The plot of the Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency TV series is very different from the books.
Douglas Adams holds a special place in the hearts of science fiction fans. His Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy series, with its human warmth, surreal humor, and epic scope, was like nothing that had come before. Thousands of fans still carry a towel in his memory.
Adams’s two completed and one uncompleted Dirk Gently books take his strange sense of humor even further. Unlike The Hitchhiker’s Guide, they came into existence purely in book form and stayed that way for years. So when BBC America and Netflix decided to adapt Dirk Gently for TV, one thing was on every fan’s mind – how would the show compare with the beloved books?
Not Going All American
The change that leaps out at viewers from the start is that the story has gone American. It’s hardly surprising – this is where showrunner Max Landis lives and works. It’s also the largest market for English-speaking TV. Appealing to an American audience was always going to be important.
But Landis has avoided making Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency all American. Dirk is still British, at times almost obnoxiously so. He’s the sort of weird and well-spoken Brit who reinforces every expectation about Britain, even while creating plenty of surprises.
This is one of the show’s strengths. For the most part, this feels like the Dirk we read about in the books. Sure, steady whimsy has been replaced by a childlike hyperactivity. And sure, he looks a lot more dapper than in most readers’ minds – Stephen Mangan, who played him in a previous short-lived series, had more of the disheveled English eccentric to him. But Dirk’s fundamental nature, his oddness, self-certainty, and willingness to intrude into other people’s lives, all of that remains.
A Fractured Plot
The plot of the Dirk Gently TV show is very different from the books. There are new characters, both friendly and villainous. The case is different. The outcome is different. Yet there’s something very familiar about it all.
Part of that is the way that the story unfolds. It’s a fractured narrative, in which initially disconnected and apparently incoherent strands weave together into something engaging. This is driven by time travel, the same thing that lay at the heart of Adams’s first Dirk Gently book. The way it plays out, with time journeys late on explaining and setting up events earlier, is in keeping with Adams’s work.
There are also familiar details. A missing cat. A dead businessman. A vast inheritance. Impossible events. Dirk turning the lives of previously ordinary people into incoherent messes.
All of that will appeal to fans of the original.
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While much in the tone of the show matches the book, there are parts that feel very different. They’re parts that make Dirk’s story bigger in scope. They seem designed to match the expectations of a modern American TV show.
Dirk’s psychic powers are a feature of the original books. His ability to know the unknowable and make huge logical jumps is what allows him to solve cases. These powers aren’t explored or explained – they’re just there.
The same goes for Dirk himself and the adventures he gets into. None of it is part of any wider web. He’s just an oddball who runs into oddball situations and follows them through.
Modern genre TV thrives on something very different. It thrives on the big arc with big mysteries and big stakes. Will the Battlestar Galactica reach Earth? Why are the cast of Lost on the island? Who will end up as king of Westeros?
In keeping with this, we find out that Dirk is part of something bigger. A covert part of the American government has created psychics. Years later, they’re hunting them down.
These elements get used to Adams-ish effect, allowing for even more weird characters and events. All the details seem very fitting for a Dirk Gently show. Yet the broader tone of this strand, the dip into conspiracy drama and world-shaping stakes, will feel out of place to fans of the books.
Changing Dirk Gently
Whether you treat this as a criticism is a matter of taste. It doesn’t detract from the weird humor of the show or of Dirk’s character, but it does cast it all in a different light.
The Dirk we see most of the time, both in the books and on TV, is externally focused. The nature of his abilities and how they fit into the world aren’t important. He’s not looking for the truth about himself and neither are the audience. He’s just an English eccentric.
Making him part of something bigger changes that. Now Dirk is an experiment, part of a conspiracy gone rogue. The existence of other psychics, such as a holistic assassin, encourages both the audience and the character are to think about the who and why of Dirk Gently. His powers aren’t just a MacGuffin any more.
They’re a plot point.
This adds up to something that, for better or for worse, strives toward a sense of scope and of coherence that Adams wasn’t interested in.
Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency – Just as Surreal but a Little Less Whimsical
The end result is something slightly askew from the original.
It’s just as surreal. Sure, there are no robot monks or demons hiding behind atoms. But a psychic assassin, a kitten-shark, a steampunk battle suit, and a cult of soft-spoken killers make up for that. If it made sense from the start, this wouldn’t be Dirk Gently.
The flavor of this oddness and of the story is different, though. It’s less gently whimsical, despite a couple of nods in that direction early on. The softly ambling strangeness of Douglas Adams has been replaced by the aggressively wacked out stylings of Max Landis. Fittingly for a story that started in the brain of a Doctor Who writer, this is like the slick excitement of New Who compared with the lovable creakiness of the original.
All in all, the show is as true to the books as it could be while appealing to a wider audience. That attempt to widen the net might annoy some fans, but it will also help to keep the show alive, as shown by the commitment to a second season.
It’s not a perfect tonal match – Howard Overman’s adaptation with Mangan as Dirk was closer. But unlike that version, this has got past three episodes.
And who knows, maybe it’ll introduce some people to the books too. After all, it’s all connected…
Featured Image: courtesy of BBC America / Netflix