…wait, that’s not the right answer. I mean, it is the Answer To Life, The Universe, And Everything as penned by the man of the hour, Douglas Adams in the legendary Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy series, but that’s not the answer to today’s question. That answer, of course, is 70: how old Adams would be if he were still with us today.
Adams is remembered for his work in TV and film, especially his script writing on Doctor Who, as well as his small but prolific body of literary works. He was, however, far more than just a comedy writer and an author. He was a self-professed ‘radical atheist,’ an environmentalist, and a devotee of Apple as well as other forms of technology of which he became an early adopter.
His life, despite being cut short at just 49, was a fascinating one, and his genius will be remembered for countless generations to come—whether it’s through the random utterances of the number ’42,’ or the Hitchhiker’s Guide article on planet Earth: Mostly Harmless.
So grab a towel, and let’s get started celebrating the man who redefined the trilogy as a five book series.
The Early Life of Douglas Adams
Born March 11, 1952, in Cambridge, the Adams family moved to the East End of London shortly after, making this the area in which Douglas Adams grew up. Though his claim to fame in childhood could easily have been his height—six feet tall by the age of twelve—but Adams was a writer from the very start. As a student of the Brentwood School from the age of six, his earliest work was published there, featured between the covers of in-house publications.
Along with reports and spoof reviews, Adams became known for the stories he wrote. His form master, Frank Halford, awarded Adams a ten out of ten for creative writing during his schooling, a feat no other student had ever achieved. This was a huge consolation to Adams during bouts of writer’s block. Adams also, apparently, dabbled in poetry, as a poem of his was found in a school cupboard in early 2014. The poem, written when Adams was only seventeen, was titled “A Dissertation on the task of writing a poem on a candle and an account of some of the difficulties thereto pertaining.”
Poetry was a passing fancy — but one that took him places he desperately wanted to be, and that was in the world of comedy. Adams went to St. John’s College, Cambridge — his father’s alma mater — via an Exhibition, or form of scholarship, he was awarded in 1971. The Exhibition came on the strength of an essay Adams wrote on religious poetry…one that discussed William Blake and the Beatles in the same breath.
Stepping into the Footlights. Not Literally. It’s a Figure of Speech.
At St. John’s, Adams had his sights on the Footlights, a school comedy theater club that was a convergence point for comedic talent. Adams wasn’t immediately allowed to join, but after spending some time as part of another group performing in revues, he was accepted as one of the Footlights by 1973. It was thanks to them that Adams was discovered by Monty Python’s own Graham Chapman after Adams graduated. Spotting his work at a version of the Footlights Revue performed in the West End, Chapman and Adams became writing partners for a brief time. This earned Adams a writing credit on an episode of Monty Python’s Flying Circus for the sketch “Patient Abuse,” notable for its black humor. He also appeared in a couple of episodes, and notably contributed to the “Marilyn Monroe” sketch for the soundtrack of Monty Python And The Holy Grail, making him one of only two people not a member of Monty Python to ever receive a writing credit with the troupe.
For a time, Adams’ career stalled after that, forcing him to work odd jobs while he continued writing and submitting his work wherever possible. Eventually, not only did he get work as a script writer on Doctor Who, but Adams successfully launched the first series of a little radio show that would go on to make history: The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy.
The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy
While Adams is best known for the five-volume Hitchhiker’s Guide Trilogy, his work on Doctor Who remains much beloved by fans. Responsible for writing three Tom Baker stories (The Pirate Planet, City Of Death, and the lost story Shada which was finally released with the aid of animation in July of 2018), he also served as script editor on the show’s seventeenth season in 1979.
However, it was Hitchhiker’s Guide for which Douglas Adams would become an icon: with its start as a radio comedy, the five volumes of the “trilogy” have been adapted across multiple mediums, outlining the adventures of the last Earth man, Arthur Dent, and his fellow hitchhikers: Ford Prefect, last Earth woman Trillian, and the three armed, two headed president of the galaxy, Zaphod Beeblebrox. Not to be forgotten, of course, is the legendary depressed android, Marvin, and it is this cast of unusual characters that Adams uses to confront topics such as spirituality, the absurdity of bureaucracy, and the importance of caring for one’s own world.
Adams is also well known for his spoof of the detective genre, Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency, where mysteries are investigated by the titular character, based on his belief in the interconnectedness of all things. A multi-genred comedy romp, it has been adapted multiple times as well, including the three episode television series that starred Stephen Mangan and featured plot lines from the Dirk Gently sequel, The Long Dark Tea Time Of The Soul.
In or around 1977, the text game based on The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy was a groundbreaking adventure game. Now you can play the game online, for free.
On the 30th anniversary of the game, the BBC put it online, free, for everyone.
Douglas Adams, the Activist
Each year, Save the Rhino honors the late Adams by inviting speakers and guests to commemorate him. A fierce advocate for the protection of wildlife, Adams was a long-time patron of the conservation charity. In addition to supporting Save the Rhinos, Adams published Last Chance to See, a book devoted to raising awareness of the plight of endangered species worldwide. According to Gaiman, Adams put the money and fame that he earned from topping the bestseller list to a noble purpose.
So Long, and Thanks for All the Fish
It is hard to be sad thinking of Douglas Adams. He did leave this mortal coil far too soon for any of our likings, it’s true. What he gave us, though, continues to generate light in our lives. We are nearly blinded from it.
Thank you, Douglas Adams. We know we’ve said this before, but so long, and thanks for all the fish.
Liz Carlie (she/her/he/him) is a regular book, TV, and film reviewer for SCIFI.radio and has previously been a guest on ‘The Event Horizon’. In addition to being an active member of the traditional fandom community, she’s also an active participant in online fan culture, pro wrestling journalism, and spreading the gospel of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. She resides in Southern California with her aspiring superhero dog, Junior, enjoying life one hyperfixation at a time.