite panned out. Nick Webb, writing in Wish You Were Here: The Official Biography of Douglas Adams, recounted that "John [Lloyd] and Douglas also worked on another idea, Sno 7 and the White Dwarves....A superior intelligence was planning to use supernovae for advertising purposes, and mankind was doomed because our sun was destined to be the full stop under the exclamation mark of the slogan." The project never went anywhere, but it had the characteristics of what Adams would be known for: a level of absurdity in space.
In 1977, Adams had fallen into a deep depression: his work was faltering, and others noted that "he was a talent without a niche," according to Webb. In February, he met Simon Brett, a producer at the BBC, and the two had met for dinner. Adams brought three ideas with him, although neither man would remember years later what the first two were. One of the three did stick out: it was a science-fiction comedy called The Ends of the Earth, in which a "guy's house [was] being demolished and then the Earth being demolished for the same reason": a bypass was being built. Adams realized he needed an alien for context, and created Ford Prefect: "I needed to have someone from another planet around to tell the reader what was going on, to give the story the context it needed. So I had to work out who he was and what he was doing on Earth." He remembered his night in the field several years earlier, and realized that the character was a researcher for the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, an intergalactic travel guide.
On March 1, the BBC approved a pilot episode for the radio, now titled The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. By April, Adams delivered the first script, and between then and August, they waited for approval from the BBC. The wait was agonizing, and Adams sent "the pilot script to the script editor of Doctor Who, to see if any money might be forthcoming from that direction," according to Neil Gaiman in his book Don’t Panic: The Official Hitch-hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy Companion. However, on August 31, they reached a decision: the show was approved for six episodes.
Simon Brett ended up leaving the BBC, but was replaced by Geoffrey Perkins, who became close friends with Adams. The two set to work, and produced their six episodes of the comedy. The BBC wasn't entirely sure what to do with it: the science-fiction comedy was far beyond anything that they'd worked with before, and according to Gaiman, they attempted to bury it. They scheduled the program for 10:30 p.m. on March 8, 1978, with little notice to the listening public. Adams was undaunted, and soon was redeemed: two major newspapers reviewed the program, and soon, word began to spread. "Science Fiction fans liked it because it was science fiction; humour fans liked it because it was funny; radio fans got off on the quality of the stereo production; Radiophonics Workshop fans doubtless had a great time, and most people liked it because it was accessible, fast and funny," writes Gaiman. Later that year, the BBC commissioned a special Christmas episode of the program. The show was popular with science-fiction fans: it was nominated for a Hugo Award for Best Dramatic Presentation (losing to Superman) in 1980.
As Adams was finishing the scripts of the first season, he was asked to write for the BBC's science-fiction show Doctor Who and later became the show's script editor. He also ended up writing four episodes of a story, The Pirate Planet and later, The City of Death. The production team rejected a third story from Adams, Shada, which featured an unusual detective.
Following the successful run of Hitchhiker's Guide on the BBC, the New English Library and Pan Books approached Adams with the possibility of producing a novel based on the series. Adams demurred, as he'd never written an entire novel before. Adams asked John Lloyd to help, as he had come through and written episodes Five and Six of the radio drama. However, the partnership didn't last, resulting in a brief falling out between the two as Adams moved ahead with the project on his own. He was chronically late and missed all of his deadlines before the publisher finally called him and asked for the manuscript. He told them how far he'd gotten in the first book, and was told to finish the page: they would send someone over to pick the book up. "Caroline Upcher and Sonny Mehta [Pan's publishers] had just got annoyed by being strung along by Douglas, who was not guilty of deliberate lies about delivery so much as optimistic and sincere self-deception," writes Webb in his biography of Adams. The publishers never remembered that conversation happening, but the book was delivered with an abrupt ending, and was sent into the publishing world. Early reviewers compared it to the works of Kurt Vonnegut. Around the same time, Adams sold the rights for an audio drama—separate from the BBC show—which was released as a double album, and sold well.
