Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency & The Challenges of Adapting Douglas Adams

"What I wanted to do is adapt that tone, to try to do a Douglas Adams TV show rather than a direct Dirk Gently TV show."

BBC America’s adaptation of Douglas Adam’s Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agencyhits the airwaves this Saturday (Oct. 22nd), the second attempt at a Dirk GentlyTV show this decade (BBC Four adapted the comedic detective series in 2010.)

We had a chance to sit down with the cast and creators of the one-of-a-kind show at New York Comic Con to talk about the challenges of adapting an Adams series to the screen — an exercise many have tried and failed before. What makes this Dirk Gentlydifferent? Here’s what creator Max Landis (Chronicle, American Ultra)had to say…

“Douglas Adams books are not adaptable because Douglas Adams is the main character of every Douglas Adams book,” said Landis, who first read a Dirk Gentlybook at the tender age of 12, while at summer camp. Landis continued:

The way you’re told the story is more interesting than the story itself. You can list the things that happen in Hitchhiker’s on one hand in the first book. Five things happen in that entire book. The rest is tangents and meanderings. The same could be said of the Dirk Gently books. What I wanted to do is adapt that tone, to try to do a Douglas Adams TV show rather than a direct Dirk Gently TV show. It’s more of a tribute album than a direct cover.

This is an easy enough insight into Douglas Adams adaptations to make, but how does one solve this adaptation problem? Landis outlined his strategy, saying:

Ad – content continues below

You treat character as the center of the show. Convolute plot to the point that it engages, but almost alienates so that you’re never necessarily waiting to see what the next thing that happens is so much as waiting to see what the characters will do next and what situations they’ll be in moreso than you be pulled along by the plot, like on a show, like Battlestar [Galactica] or even like a True Detective … ‘Who killed Laura Palmer?’ is not a central figure of this show. It’s more the people and what they do.

Speaking about the 2010 BBC Four Dirk Gentlyadaptation, Landis said: “For all of its positive features, it’s not Dirk Gently. It’s a quirky detective show. Dirk Gently books are not detective books.”

Dirk Gentlyis executive produced by Arvind Ethan David, who brought Landis onto the project. David not only worked with Adams himself, but has been a huge Dirk Gentlyfan for decades. He even wrote and starred in his own adaptation of the novels when he was in high school. In speaking about David’s pitch for the show, Landis said: “He came back to me and said, ‘Hey, I’m trying to do this for TV.’ And I said, ‘Didn’t they just do that for TV?’ And he said, ‘Yeah, but I want to do the real version. I want to do the crazy version.’”

We also had a chance to speak with the man who will be bringing Dirk to life on screen: actor Sam Barnett. Echoing Landis’ thoughts on Douglas Adams adaptations, Barnett said:

I think Max has rather cleverly thought that you can’t really adapt Douglas Adams. So much of his brilliance lies in his observations of the world and his observations of character and the tone in which he writes. I mean how do you adapt tone? So he’s taken the essence, certainly, of Dirk and and of the world in which Dirk exists — and indeed, as fans of the books will notice, there are loads and loads of little things that Max has taken from the books and incorporated into the show — and I feel he’s really kept the essence and the spirit of the books, and especially of Dirk.

Douglas wrote a speech, I think in the first book, about the way Dirk works. And Dirk says, ‘I believe in the interconnectedness of all things.’ And that’s taken word for word and put in the script.

Aside from the eponymous Dirk Gently, the new show doesn’t have any of the other characters from the books, though Landis said “some of them might show up later.” Instead, Landis and executive producer Robert Cooper focused on translating the tone and making the characters relatable. Cooper said of their strategy: “I think you want to surprise people with the absurd, you know? You want to constantly keep them on their toes and say: This is not what I expected.” He added:

I think one of the challenges of doing something that lives in the world of the absurd, like Douglas Adams’ work, is that you have to still make it very relatable. You have to still stay in the story and not sort of get launched off the planet. And that was one thing we really focused on was making sure that you still cared from beginning to end of the show … 

I think Max has done a really excellent job of making [Dirk] relatable. He’s one of those characters who we knew, when we were casting it, it’s gonna be difficult because he comes off as a very sort of different individual and sometimes annoying, but we wanted someone who we would still understand. One of the tenets of creating great characters is creating pathos and understanding in that person. Who are they? Why are they behaving that way? Even a homicidal maniac. And both Max’s writing and Sam’s performance bring that to the Dirk Gently character in spades.

Intrigued? Check out the NYCC trailer for Dirk Gentlyand be sure to tune in to BBC America this Saturday, October 22nd at 9 p.m. ET…