May 2004

Laura Felch


Don't Panic: Douglas Adams and the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy by Neil Gaiman

A Booknerd cannot help but love the concept of a literary biography. Find an infamous work of literature. Mix with a passionate knowledgeable writer. Sprinkle liberally with interviews excerpts, long lost footage, and anecdotes from the good old days. Stir thoroughly.

Don’t Panic: Douglas Adams and the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy is pure pleasure. The book does not feel like a night of solitary reading. It feels as if you casually ran into Neil Gaiman at a pub, bought a round, and giggle like a fangirl over the behind-the-scenes book legends of The Hitchhiker’s Guide. (This is not to assume Neil Gaiman giggles, which I can neither confirm nor deny.)

There are two factors that make Don’t Panic more than just a good night in bed. Don’t Panic is a book about the life of an idea, not the life of an author. Gaiman follows the career of Douglas Adams in relationship to the Hitchhiker phenomena, rather than focusing on Adam’s personal life. “It is, however, the story of a book also called, at a very high level of improbability, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy; of the radio series that started it all; the six-book trilogy it comprises; the computer games, towel, and the television series that it, in turn, has spawned.” While it is common today for a successful book to generate much spin-off material, it is uncommon for the author to be seriously involved in what follows. Adams was different. He was no longer “a talent without a niche” and threw himself into the opportunities offered by The Hitchhiker’s Guide. In the radio series, Adams insisted on stealing radio studio time for “getting the effects right” on the multi-tracked sound. In the television series, he did the sound effects for the hand drawn computer graphics for the television series. He also wrote large chunks of material for the computer game. John Lloyd stated that Douglas Adams knew how to use each “medium to the fullest,” and his ability to learn and grow with his idea gave a consistency of humor and style to almost all Hitchhiker material.

The process of developing The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy itself has a unique and dramatic history. Douglas Adams had grand ideas, and the procrastination necessary to put off their completion. The story begins with a period of time that Douglas Adam's describes as "six months of baths and peanut butter sandwiches" at his mother's house in Dorset writing the radio scripts. His notes state, "If you ever get the change to do a proper regular job... take it. This is not the occupation for a healthy, growing lad." Adams insisted on developing new technology for the Hitchhiker's Guide radio series -- a "sound collage" and unlike anything done in radio before. Producer Geoffrey Perkins claims that Adams was thrown out of the director's cubicle halfway through the first series because of his persistence (or interference). The radio series was a success, the first success in a series of increasingly large successes.

Success leads to pressure, procrastination, and good gossip. John Lloyd almost sued Adams for reneging a deal to cowrite The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy book. Adams had major disagreements with the television producer/director, which changed what eventually produced for the television miniseries. Adams’s book editors had to trap him in a hotel suite for three weeks to get him to write So Long and Thanks for all the Fish. It is hard to designate whether or not this drama had a negative or positive impact on the result. Adams was notorious for being late with his work and this lead to the distribution of empty Sales Kits like this one: "The great test of a promotion person is to devise a promotion for a book about which one knows absolutely zilch… But of course you know that all the Hitch Hiker promotions have been devised without sight of a book. That’s what makes working on them such fun...” However, this carte blanche also gave Douglas Adams the ability to focus and produce something new and extraordinary, like The Hitchhiker's Guide video game: "The response to the game was extraordinary. Described by the London Times as 'without a doubt the best adventure ever seen on a computer,' it became the bestselling adventure game in America on its releases, selling over a quarter of a million copies."

The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy is a cult phenomenon. Don't Panic is a necessary read for anyone who loved it. Gaiman vividly and meticulously captures why this particular idea grew to be an international success and illuminates the man behind the cult. However, not to disregard that accomplishment, the best and shortest summary of the entirety of what Douglas Adams has accomplished and why The Hitchhiker’s Guide is beloved is given in this letter:

Dear Mr. Adams,
You're weird. Or at least your writing is weird. That's okay by me. I'm a little weird myself. But if you are really one of those terribly dull people who just write weird please keep it a secret, I hate being disillusioned...
Don't Panic: Douglas Adams & the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy by Neil Gaiman
Titan Books
ISBN 1840237422
256 Pages