Douglas Adams in 'Monty Python'/Image courtesy of BBC
If you’re at all familiar with the British science fiction writer Douglas Adams (who passed away twelve years ago this week), then you’re acquainted with the versatile usefulness of a towel, the importance of the number 42, and the humor of a depressed robot. Adams’ work is chock-full of wit, intelligence, and zaniness that only a nerd could love. And it makes sense that a creator of such madcap craziness would be the source of what can best be described as legendary tales of insanity: There’s the one about Adams having so much trouble making deadlines that his editor had to lock them both in a hotel room in order to get him to finish So Long, and Thanks for All the Fish. Oh, and there was the time he once accepted a $1 million advance (some say it was $2 million) for a novel, Starship Titanic, but then spent seven years making it as as computer game instead. And let’s not forget that he loved to describe his best-known work, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, as a trilogy … even though it spanned five novels (six if you count the posthumously published and written by another author And Another Thing…).
But the some of the more wild (and less known) Adams anecdotes deal with the various migrations of his words from page to the screen. Here are some that we’ve managed to dig up.
Almost a Monty Python
There have only been two people outside of the celebrated comedy group Monty Python who were able to earn a writing credit on their sketch comedy series “Monty Python’s Flying Circus”: One was comedic musician Neil Innes (who wrote all the songs in “Monty Python and the Holy Grail”) and the other was Douglas Adams. In fact, Adams’ first real writing job was stepping in as Python Graham Chapman’s writing partner during the final season of the group’s show in 1974; John Cleese, who had been Chapman’s original writing partner, had left the troupe by then and the Beeb forced them to trim “Flying Circus” from the show’s title. According to Python member Terry Jones (who ended up writing the novelization of “Starship Titanic”), Adams even managed to get on camera a couple times while working on the show … and one night almost killed most of the group by driving on the wrong side of the highway on the way back from a boozy dinner.
“Curious to think that Douglas’s generous offer to play chauffeur might well have wiped out four-sixths of the Monty Python team,” Jones wrote in a remembrance of the author a few year ago, “as well, of course, as the future author of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.”
Doctor Who, Classic and Lost
What’s better than writing for the legendary BBC show “Monty Python’s Flying Circus”? How about writing for the legendary BBC show “Doctor Who”? Yes, the writer known for his beloved depiction of the madcap adventures of a group of aliens and humans traversing through space and time also worked on some scripts for the beloved television series that follows the madcap adventures of an alien known as “The Doctor” and his (often human) companions as they travel through space and time. Adams penned the highly regarded sixteenth season’s four-part “The Pirate Planet” serial, which stars the fan-favorite Fourth Doctor (played by Tom Baker). The series featured Adams’ own unique mix of dark subject matter and humor and earned him the job as script editor for the show’s seventeenth season. He then earned a co-writing credit for the now-considered-classic “City of Death” series. But the most infamous Adams “Doctor Who” story would be the lost serial “Shada,” which was only half-finished before production was derailed by a studio technician strike in 1980. A roughly hobbled together version featuring voice-over narration to fill in the gap between scenes was released on home video over a decade later, followed by an online audio play in 2003 and a novelization in 2010, but “Shada” still remains the only “Doctor Who” installment never to have aired on TV. The fact that it was written by Adams adds to its status as a “lost gem” among fans.
“The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy”: the Radio Show, the Game, the Show … oh, and Movie
“The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” is the quintessential Douglas Adams yarn. Often referred to as HG2G or H2G2 by its fans, it’s also probably the modern story with the most media incarnations. What started out as a drunken daydream while spending the night in a field during a youthful hitchhiking trip, eventually became a six-episode radio show that started with the end of the world and featured a zany journey hitchhiking through the galaxy in 1978, which was followed the next year by the first novel in the series. From there HG2G mutated and expanded to include a comic book, a computer game, various theatrical stage productions, a TV series, and finally a major Hollywood film in 2005. Along the way Adams constantly worked on shepherding his creation through its numerous manifestations, including designing the 1984 text-based computer game, creating the 1981 TV series, and enduring the torturous Hollywood moviemaking process (Adams once equated it to “trying to grill a steak by having a succession of people coming into the room and breathing on it.").
It was that last part, along with Adams’ unexpected death four years beforehand, that sowed mistrust among fans toward the 2005 film staring Martin Freeman, Mos Def, Sam Rockwell, and Zooey Deschanel. Throw in some major differences in the film from the book: an additional villain played by John Malkovich and a gun that implants targets with the point of view of the shooter. Of course, Adams always believed that the Hollywood studio system was the best way to adapt HG2G for the big screen and the film’s changes were based on his draft of the screenplay and notes. Still the movie was panned by critics and fans.
An “Unfilmable” Detective Series … Adapted for TV
Aside from the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy series, Adams also wrote another series, one that played with the detective genre. The Dirk Gently series, which is about a detective who believes in "the fundamental interconnectedness of all things" and uses his denied psychic ability to solve cases, kicked off with 1987’s Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency and continued on with 1988’s The Long Dark Tea-Time of the Soul (an aborted third novel, The Salmon of Doubt, was in the process of being retooled into another HG2G novel when Adams died). And in 2012, BBC Four aired a TV show based on the series. The show’s writer, Howard Overman, who’s known for creating the cult British superpowers crude comedy “Misfits,” took a lesson from the failure of the HG2G movie and instead chose to make the show based around the character of Dirk Gently solving new original cases and not a straight translation of the books, which he basically admitted were un-adaptable, as its ideas and plots were a bit too epic. Surprisingly, the show was accepted by Douglas Adams fans and even sparked a bit of debate about what it means to faithfully adapt a piece of literature for the screen. Unfortunately, and despite some fan petitions to try and prevent it, the show was canceled after its first season due to budget cuts.
What say you, Douglas Adams fans? Did we miss any funny business of Adams’ work for the screen? Let us know below.