Friday, 30 March 2012

Book to TV: Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency, Douglas Adams

Sherlock Holmes observed that once you have eliminated the impossible, then whatever remains, however improbable, must be the answer. I, however, do not like to eliminate the impossible.
Dirk Gently is a private detective with a difference: he takes the Quantum hypothesis that all things are interconnected, and applies it to his investigations. I'm probably thinking too deeply about this, but it seemed to be a comment on the rules of fiction. In a novel, there are no coincidences, and everything has a purpose in relation to the main plot. In Dirk Gently, we have a character within a fictional world who is aware of these rules, without actually acknowledging that he's in a novel. This makes for quite a surreal read, even without taking into account the other bizarre plot elements familiar to anyone who has read Douglas Adams' more famous Hitchhikers' Guide to the Galaxy books. Adams' matter-of-fact descriptsions -of strange, strange things: a horse apparating in the bathroom, a sofa lodged in an impossible position halfway up the stairs, and a time-travelling Cambridge don, mean that Dirk Genly could conceivably take place in the Hitchhikerverse, if only that hadn't been destroyed at the end of Mostly Harmless.


We don't actually get to meet the titular detective until some way into the first book, and until the sequel, Dirk isn't a viewpoint character. This role is filled in the most part by his old college friend Richard MacDuff, although admittedly Richard shares this position with an alien robot monk, a ghost, and the electric monk's horse (the one that materialised in the bathroom.) Just as in Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, much of the sciencey-technobabble goes straight over my head, leaving me somewhat discombobulated. Unlike Hitchhiker's, however, much of it comes back later, by which time it actually makes a little bit of sense. I found myself reminded a little of Doctor Who, which, I later discovered, was with good reason: the time-travelling Cambridge don was recycled from a disused Doctor Who script - written by Adams himself.

Dirk Gently has recently been adapted by the BBC for a three-part TV series, but although they share the same starting point - that is, Dirk Gently, his Holistic Detective Agency and his theory of the fundamental interconnectedness of everything, the stories have very little in common, and have a completely different tone and genre. It came across as a parody of Sherlock Holmes, especially with the modern adaptation Sherlock in the public consciousness, with more emphasis on the actual detecting than in the books, in which Dirk and all around him seem to be accidentally swept up into adventures. Richard MacDuff, here generally known by his surname, is now Gently's partner assistant  sidekick, and they are a team in the grand old tradition of Holmes and Watson, Poirot and Hastings, etc. My overall impression of this Dirk Gently was of a charlatan, a fraud who just makes everything up as he goes along, and through sheer audacity, turns out against all the odds to be right - although I found myself growing more convinced by his methods as the series went along.

Although the adaptations use elements of the books, they are generally only minor plot details with original stories built around them. Rather than being out-and-out science fiction, the BBC stories flip-flop over the genre line from surreal realism into fantasy, notably the episode dealing in robotic engineering. I'm not really qualified to comment on the advances in artificial intelligence, but I haven't yet heard of anything resembling the plot twist in episode 2 in real life!

I read Dirk Gently at the same time that the adaptation was being shown on TV, so have no pre-existing attachment to either version, which is probably for the best considering how different they are. They are best enjoyed with an acknowledgement that they are separate stories, separate 'verses - which is probably better suited to Douglas Adams than most authors, considering the many varied and contradictory Hitchhikers' Guide stories he created.

1 comment:

  1. I love Hitchhiker's Guide but have never these books. I think I would quite like to see the TV series though.

    ReplyDelete

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