For anyone who grew up on the works of Douglas Adams, any new incarnation of his wacky characters, any novel spin on his wild theories and any fresh interpretation of his uniquely quirky universe are always welcome.
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And the start of the new season of “Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency” (BBC America) provides this reviewer with a golden opportunity to prove that he’s still a hoopy frood who really knows where his towel is.
Adams was the creative genius behind “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy,” the BBC radio show that spawned – inter alia – a four-part trilogy of books, a television series, a computer game, a stage show and a thoroughly disappointing movie adaptation. Although he died in 2001, Adams has continued to provide inspiration and material for various platforms.
To mark the 30th anniversary of the original “Hitchhiker’s Guide” radio show, first aired in 1978, the BBC, along with Adams’ estate, commissioned a reboot of the series, which included previously unpublished writing and fresh material from some of the best British comedy writers. And last week, the BBC announced that it has commissioned a six-part reboot of the series for radio, which will star some of the original cast, to be aired sometime next year, 40 years after the original.
Adams’ influence on popular culture is almost unparalleled. So popular are his books that many of his characters and lines have seeped into our cultural subconscious: Marvin the Paranoid Android’s plaintiff moaning about life; the ultimate answer to life, the universe and everything (it’s 42, in case you were wondering); and the Pan Galactic Gargle Blaster (the most potent alcoholic drink in the known universe, the effects of which are like “having your brains smashed in by a slice of lemon wrapped round a large gold brick”) are just some of the “Hitchhiker” references that even people who have never read the books are familiar with.
Among Adams’ lesser known characters is Dirk Gently, the owner and sole employee of an eponymous holistic detective agency. Like so many of his creations, Gently is an amalgam of serious philosophical debate, absurd but scientifically possible theories and plotlines that stretch the bounds of credulity.
Gently’s modus operandi relies on “the fundamental interconnectedness of all things,” which he uses to tackle the “whole crime.” He allows himself to wander – childlike – across the storyboard, untethered by time, place or space and picking up seemingly random pieces of information, which in the end prove to be the key to solving the mystery at hand.
Gently is Sherlock Holmes on acid: his attention span is vexingly short; his thought process goes off on tangents that exacerbate his cohorts; and he has no patience for anyone who can’t keep up with his lightning mind.
In 2010, there was an aborted attempt to bring Dirk Gently to the small screen. Howard Overman, who penned the award-winning British TV show “Misfits,” was tasked with rewriting it for television. His series used the characters invented by Adams, but the original plot was ditched in favor of something that could be crammed into the relatively restricting confines of a four-part television show.
Relocated to America
Then, in 2016, Max Landis – son of Hollywood superstar John Landis (“The Blues Brothers” and “Trading Places,” to name just two) – was commissioned by BBC America to be showrunner for another attempt to adapt the character for television.
Landis managed to get Elijah Wood on board, playing the role of Gently’s unwilling sidekick. Since shooting to fame as Frodo Baggins in Peter Jackson’s epic adaptation of “The Lord of the Rings,” Wood has made some interesting career choices. He has eschewed big Hollywood productions and has opted, instead, to star in some offbeat productions (FX’s “Wilfred,” especially, stands out).
The title character in Landis’ adaptation is played by Samuel Barnett, a relatively unknown British actor who has appeared in several BBC shows but is best known for his work in theater.
Like the previous television incarnation of Dirk Gently, Landis, too, does not try to retell the original story. Instead, he relocates the show to America and introduces several new characters. This gives him the freedom – within the boundaries of Adams’ crazy world – to give his creation a voice of its own, without losing the very distinctive humor of the original.
For the most part, he succeeds. Television Dirk is as frantic and as manic as his literary counterpart, rushing with abandon from scene to scene, relying on fate to rescue him and generally allowing the universe to guide him. In this respect, he embodies the hippie heroes of books by Tom Robbins, the mysticism of Carlos Castaneda and the teachings of Kurt Vonnegut’s Bokonon (“Peculiar travel suggestions are dancing lessons from God”).
Obviously, there are things that no TV adaptation can do as well as the written word. Adams was sublimely skilled at slightly skewing a turn of phrase and turning it into something else entirely – something wonderfully alien and at the same time comfortingly familiar. Similarly, the frenetic plot of the books can often lead to confusion on the small screen, where viewers do not have the luxury of flipping back a few chapters to remind themselves of details they may have missed.
All in all, however, this new adaptation of “Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency” is a delight for Douglas Adams fans. According to one biographer, Adams always regretted that Dirk did not become a successful television character. In Landis’ adaptation, the plot may differ, but the character of Dirk lives on.