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'Dirk Gently' Season One Violates the Spirit of Its Source Material

Brad Cook
Dirk and Todd in one of the series' weird setpieces.

Douglas Adams' Dirk Gently books were popular with fans, but this new BBC series strays too far from the spirit of the material to be considered a true adaptation.

Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency

Distributor: BBC
Cast: Samuel Barnett, Elijah Wood, Hannah Marks
TV show: Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency
Network: BBC and Netflix
US release date: 2017-01-24

The number one rule of any adaptation is, no matter what else changes, the adaptor stay true to at least the spirit of the source material. Unfortunately, in the case of Max Landis's BBC adaptation of Douglas Adams' Dirk Gently novels, that maxim was not followed.

Adams was well-known for his The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy series of books, but many of his fans have also appreciated the way his quirky British humor was on display in Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency and its follow-up, Long Dark Tea Time of the Soul. The novels followed the adventures of the hapless title character, who bumbled his way to solutions to mysteries by relying on his belief in "the fundamental interconnectedness of all things".

If that sounds like a geek joke, that’s because it is. Gently claimed to follow the principles of quantum mechanics as he grabbed the thread of a case and watched it unravel, confident that random chance would produce the desired result. Adams enjoyed jokes with a scientific and/or mathematic bent, so anyone who at least had a layman's understanding of such subjects typically enjoyed going along for the ride through his chaotic stories.

This is actually Gently's second trip to the small screen. The first one, which ran from 2010 to 2012, was much closer in tone to Adams’ books and used elements of their plots in the stories. As series creator Howard Overman has explained, it's nearly impossible to produce a faithful adaptation of the novels, simply because Adams told the stories in a fragmented way, with the plot jumping back and forth through time. Without the ability to rely on Adams' narration, a pure adaptation would be a bit of a mess.

That being said, the new version of Gently bears little in common with the source material, to the extent that Landis seemed to have bought the rights just so he could rely on Adams' built-in audience. It moves the action from the UK to Los Angeles -- although Gently is still British, played in this version by Samuel Barnett -- and the supporting cast is full of new characters, led by Todd, played by a wide-eyed Elijah Wood. The action is also bloodier and nastier than anything Adams dreamed of. People may have died in Adams' Gently books, but they were deaths of the PG-rated variety; this new series opens with a hotel room full of dead people, some of whom have been dismembered.

That scene sets the stage for Gently to cross paths with Todd, who works in the hotel and is a "person of interest", as they say, to the police. Todd soon finds himself pulled along on Gently's adventures, with interweaving plots that involve a murdered businessman and his missing daughter, a runaway corgi, a mysterious man obsessed with power and the owner of said corgi, a gang of toughs in a van, a pair of detectives who are investigating the hotel room murders, and two government agents who are tracking Gently.

The holistic detective is also the target of a holistic assassin who's his female counterpoint; where he believes the interconnectedness of things will lead him to a solution to the mystery, she believes it will bring her into his path so she can kill him.

This first season of Dirk Gently is eight episodes, but even with that much narrative space, the number of dueling plots makes Game of Thrones feel simple. While Adams was known for sprinkling multiple subplots through his books, even he wasn't that convoluted in his storytelling. With the exception of Gently, whose demeanor is very similar to his print counterpart, none of the characters feel like they belong in a work bearing Adams' name.

If Gently's name was changed, and he and the holistic assassin said they were relying on blind luck to achieve their goals, Landis and the BBC probably wouldn't have needed to get the rights to Adams’ books. Instead, Landis seems to be going for a Dirk Gently that combines the violence of The Walking Dead with the oddball stories of Twin Peaks; interesting, but not in the spirit of the original.

Unfortunately, there are no bonus features in this two-disc Blu-ray release, which is a shame. It would have been illuminating to hear about the development process for the series.


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