Friday, 17 December 2010

Dirk Gently (and not his holistic detective agency)

Last night Sencan and I watched the BBC 4 adaptation of Douglas Adams' 'Dirk Gently's Detective Agency'. This book has a very different tone to Douglas's Adam famous work, the Hitch Hikers Guide to the Galaxy, yet is very popular amongst fans. If you have not read the book and want to know the true genius of Adams' work, then read the plot synopsis at the Wiki link above. Only Adams could link time travel, Coleridge, the Big Bang and saving the entire Human race from extinction.

We saw the adaptation immediately after seeing 'The voyage of the Dawn Treader' at the cinema, making it truly a voyage back into my childhood and teenage years. Both are wonderful if flawed books, with concepts that at times stretch the mind.

The protagonist is Dirk Gently, a university drop-out who now works as a detective. Instead of looking for clues like other detectives, Gently collects seemingly random events and determines the connections between them, solving cases by forming conclusions that are as impossible as they are correct. This central concept of the book - the fundamental interconnectedness of all things - is thankfully at the core of the adaptation.

The book's Dirk Gently is an impossibly eccentric character. The Green Wing's Stephen Mangan played Gently with a certain panache, and it is hard to think of an actor who could have done a better job. It was a solid piece of comic acting.

Yet fans of the book would find significant problems with the adaptation. Dirk Gently's right-hand man, Richard MacDuff, is portrayed as an unemployed layabout, whilst in the book he is a well-paid, highly competent software engineer. You can imagine why I believe that this is a retrograde step. TV seems to think that all software engineers are geeks, and therefore treats them as comedy items.This is doubly tragic as Adams was a well-known techno-head, and it was obvious in the book that he favoured the MacDuff character.

It would have been impossible to condense all the concepts in the book into a one-hour TV program. It would make a great two-hour film, but this adaptation felt more than a little rushed. In particular, some of the most important plot threads were missing. It did not feature a major character called the electric monk (aside from a fleeting mention on a whiteboard). This was a particular shame, as the monk was one of Adams' better creations.

Many other beloved features from the book were missing. For instance, Dirk Gently's hat and the sofa stuck on a stairwell. The references to Schrodinger's cat in the adaptation appears to have been stuffed in, and had none of the plot importance that it had in the book.

It was also clear that the adaptation suffered from a low budget. This was most obvious during a scene where a warehouse blew up - the CGI of the actors leaping out of the way was farcically poor, similar to countless amateur scenes on YouTube. Likewise, some of the sets were noticeably of low quality.

The humour helped take my mind off these flaws. There were many truly comedic moments; for instance when Dirk Gently develops a twinge in his shoulder and goes to see MacDuff's girlfriend (ably played by Helen Baxendale). These laughs had more to do with Mangan's acting than the squeezed plot or writing.

This adaptation will have fans disappointed and everyone else utterly confused. Unfortunately the magic of the books was somewhat lost as the plot was squeezed and malformed into the TV format. But perhaps that is for the best, as Adams' original plot was convoluted to say the least. The resultant simplification of the plot may just have made it accessible to the general public.

It felt like a pilot; a program that desperately wanted to be part of a series. If so, then I can only hope that we see more of Dirk Gently sometime soon. And please, please include the electric monk...

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