Monday 11 March 2024

Is Douglas Adams overrated?

Douglas Adams - of The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy fame -  would have been 72 today, if he had not died in 2001. 

Is he overrated? Yes - in the sense that he is regarded by many people as one of the great comic writers

My evaluation is that Adams was only great in Hitchhikers Guide, all his other work being second-rate (or worse) - therefore he is essentially a one-hit-wonder, rather than "great". 

Furthermore; it is only the first and second BBC radio series of Hitchhiker's Guide broadcast 1978-80) that were truly, unsurpassably, great - and all other versions and variations of HHGG are significantly worse. 

Yet, Adams cannot take all the credit for the greatness of the radio HHGG. 

It is instead a masterly collaboration; in which actor Peter Jones (as The Book) is vital; and so are the BBC Radiophonic Workshop; and - in general - the producers and directors responsible for creating the "soundscape" which was marvelous and unlike anything else. 

Of course Adams's radio scripts are absolutely superb. I tuned into Episode Five of Series One, Sunday 5th April 1978, shortly after the programme had started. And, knowing nothing whatsoever about what I was listening to - I was immediately stunned by the sheer brilliance and originality, and captivated by the world Adams had created. 

So I do not under-rate Douglas Adams - far from it!

But The LP recording (which I bought in 1979) was somewhat less good than the radio version; the novelizations (beginning from 1979) were nothing like as good as the radio; the 1981 BBC TV show was worse than any of the above... and so forth. 

After the arc of the radio series one and two had finished in 1980,  Adams's work described a progressively downward trajectory in quality. The later books were almost embarrassingly thin on ideas - it felt like the authors was squeezing harder and harder, to extract ever-fewer drops of inspiration out of ever-staler old ideas.   

We ought to judge artists by their best work. As such, Adams best work was his earliest radio work, and he maintained that level for two years, that is six hours of radio. 

Having experienced his best work before reading the novelizations; my evaluation of Adams as a writer of books was that he was always less than first-rate. 

Therefore, insofar as Douglas Adams's books are regarded as first-rate - he is indeed overrated.  


Wm Jas Tychonievich said...

I know only the books, which I found uneven.

You mention finding the LP disappointing. I would have assumed it would just be a recording of the radio broadcasts, but I guess not.

Lucas said...

I'm interested to know who you consider first rate as a comedic writer. I've only read his books, and I agree the first one is much better. Maybe I'll track down the radio show.
For a long time I thought the BBC was only a bunch of people with accents who didn't understand America, it's only in the last few years starting with the Hollow Crown that I became aware that they did more than news.

Ron Tomlinson said...

I enjoyed the Dirk Gently books, though they are dark at times, but I suppose so is HHGTTG if you take it seriously enough. I'm surprised you prefer the first few BBC radio shows to the subsequent LP double album. I thought the latter was better and for reasons you mention i.e. more rounds of editing and external creative input. Perhaps I'm biased because I did encounter the LP first.

This talk, composed of extracts from his own favourite work, is fun:

Although he was an atheist, and his works gently promote atheism, I think he was far from being a spiritual atheist (a distinction I got from William Wildblood; would love to hear more about this concept). He never 'took the ticket' as Vox Day would say. My evidence for this is that he struggled and failed to get the Hitchhikers movie made before he died. Also his 'environmental' work was not focused on abtractions but upon love for specific animal species.

Sasha Melnik said...

I love the start. The parallel start between the bypass destroying Arthur's house and the hyperspace bypass set to destroy earth is perhaps my favourite start to any story. I always enjoy that 'small to large parallel' applied to story telling, because it is a true thing and one of the ways intuition 'gets through'.

Tempted to compare him to Pratchett and others. I shouldn't.

The Radiophonic Workshop, now might have been underrated!

Bruce Charlton said...

@WmJas " I would have assumed it would just be a recording of the radio broadcasts, but I guess not."

They were re-recorded, and slightly edited, and are not as good.

Bruce Charlton said...

@Lucas - Jerome K Jerome, PG Wodehouse, HF Ellis, Terry Pratchett.

It is hard to be funny in quantity, over a long time - I can only think of Wodehouse and Pratchett who wrote A Lot - Jerome and Ellis were only really good in a few books each.

