Blightyvision: “Dirk Gently”

Directed by Damon Thomas
Written by Howard Overman
Based on the novel Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency by Douglas Adams
Starring Stephen Mangan, Darren Boyd, and Helen Baxendale

When I was a teenage Kara, I got my hands on two non-Hitchhiker’s Guide-continuity novels by Mr. Douglas Adams: Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective and its sequel, The Long Dark Tea-Time of the Soul. When I was a freshman in college, I was introduced to Doctor Who partially via the fact that a good chunk of the first of the two books was based on Adams’s unaired Fourth Doctor story “Shada.”  As you’ve probably guessed, the Dirk Gently novels were a major factor in my introduction to fandom as a whole.  So when I heard very recently indeed that a TV adaptation was on the way, I began to quake in my little fangirl boots more than I did even when I heard Ron Howard was put in charge of The Dark Tower.

Then I heard it was coming out the following week.

Then I saw that it was only an hour long.

And I knew that I had about seven seconds to completely readjust my expectations.

To call “Dirk Gently” an adaptation is exceptionally misleading and very unfair.  The original novel is more than 300 pages long and busts genres the way I bust Amazon gift certificates: part humor, part noir detective story, part sci-fi, and a big chunk of wibbly-wobbly timey-wimey.  The cast includes a Time Lord (but we can’t call him that), an electric monk, and Samuel Taylor Coleridge, just to name a few.  The plot follows simultaneously our title character, an old professor, a ghost, and the aforementioned monk.  And the whole thing ends with an epic move to save the universe.

The TV version … does not.

To put it simply, “Dirk Gently” takes the book, removes all things “Shada,” and knits together the rest as best it can.  Our “hero” (played by Mangan) is a detective whose methods tap into a belief in the interconnectedness of all things.  When we first see him, he’s been hired to help a sweet little old lady find her cat, but ends up getting embroiled in the exploits of his old college friend Richard MacDuff (Boyd, who also starred with Mangan in “Green Wing”).  This leads to a parallel investigation into the disappearance of millionaire Gordon Way, who had previous ties to Richard’s girlfriend Susan.  (In the original novel, Gordon and Susan were siblings, but never mind.)  Both disappearances appear to be tied together in some odd way, leading Dirk down a convoluted path that eventually leads to the discovery of the whereabouts of both missing persons — er, person and cat.

Compared to the book, this plot is exceedingly simplified.  There are whole characters missing, whole pieces of plot missing, and this results in the ending — and the beginning and middle — being vastly different.  A lot of the scenes and sequences that fans of the book love are gone without a trace and the holes left behind are covered over with new material.  As a definitive adaptation it’s rubbish, its plot 90% untrue to the book and its content severely lacking.

That said, I liked it.

Yes, you heard me.   I just said they made an almost entirely unfaithful adaptation of a book I hold dear and I still liked it.  Because while it wasn’t true to the book, it was still true to aspects of it.  There were a lot of familiar sequences and elements — several scenes and conversations are lifted almost verbatim from the book, but repurposed within the reduced plot.  A lot of settings, particularly Dirk’s office, were very similar to the treatment my mind’s eye gave them half my lifetime ago.  And Mangan plays Dirk as deeply unlikable, irritating, and completely irredeemable … which is to say, he plays him accurately, and I do wish I could have seen more of him in the role.

Now, had they announced this project two years ago with a big-name cast and big budget, I would not be nearly this forgiving.  But this is a little hour-long do with middling names, filming commenced last October, and it coasted so far under the radar that, even only seeing the trailer a week out, I was still one of the first to hear about it.  Visual effects were incredibly limited (the biggest deal is an explosion), as were filming locations.

If anything, this was a character vehicle — a chance to get Dirk Gently on the screen in some form after 23 years of no such luck.  In that, it succeeds.  In giving the fans something to nostalge* about, it would work if said fans weren’t so busy raging and saying Douglas Adams must be spinning in his grave right now.  Personally, the way I see it is this: if I were tasked with printing a new edition of the original novel, I would slip a minidisc of this into an envelope on the inside back cover as a bonus.  It’s not a definitive adaptation; it’s just a little bit of fun — and while I will continue to wish they could do a full film treatment, this’ll do for now.  The sad thing is that fans will be too wound up about how it’s not Dirk Gently to notice that, at its most fundamental, it really is.

“Dirk Gently” is currently being re-run on BBC4, and may see a R2 DVD release sometime next year.  DNA fans, I’ve left tar and feathers over in the corner for you to save time.

* I’m an English major so it’s a word.