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Douglas Adams

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Douglas Adams, best known as the creator of The Hitchhiker's Guide To The Galaxy, died May 11 at age 49. In this 1998 interview with The Onion A.V. Club, Adams spoke about his myriad projects.Douglas Adams is best known as the creator of The Hitchhiker's Guide To The Galaxy, a funny bit of absurdist science fiction that over the last two decades has been a radio program, a series of novels, a television show, a computer game, and (coming soon) a movie. After a pair of unusual earthbound novels, Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency and The Long Dark Tea Time Of The Soul, Adams has been quiet as a novelist, save for the 1992 release of the fifth Hitchhiker's Guide installment, Mostly Harmless. That doesn't mean he hasn't been busy: In 1996, Adams launched The Digital Village (www.tdv.com), a multiple-media (not just multimedia) company designed to develop "CD-ROM products, on-line services, television series, feature films and global events." One of its projects is something tentatively titled The Hitchhiker's Guide To The Galaxy, a guide to the world of the Internet. First up, however, is Starship Titanic, a hotly anticipated CD-ROM that has already been adapted into a novel, plotted by Adams and written by longtime friend and Monty Python alumnus Terry Jones. As if that weren't enough, Adams just signed a deal with Disney which should finally bring Hitchhiker's Guide to the big screen. Adams recently spoke to The Onion about his busy life.

The Onion: You've got a lot of stuff going on. What do you want to talk about first?


Douglas Adams: I guess there are two main things. One is that we are imminently about to finish this thing that I've been laboring over for what seems like two years now, called Starship Titanic, which is a CD-ROM. It's coming out in a couple months' time. The other thing is that I've just agreed to the sale of Hitchhiker's Guide to Disney. So I guess over the next couple of years, that's what I'm going to be doing. I'm making that movie.

O: Tell me about Starship Titanic.

DA: Well, it's a CD-ROM, and the most important thing is that it started as a CD-ROM. People wanted me to do a CD-ROM of Hitchhiker's, and I thought, "no, no." I didn't want to just sort of reverse-engineer yet another thing from a book I'd already written. I think that the digital media are interesting enough in their own right to be worth originating something in. Because, really, the moment you have any idea, the second thought that enters your mind after the original idea is, "What is this? Is it a book, is it a movie, is it a this, is it a that, is it a short story, is it a breakfast cereal?" Really, from that moment, your decision about what kind of thing it is then determines how it develops. So something will be very, very different if it's developed as a CD-ROM than if it's developed as a book. Now, in fact, I tell a slight lie, because the idea as such, in a sort of single-paragraph form, actually was what it was in one of the Hitchhiker books—I think Life, The Universe, And Everything. 'Cause whenever I'd get sort of stuck on the storyline in Hitchhiker, I'd always invent a couple of other quick storylines and give them to The Guide to talk about. So here was one little idea that was sitting there, and a number of people said to me, "Oh, you should turn that into a novel." It just seemed like too much of a good idea, and I tend to resist those. But in fact, I discovered there was a very good reason why I wasn't interested in doing Starship Titanic as a book, which was that essentially it was a story about a thing. I just thought of this idea and didn't have any people attached to it, and you can only really tell stories about people. So, later, when I was thinking, "Okay, now I want to do a CD-ROM, because I want to justify the fact that I spend all my time sitting fiddling around with computers…" I actually wanted to turn it into proper grown-up work. So I was thinking, what would be a good thing? Then I suddenly remembered that the problem with turning Starship Titanic into a book—that it was about a thing, about a place, about a ship—suddenly became very much to its advantage. When you're doing a CD-ROM, what you're eventually going to create is a place, an environment.


O: And the user becomes the character.

