Douglas Adams: Master of his universe

Douglas Adams never completed a screenplay of 'The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy'. And for good reason, says his friend Michael Bywater. So what would the cult author have made of the film that premieres tonight?
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The Independent Online

First, we need to straighten something out. I was never a close personal friend of Douglas Adams, author of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, techno-guru, would-be über-geek, visionary, educator of the masses still sunk in the Dark Age of Faith and Superstition... none of those. I was never a close personal friend of that man.

First, we need to straighten something out. I was never a close personal friend of Douglas Adams, author of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, techno-guru, would-be über-geek, visionary, educator of the masses still sunk in the Dark Age of Faith and Superstition... none of those. I was never a close personal friend of that man.

It was another one, of the same name: a big lumbering chap, who had too many guitars, none of which he could play, and a vast array of synthesisers and keyboards on which he produced, after a year's effort, three minutes of the sort of music you'd expect to hear in an affable lift.

A man who liked fast cars, though he wasn't a very good driver, and enjoyed food, though it once took him two days to cook a ratatouille, following three recipes simultaneously. A man - and this is rare, and probably why we got along - not of ambition (alarmingly free of it, actually), but of enthusiasm.

That's the Douglas Adams I knew, and knowing him was important to me, but I'm damned if it was important about me, and if I thought that, on my gravestone, it was going to say: "Here lies Michael Bywater; he knew Douglas Adams, you know" I would top myself now, on a blazing pyre of the publicity material that still issues from the poor dead bastard's literary estate, and those who are still making a more or less (more in some cases, very much less in others) honest bob out of his efforts.

So, next week - on 28 April, to be precise - the film of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy finally comes out, and I'll tell you what Douglas would have liked; what he would really, really have liked. He would have liked the fact that earlier this month an aye-aye - a peculiar and achingly endangered little lemur from Madagascar - was born in captivity and is doing well in Bristol Zoo. He wouldn't have liked the captivity bit, but he would have loved the born bit, and the doing well.

And he would have liked the fact that, on 29 April, Apple is releasing the latest iteration of its Macintosh operating system: version 10.4, code-named Tiger.

We would have talked a lot about Tiger. We would have got Tiger. We would have pre-ordered it, and installed it the moment it arrived, and then extolled its virtues and excoriated its shortcomings and told each other how it was built on BSD Unix, and tried to break it, and would have broken it, and it would have made us very, very happy. Now I'll have to do it on my own. And it will make me happy. But not as happy as it might have done.

The Apple and the aye-aye were two of the most significant things in Douglas's life and, in a way, even more important than the film. That was something he was trying to get out there; the others were things that came in. The film (though he eventually seemed unsure of the reason he wanted to get it made) was about reputation and about money; the aye-aye and the Mac were about discovery, excitement, possibilities, thinking and, above all, teaching.

It can probably be said of all writers that we are gripped by the compulsion to teach: to say: "This is what it's like from where I'm standing"; to say "Look! Look! Bet you've never noticed this before!"; to say: "See how these apparently unconnected things join up beautifully?"; and above all, to hear the response: "Wow! You're right!"

Douglas Adams was seized by the teaching bug. His greatest joy was telling people things, even if they had told him those things half an hour before. He loved making connections; he loved exposition; he loved, above all, the apparent effortlessness of the kind of wit that flourished in the 17th and 18th centuries.

And perhaps the two things that struck him as both inherently witty, and as springboards from which he could launch his own somersaults of wit, were Darwinian evolution and computers. Both played a huge, witty joke on our understanding of a thousand things, from the origins of our own lives to the directional mistakes of religious faith; from the nature of metaphor to the nature of human communication.

When Hitchhiker's Guide became a huge success, he enjoyed the money and the fame, and it would be hard to argue that the fame did not harm him; he began, intermittently at least, to see himself as the Douglas Adams, and was bemused at the effort necessary to maintain that grand illusion. But when, late in his education, he discovered evolution (largely through Richard Dawkins, who became a friend) and, in particular, when The Observer Magazine sent him and the zoologist Mark Carwardine to Madagascar to look for that odd orphan of evolution, the aye-aye, he was transformed. His world view pivoted on its axis, just as it did when he discovered computers and then the first witty computer, the Apple Mac (the infantilising and aesthetically catastrophic Microsoft Windows remaining to this day the epitome of witlessness and failure to get the point).

