The new BBC America and Netflix adaptation of Douglas Adams’ Dirk Gently books became available on UK Netflix this week. The books follow the surreal adventures of Dirk, a private detective who believes in the interconnectedness of all things. In Dirk’s world, murder cases aren’t solved by deduction, they’re solved by finding lost cats and discovering the secret behind eccentric professors’ magic tricks.
As with all adaptations, I was wary. Will it be good, or will it shit all over a beloved character and irreparably soil him for me? I was, however, quietly optimistic when I saw that the trailer featured Elijah Wood. Although to many he’ll always be Frodo Baggins, his acting CV makes him a perfect fit for Dirk Gently. He plays an excellent straight man in the psychological sitcom Wilfred, and his low-key strangeness in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind makes him an obvious choice as Dirk’s reluctant assistant.
Comparisons with the BBC’s 2010 adaptation are inevitable. Both are charming and faithful to the original in their own ways. Stephen Mangan’s Dirk (2010) had more of the con-artist /scoundrel elements that the books had, whereas Samuel Barnett’s (Posner in History Boys) Dirk has more of an otherness and naivety which makes him a compelling and sympathetic figure. While the Mangan version is narratively more faithful to the books, both versions accurately capture the anarchic spirit of them, which is what makes them both a joy to watch. The well-intentioned but poorly received Hitchhikers Guide movie proved just how difficult it can be to preserve Adam’s unique tone, which makes writer Max Landis’s achievement here even more impressive.
The words ‘American adaptation’ can be enough to send British comedy fans into convulsions. For every The American Office, there are at least ten attempts to recreate The IT Crowd frame-by-frame with a charmless American cast. In this case, America is the perfect setting. Douglas Adams was clearly influenced by the zaniness of America and, as a country of hyperbole, where could be better for Adams’ brand of ADD python-esque strangeness?
The structure and style are reminiscent of other BBC / BBC America programs. The intertwining storylines, sci-fi sheen, and regular laugh-out-loud moments, combined with the warmth and heart of the show, are kind of like Matt Smith’s Doctor has been let loose in the world of Orphan Black. This is far from coincidence, as the first Dirk Gently book started out life as a Doctor Who episode which was never completed. The Orphan Black style structuring of the series gives it enough internal logic to maintain suspense across eight episodes, but without losing the improvisational style of the source material. It also effectively sets the show up for a second series, which was commissioned by BBC America in November.
Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency is both fun and funny, smart, silly, and gripping. It’s sure to gain a huge cult following.
Fun fact: Back when I wrote my first ever blog at the age of about 16, I wrote about the BBC’s 2010 adaptation. Some algorithm on the BBC site picked up my blog post and for a short while I seemed to be the online expert on Dirk Gently TV adaptations. Strange.
You can read that here: https://mattsipod.wordpress.com/2011/05/20/dirk-gently-tv-adaptation/