DA: Yeah, exactly. Once the place begins to develop, you then put characters in it. But it isn't about the characters, it's about the ship. What I then wanted to do was something… Well, it was either very old-fashioned or very radical, depending on which way you look at it; I wanted to build a conversation engine into the game. Years and years ago, I did a game based on Hitchhiker's Guide with a company called Infocom, which was a great company. They were doing witty, intelligent, literate games based on text. You know, there are several thousand years of human culture telling you you can do quite a lot with text, and putting in the extra element of interactivity should just add to the possibilities. You turn the computer into the storyteller and the player into the audience, like in the old days when the storyteller would actually respond to the audience, rather than just having the audience respond to the storyteller. I had an enormous amount of fun, actually, working on that. I just loved constructing these virtual conversations between the player and the machine. So, I just thought it'd be lovely to try to extend that and do more with it in a modern graphics game. Because what I would like to do is see if one can take that old conversation technology and make characters really speak. Put them in an environment and see where you go from there. So we started to tackle this problem of being able to speak to the characters. Of course, everything you do with language just balloons as a problem. To begin with, we wanted to do it whereby it would be text-to-speech, which gives you the advantage that you have much more flexibility in constructing sentences on the fly. On the other hand, all of your characters sound like semi-concussed Norwegians, which I felt is a downside. So we eventually realized we were going to have to do pre-recorded speech. And I thought, "That's terrible, because you only have a limited number of responses. It's just going to be… Oh, I'm not sure about that." So the way we eventually solved the problem, or gradually solved the problem, was that the amount of pre-recorded speech just got bigger, and bigger, and bigger, and bigger. We just did another two-hour recording session this morning. We've now got something like 16 hours of little conversational snippets: little phrases, sentences, half-sentences, and all the things the machine puts together on the fly in response to what you type in. For a long time, it wasn't working very well, it was stupid, and it didn't understand what the fuck you were saying. And now, just really in the last two or three weeks, it's started to come together, and it's started to be spooky. People come in and say, "Yeah, yeah, yeah, I don't see how this is going to work. How 'bout if you ask it this?" And they do, and their jaw drops. It's just wonderful. [Laughs.] People come in and spend hours just sitting, locked in conversation with these characters. I hasten to add
that with the 16 hours of dialogue, it was a small team of us who wrote it. I did part of the dialogue writing, and other people did some, and we all pulled it together. It's pretty remarkable when it works. You suddenly have this populated world. Very strange, damaged robots crawling around the place, all of whom have a wide range of opinions, and attitudes, and ideas, and strange histories, and know about some entirely unexpected things. You can engage them all in conversation.

O: Do you feel concerned that after all this work, people won't treat it with the gravity of, say, a movie or a book? That they won't treat it as an art form?

DA: I hope that's the case, yes. I get very worried about this idea of art. I've been trying to… Having been an English literary graduate, I've been trying to avoid the idea of doing art ever since. I think the idea of art kills creativity. That was one of the reasons I really wanted to go and do a CD-ROM: because nobody will take it seriously, and therefore you can sneak under the fence with lots of good stuff. It's funny how often it happens. I guess when the novel started, most early novels were just sort of pornography: Apparently, most media actually started as pornography and sort of grew from there. This is not a pornographic CD-ROM, I hasten to add. Before 1962, everybody thought pop music was sort of… Nobody would have ever remotely called it art, and then somebody comes along and is just so incredibly creative in it, just because they love it to bits and think it's the greatest fun you can possibly have. And within a few years, you've got Sgt. Pepper's and so on, and everybody's calling it art. I think media are at their most interesting before anybody's thought of calling them art, when people still think they're just a load of junk.


O: But, say, 20 years from now, would you like to be recognized as one of the earliest practitioners of CD-ROM as art?

DA: Well, I would just like a lot of people to have bought it. One, for the extremely obvious reason. But the other is that if it's popular and people really like it and have fun with it, you feel you've done a good job. And if somebody wants to come along and say, "Oh, it's art," that's as it may be. I don't really mind that much. But I think that's for other people to decide after the fact. It isn't what you should be aiming to do. There's nothing worse than sitting down to write a novel and saying, "Well, okay, I'm going to do something of high artistic worth." It's funny. I read something the other day, just out of absolute curiosity; I read Thunderball, which is one of the James Bond books that I would love to have read when I was, I don't know, about 14, just sort of thumbing through it for the bits where he puts his left hand on her breast and saying, "Oh my God, how exciting." But I just thought, well, James Bond has become such an icon in our pop culture of the last 40 years, it would be interesting to see what it actually was like. And what prompted me to do this, apart from the fact that I happened to find a copy lying around, was reading someone talking about Ian Fleming and saying that he had aimed not to be literary, but to be literate. Which is a very, very big and crucial difference. So I thought, well, I'll see if he managed to do that. It's interesting, because it was actually very well-written as a piece of craft. He knew how to use the language, he knew how to make it work, and he wrote well. But obviously nobody would call it literature. But I think you get most of the most interesting work done in fields where people don't think they're doing art, but are merely practicing a craft, and working as good craftsmen. Being literate as a writer is good craft, is knowing your job, is knowing how to use your tools properly and not to damage the tools as you use them. I find when I read literary novels—you know, with a capital "L"—I think an awful lot is nonsense. If I want to know something interesting about a way human beings work, how they relate to each other and how they behave, I'll find an awful lot of women crime novelists who do it better, Ruth Rendell for instance. If I want to read something that's really giving me something serious and fundamental to think about, about the human condition, if you like, or what we're all doing here, or what's going on, then I'd rather read something by a scientist in the life sciences, like Richard Dawkins, for instance. I feel that the agenda of life's important issues has moved from novelists to science writers, because they know more. I tend to get very suspicious of anything that thinks it's art while it's being created. As far as being a CD-ROM is concerned, I just wanted to do the best thing I could, and have as much fun as I could doing it. I think it's pretty good. There are always bits that you fret over for being less than perfect, but you can keep on
worrying over something forever. The thing is pretty damn good.