On October 12th, 1979, Pan released the novel and it sold out its initial 60,000 book print run instantly, going on to sell 250,000 copies in three months. Pan arranged a signing with Adams at Forbidden Planet in London. When Adams attempted to reach the signing, he and his driver discovered that the crowds had stopped traffic, and the hour-long signing lasted well into the evening. The next year, The Hitchhiker's Guide had its own dedicated convention: Hitchercon was held in September 1980 in Glasgow, with Adams as the Guest of Honor.
With the show's popularity, the BBC commissioned a second series, which aired on January 21, 1980, at 10:30 p.m. Unlike the first season, the second received a considerable amount of publicity, but it was a difficult production. The show was written quickly, even rushed at points, but it still earned glowing reviews from critics and the public. Pan and Adams also contracted for a sequel novel, The Restaurant at the End of the Universe, which picked up where the first book left off, and was assembled out of parts from the second season radio show. Once again, Adams was late on delivering the manuscript, and declared that it would be the last book in the series. In 1980, Adams sold the book to publishers in the United States, and the radio play began to appear on National Public Radio. When Restaurant at the End of the Universe appeared on bookstore shelves, it too was a massive success.
With all of this success, Adams sold the film rights for the book. In 1980, the BBC agreed to adapt the series for the television, placing it into production at the end of the year, appearing in January and February of 1981, just after the release of Restaurant at the End of the Universe. Adams clashed with Alan Bell, the show's director. In his biography, Webb notes that "two kinds of culture clash were apparent from the onset: Alan was not of the bomber-pilot generation of producers, but in BBC terms, he was the old guard—not part of the influx of Cambridge smarties." The prospect of a major science-fiction television show in the early 1980s involved technical difficulties: while the show was favorably received by the public as a whole, it was also clunky, but it served to open Adams and his books up to a wider audience. Despite the show's success, however, the BBC never commissioned a second season, mostly due to costs and the interpersonal problems. Adams also wrote three scripts for film, but the adaptation remained trapped in development hell for the rest of his life.
Despite his insistence that his second book would be the last in the series, he eventually agreed to write a third installment, picking out some ideas that he had come up with for a potential Doctor Who movie, Doctor Who and the Krikkitmen. Life, the Universe and Everything appeared in 1982, and a fourth installment to the “trilogy,” So Long and Thanks for All The Fish, appeared in 1984.
Adams would move on to other projects throughout the 1980s: He resurrected another Doctor Who concept story, Shada, which became 1987's novel Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency, which in turn was followed by The Long Dark Tea-Time of the Soul in 1988. Still, Adams could never quite escape the Hitchhiker's Guide: in 1992, he wrote and released Mostly Harmless, the fifth and final installment in the series. Its cover was emblazoned with "The fifth book in the increasingly inaccurately named Hitchhiker’s Trilogy."
Tragically, Adams passed away on May 11, 2001, following a heart attack, leaving behind some unfinished works. Following his death, a posthumous collection of his works was released, The Salmon of Doubt, and in 2005, Garth Jennings directed an adaptation of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, based on Adam's script, starring Zooey Deschanel, Martin Freeman, Stephen Fry, Bill Nighy, Warwick Davis, Alan Rickman, and Sam Rockwell. While none of the other installments of the Hitchhiker's series have been produced, the BBC adapted Dirk Gently first in 2010 and again in 2012 with an additional three episodes.
The Hitchhiker's series received one final written installment in 2008 after Adams’ death. Adams' estate brought on author Eoin Colfer to pen the final book, titled And Another Thing..., which Adams had talked about writing, noting that Mostly Harmless left the series off on a bleak note.
What accounts for Adam's unprecedented success with Hitchhiker's Guide, and why, as The Guardian asked, has there really been no other major comedic talent on par with Adams within science fiction? Part of the reason likely comes out of Adams' entry into the science-fiction genre: he rose not through the ranks of science-fiction fans, but instead through the ranks of comedy, working with such acts as Monty Python before making the jump over. Additionally, other influences were at play here: the fact that The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy was first popular as a radio drama before making the jump to print, as well as Adams' ability to hone his materials over the course of several mediums with numerous creative teams. Ultimately, though, the popularity of the books is owed to one key element: they're hilarious, and have remained so for generations of readers.