Many of the very best comic novels are one off for their authors: e.g. Diary of a Nobody, Lucky Jim. Michael Frayn managed two - Towards the end of the morning, and The tin men.

Of course, these evaluations represent what I personally regard as funny, and first rate!

What is strange about Adams is that none of his books are first rate - so he should really be judged as an audio scriptwriter - of which I don't know many who are first rate; but another to add to HHGG is John Finnemore with his Cabin Pressure series. These are as good as Fawlty Towers, but for radio.

Bruce Charlton said...

@Ron - I find the Dirk Gently books to be mediocre and faintly embarrassing.

As for Adams as a person - I daresay he was amusing company, but I find him much too "showbiz" for my taste, and rather shallow.

Michael Dyer said...

Regarding Terry Pratchett the man was also incredibly knowledgeable about so much. Small gods was basically an alternate universe biography of Thomas Aquinas, and there were countless little details in all his books that referenced obscure history, science, etc. His intellect was prodigious and in many, though sadly not all, ways, he showed a mind independent of what became mainstream modern English thought.

WJT said...

I read the first Dirk Gently after it was hyped by Richard Dawkins as the best book he had ever read, but I, too, found it mediocre.

Agree that Wodehouse is a first-rate comic writer. Stephen Leacock at his best is another.

Bruce Charlton said...

@Michael - Pratchett had great fluency of invention, and an abundance of clever and funny ideas that seemed inexhaustible (lasting for about twenty years - until he developed dementia) and this rather puts Adams into the shade.

@WJT - I felt much the same. The Dirk Gently books were given extreme hyping, and were a distinct disappointment to me. I had hoped that a new theme might revitalize his imagination, but no.

I wonder if it was a problem that Adams was a professional writer from very early in life and rapidly became showbiz. He didn't have much to wrote "about".

In contrast; Pratchett had worked at proper jobs (newspaper reporter, journalism, and PR; and also practiced "self-sufficiency" in rural Somerset) until he was nearly forty.

Crosbie said...

I've only read the first h2g2 books in adult life (I read a lot more in my youth). They held up; until then I had assumed they were adolescent humor. In recent months I have been wondering if they, and *they alone*, address a central crisis in modernity, the distance of almost all of us from the social center. The setting of *the entire galaxy* was a great way to set this up, showing us a world even more vast and more alienating than our own. And all his best gags played on that theme, starting with the parallel of the destruction of our entire planet with the destruction of a home.

Ron Tomlinson said...

I listened to an episode of Cabin Pressure last night. Very good!

I guess I wasn't demanding too much by way of comedy from Adams's books. I was content to enjoy comic set pieces such as this one quoted on VD's blog from DG1:

>The bathroom was not large. The walls were panelled in old oak linenfold which, given the age and nature of the building, was quite probably priceless, but otherwise the fittings were stark and institutional. There was old, scuffed, black-and-white checked linoleum on the floor, a small basic bath, well cleaned but with very elderly stains and chips in the enamel, and also a small basic basin with a toothbrush and toothpaste in a Duralex beaker standing next to the taps. Screwed into the probably priceless panelling above the basin was a tin mirror-fronted bathroom cabinet. It looked as if it had been repainted many times, and the mirror was stained round the edges with condensation. The lavatory had an old-fashioned cast-iron chain-pull cistern. There was an old cream-painted wooden cupboard standing in the corner, with an old brown bentwood chair next to it, on which lay some neatly folded but threadbare small towels. There was also a large horse in the room, taking up most of it.

Or there's the scene in DG2 where Thor is queueing at the check-in desk and it is revealed in stages that he doesn't possess a ticket, a credit card or even a passport.

Importantly these are integrated with science fictional or other ideas of reach which is splendid but I imagine made exponentially harder to create a satisyingly neat whole such as you would expect in a P G Wodehouse. Also hard to keep cranking out such ideas.

Perhaps one shouldn't judge *individual* works by their best bits, however I'm more of a bottom-up than a top-down reader and usually only get the plot after multiple readings.

Thinking about it, though, we often do love works for the best bits. I'm thinking of Rachmaninov where much of the work is composed of curious but relatively dull filler elements which turn out to form a platform from which a rare but unforgettable melody emerges. Or Red Dwarf where the human ethos is dismal and cynical but out of it comes 'Dimension Jump'.