O: You've got the movie, too. I'd heard rumors of a Hitchhiker's Guide movie kicking around for decades.

DA: Oh, well, yeah. Although it sort of bubbles under, there have been two previous sources of rumors. One was when I originally sold the rights about 15 years ago to Ivan Reitman, who was not as well-known then as he is now. It really didn't work out, because once we got down to it, Ivan and I didn't really see eye-to-eye. In fact, it turned out he hadn't actually read the book before he bought it. He'd merely read the sales figures. I think it really wasn't his cup of tea, so he wanted to make something rather different. Eventually, we agreed to differ and went our respective ways, and by this time the ownership had passed from him to Columbia, and he went on to make a movie called Ghostbusters, so you can imagine how irritated I was by that. [Laughs.] It sat there owned by Columbia for many years. I think Ivan Reitman then got somebody else to write a script based on it, which is, I think, the worst script I'd ever read. Unfortunately, it has my name on it, and the other writer's, whereas I did not contribute a single comma to it. I've only just discovered that that script has been sitting in script city, or whatever it is, for a long time, and that everyone assumes I wrote it and am therefore a terrible screenwriter. Which is rather distressing to me. So then, a few years ago, I was introduced to someone who became a great friend of mine called Michael Nesmith, who has done a number of different things in his career: In addition to being a film producer, he was originally one of The Monkees. Which is kind of odd when you get to know him, because he's such a serious, thoughtful, quiet chap, but with quiet reserves of impish glee. So his proposal was that we go into partnership together to make this. He's the producer, and I do the scripts and so on. We had a very good time working on it for quite a while, but I just think Hollywood at that point saw the thing as old. It's been around the block. And basically, what I was being told an awful lot was essentially, "Science-fiction comedy will not work as a movie. And here's why not: If it could work, somebody would have done it already."


O: That logic seems kind of flawed.

DA: So what happens, of course, is that Men In Black came out this past year, so suddenly somebody has done it already. And Men In Black is… How can I put this delicately? There were elements of it I found quite familiar, shall we say? And suddenly, a comedy science-fiction movie that was very much in the same vein as Hitchhiker's became one of the most successful movies ever made. So, that kind of changed the landscape a little bit. Suddenly, people kind of wanted it. The project with Michael… In the end, we hadn't gotten it to take, so we parted company very good friends, and still are. I just hope that there will be other projects in the future that he and I will work on together, because I like him enormously and we got on very well together. And also, the more time I get to spend in Santa Fe, the better. So now, the picture's with Disney—or, more specifically, with Caravan, which is one of the major independent production companies, but it's kind of joined at the hip to Disney. It's been very frustrating not to have made it in the last 15 years; nevertheless, I feel extremely buoyed by the fact that one can make a much, much, much better movie out of it now than one could have 15 years ago. That's in technical terms; in terms of how it will look and how it will work. Obviously, the real quality of the picture is in the writing, and the acting, and the directing, and so on and so forth, and those skills have neither risen nor sunk in 15 years. But at least one substantial area, in how it can be made to look, has improved a great deal.


O: And Jay Roach [Austin Powers] is directing it, right?

DA: That's right. He's a very interesting fellow. I've now spent quite a lot of time talking to him. The key to the whole thing, in many ways, was when I met Jay Roach, because I hit it off very well with him, and thought, "Here's a very bright, intelligent guy." Not only is he a bright, intelligent guy, but here's a measure of how bright and intelligent he is: He wants me to work very closely on his movie. Which is always something that endears a writer to a director. In fact, when I was making the original radio series, it was unheard of to do what I did. Because I'd just written it. But I kind of inserted myself in the whole production process. The producer/director was a little surprised by this, but in the end took it in very good grace. So, I had a huge amount to do with the way the program developed, and that's exactly what Jay wants me to do on this movie. So I felt, "Great, here's somebody I can do business with." Obviously, I'm saying that at the beginning of a process that's going to take two years. So who knows what's going to happen? All I can say is that at this point in the game, things are set as fair as they possibly could be. So I feel very optimistic and excited about that.


O: It's been nearly 20 years since the radio program, right?

DA: Well, it's almost exactly 20 years. It'll be 20 years next month.

O: What's the enduring appeal of Hitchhiker's Guide To The Galaxy?

DA: Well, I don't know. All I know is that I worked very hard at it, and I worried very much about it, and I think I made things very difficult for myself doing it. And if ever there was an easy way of doing something, I would find a much harder way to do it. And I suspect that the amount that people have found it is not unrelated to the amount of work I put into it. That's a simplistic thing to say, but it's the best I can come up with.


O: Is the idea that the movie will cover the first book?