Which brings us back to the film. Every now and then, Douglas would go ape, abandon his friends, get a peculiar look in his eye, rush off to his computer dealer, buy a new computer and screenwriting software package, and go to ground.

"Ground" could be anywhere from a Winnebago in California to a house in New Mexico, or a hotel somewhere. Communiqués would be delivered concerning the astounding progress being made with a new producer, a new co-writer, new money; but all would come to nothing. The software would be traduced; the new Mac would be relegated to running his home intranet, or the doorbell, and that, for a while, would be that. But it would always rear its head again.

From his point of view, it was, I believe, about getting the point. This was crucial to him, a man who pursued, against all odds and with vast expenditure on flowers and, at one stage, actually taking up smoking again, a woman, at least partly on the grounds that she didn't see the point of him and he was damned if he would give up until she did.

Millions of people, of course, did see the point of Douglas Adams' work. Any English undergrad could dissect the reasons for its success: the taut, spare writing, free of modifiers, which allowed the reader space to construct his (they were mostly young men) own space in the text; the secondary narrator, who was not unreliable, merely incompetent (it was the narrative that was unreliable); the reliance on bathos, but in the only context in which bathos can work, that of real intelligence; the pointed, often malign aperçus dressed up as gags; the picaresque structure, a Bildungsroman without the Bildung (Arthur Dent remains the same throughout and, though he falls in love - blissfully in love - he ends the series none the wiser); the wonderfully adolescent combination of high hopes and low expectations; the overriding sense of a galaxy which is, in every remotest corner, subject to the same rules - the rules of a British public school or a small municipal council - as that most insignificant of species, Homo sapiens. In Adams's universe, orders are orders, it's more than your job's worth, don't ask too many questions, we'd be in a fine mess if everyone did that, and nobody likes a smart-arse. The comfort of Hitchhiker's is the comfort of the school story, the sixth form at St q'Faaqxxrx: or, alternatively, the landscape of the dystopian opposite of Hitchhiker's, George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four, set in a distorted version of the very BBC where Hitchhiker's was originally born.

So has Hollywood - has, heaven help us, Disney - got the point? I haven't the remotest idea. I have not seen the previews, nor would I care to go had I been invited. Disney's commercial success seems to me to be predicated on a soft, mucosal embrace, a sweet, marshmallow, Judas kiss, a terror of controversy, bad taste, any taste - and, especially, a terror of anything resembling intelligence or, particularly, wit.

The oddities of Hitchhiker's, coupled with the truly appalling orthodoxies of "story structure", make it unlikely that the film will be an exception; and the fact that Douglas Adams trusted his readership to get the point where no Hollywood company would dare take such a risk makes it almost impossible.

The reports I've heard have been uninspiring. One writer said the film is so bad that at least we can be sure there'll never be a sequel (though perhaps he had not heard of Die Hard).

The leading Adams anorak, MJ Simpson, has posted a truly terrible review of the preview on his website (www. planetmagrathea.com), in which he reveals that, inter alia, he didn't like the dancing dolphins, Humma Kavula, the "lazily scripted deus ex machina plot progression", the "illogicality of the implementation of the Infinite Improbability Drive", Zaphod's heads ("rubbish"), Zaphod's third arm ("cut price"), Zaphod's thinking cap ("A jokoid - something that has the shape of a joke but is not actually funny"), the dancing hula doll ("I have no idea what the hell that is all about") and many other things besides: the worst complaint being that the film's makers have cut the bits that actually make the jokes funny.

The film writer Simon Rose, on the other hand (praising with faint damns), said: "Some of it's wonderful; some of it's not... certainly it's not the disgrace it might have been", although "there's no real emotional depth". Which, of course, there wasn't in the original radio series, the television series, or the books. What there was, was intellectual depth.

Doubtless the audience will judge for itself. For my own part, I hope this is the end of it all. Things have moved on; the author is dead; the world has changed; evolution (or at least our understanding of it) has changed; as has our understanding of space, of extraterrestrial life, of... well, of all the things that set Douglas Adams off in the first place. Far better to recall him in, for example, his extempore speech on "Is There an Artificial God?", or the book that he was proudest of, Last Chance to See.

Die-hard Hitchhiker's fans will flock to see the film, of course. Will others go? I don't know.

But this I do know: this is the last I, for one, will write, either about Douglas Adams or about his work. Film, schmilm. He was my friend. He's dead. I'm not. I miss him. The end.

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