DA: Yeah. It's funny, because I've been looking around the web at what people have been saying. I've seen, "He's going to put all five books into it." People just don't understand the way a book maps onto a movie. Somebody said, and I think quite accurately, that the best source material for a movie is a short story. Which effectively means, yes, it's going to be the first book. Having said that, whenever I sit down and do another version of Hitchhiker, it highly contradicts whichever version went before. The best thing I can say about the movie is that it will be specifically contradicting the first book.


O: Which version of Hitchhiker are you happiest with?

DA: Not the TV version, that's for sure. In different moods, I will feel either the radio or the book, which are the two other versions left, so it's got to be one of those, hasn't it? I feel differently about each of them. On the one hand, the radio series was where it originated; that's where it grew; that's where the seed grew. Also, that's where I felt that myself and the other people working on it—the producer and the sound engineers and so on, and, of course, the actors—all created something that really felt groundbreaking at the time. Or rather, it felt like we were completely mad at the time. I can remember sitting in the subterranean studio auditioning the sound of a whale hitting the ground at 300 miles an hour for hours on end, just trying to find ways of tweaking the sound. After hours of that, day after day, you do begin to doubt your sanity. Of course, you have no idea if anybody's going to listen to this stuff. But, you know, there was a real sense that nobody had done this before. And that was great; there's a great charge that comes with that. On the other hand, the appeal of the books to me is that that's just me. The great appeal of a book to any writer is that it is just them. That's it. There's nobody else involved. That's not quite true, of course, because the thing developed out of a radio series in the first place, and there is a sense in there of all the people who have contributed, in one way or another, to the radio show that it grew out of. But, nevertheless, there is a this-is-all-my-own-work feel about a book. And I'm pleased with the way it reads. I feel it flows nicely. It feels as if it were easy to write, and I know how difficult that was to achieve.


O: Do you ever get tired of Hitchhiker's Guide To The Galaxy?

DA: There was a period where I got heartily sick of it, and I really never wanted to hear anything more about it again, and I would almost scream at anybody who used the words to me. But since then, I went off and did other things. I did the Dirk Gently books. My favorite thing that I've ever done was a thing I did about 10 years ago: I went around the world with a zoologist friend of mine, and looked for various rare and endangered species of animals, and wrote a book about that called Last Chance To See, which is my own personal favorite. Hitchhiker now is something from the past that I feel very fond of; it was great, it was terrific, and it's being very good to me. I had a conversation a little while ago with Pete Townshend of The Who, and I think at that point I was saying, "Oh God, I hope I'm not just remembered as the person who wrote Hitchhiker's Guide To The Galaxy. And he kind of reprimanded me a little bit: He said, "Look, I have the same thing with Tommy, and for a while I thought like that. The thing is, when you've got something like that in your history, it opens an awful lot of doors. It allows you to do a lot of other things. People remember that. It's something one should be grateful for." And I thought that was quite right.


O: Have you put Dirk Gently aside?

DA: Well, I started to write another Dirk Gently book, and I just lost it. For some reason, I couldn't get it going, so I had to put it aside. I didn't know what to do with it. I looked at the material again about a year later, and suddenly thought: Actually, the reason is that the ideas and the character don't match. I've tried to go for the wrong kind of ideas, and these ideas would actually fit much better in a Hitchhiker book, but I don't want to write another Hitchhiker book at the moment. So I sort of put them on one side. And maybe one day I will write another Hitchhiker book, because there's an awful lot of material sitting 'round waiting to go in it. Another reason is that the last one, Mostly Harmless, is a very bleak book. People have tried to read all sorts of complicated reasons into it, and the reason was that I just had a lousy year. Just for all sorts of personal reasons, from a terrible death in the family to… Every kind of area, whether it was personal or professional, had just gone sour on me, against a background in which I had to write a funny book, which turned out not to be very funny. So I'd quite like to maybe do another Hitchhiker book that sort of perks up the tone again. But going back to Dirk Gently, I sort of put Dirk aside, really. There was a student production of Dirk Gently in Oxford two or three months ago, so I went along to see it. And it's an enormously complicated plot… Part of the complexity is there to disguise the fact that the plot doesn't really quite work… It was funny watching it on stage, because I suddenly began to think about it again, and think, "Well, they did this well, but what they should have done was this, and they should've done that." You know, it starts the whole ball rolling in your head. What was also interesting to me was that while I was sitting there being quite critical of the production, I was astonished by how much the audience was enjoying it. It was rather sort of a peculiar situation. I suddenly thought, "I would love to see this happen as a film, because I can now see, having thought about it freshly in this context, what kind of a movie it could be, and it could be great." So maybe, once the Hitchhiker movie has gotten to the stage where I can turn my attention to other things as well, that's what I'd like to do next. And hopefully, with that movie underway, I hope more doors will open as far as filmmaking is concerned. I would love to do movies, but this is a man saying this innocently who's never done one. [Laughs.]