Netflix has been pretty good in supplying binge watching material for the winter months this year (Trollhunters, The OA, Travelers) , and one of the shows we feel you’ll be bulk viewing over the festive period is Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency, adapted (very, very, very loosely) from the Douglas Adam’s novels. (Read our review of the show here.)
Late great master of sci-fi comedy Douglas Adams has a special place in the hearts of many genre lovers. His wit and sharply observed humour has been frequently imitated and very, very rarely matched. This includes adaptations of his own stuff; every time one of Adam’s works has been translated to another type of media, it has been quite different from the original.
Controversy magnet Max Landis is latest person to attempt to adapt Adams’s work into something different. (The BBC had a solid go at it in 2010). This new series is remarkable in the sense that is so different from the novels in many ways, yet somehow still maintains the manic energy that made us all fall in love with the books in the first place. Let’s take a look at the differences.
1 Dirk looks different
Adams’s protagonist is a sleazy, distinctly unfit and overweight chap in a shabby brown suit. Completing the nightmare are badly matching clothes, a red hat, thick-rimmed glasses and a long leather trench coat. Or to put it another way, a worrying hybrid between an English teacher and Doctor Who. Netflix cast the distinctly slim and rather handsome Samuel Barnett in the role. He rocks a yellow Super Sportsman leather jacket, a dapper tie and an inexplicably well-ironed shirt. Both characters have English accents, though.
2 New Case, New Country
The Dirk Gently novels are set in the UK (mostly). The Netflix series is set in the US with a US cast. This makes the whole story feel epic, especially if you gorge yourself on the entire thing is one sitting.
3 The TV show is a road movie
In the grand tradition of strange American tales, much of the action takes place on the road. No dreaming spires, no crowded London roads or cycling Oxford students. Seems like a subtle change, but it makes the whole thing feel very different.
4 It’s still a little Doctor Who in places
Adams was a Doctor Who script editor in the late ’70s, and the books reflect this. The new casting and relocation of Dirk gives the new series a “New Who” feel. Think of the original Dirk as the fourth Doctor and this new one as the eleventh and that sort of makes sense. (Absolutely – I keep expecting Samuel Barnett to regenerate into Matt Smith – ed.)
5 Dirk’s schtick is not unique
In the novels, Dirk is a psychic who won’t admit it and wildly improvises special and secret knowledge by claiming that there is interconnectedness in all things. The fun of the books is seeing how it all links together (and were Dirk is clearly fibbing to save his own skin). In the TV show, although Dirk is still the world’s only holistic detective, he’s not the only one employing chaotic methods.
6 New characters
Dirk was never really a super-hero, he was just a detective who found himself consistently over his head in surreal and impossible situations. The TV show introduces others with talents like himself. The show isn’t about those people, but gives us a sense of a broader world. Max Landis has deep love of all things super-hero and he’s certainly brought a super-human sensibility here. Amongst the pantheon of weirdoes is Bart Curlish, holistic assassin, who simply assumes that anyone she kills is her target, and The Rowdy 3, a quartet of wreckers who feel like they’ve come straight out of the pages of a GI Joe comic book.
7 No MacDuff
In the books, Dirk confides and harasses a chap called Richard MacDuff, a much put-upon software engineer with impossible problems. MacDuff is nowhere to be seen in the show, sorry fans of Shakespearean shout-outs. Instead we have Elijah Wood as Todd Brotzman,whom Dirk insists is his sidekick.
8 Dirk’s a reluctant hero
Classic Dirk is a bit of a weasel, always looking for the next mark. New Dirk is much less ferret-like and much more pathetic. Much of the series focus is on Todd instead, who has a complicated relationship with honesty.
9 No Norse Gods
Don’t expect a story about Thor mucking up military fighter jets, or Odin living in a retirement home. It is very briefly mentioned in the show though.
10 No Aliens
The first book features an artificial prayer machine called the Electric Monk. It’ strangeness is (in part) an artefact from Dirk Gently’s origins as a Doctor Who script. The weirdness of the TV show is just a touch more mundane.
11 Much more banter
The relationship between Dirk and Todd forms the core of the story here. Todd is our reluctant normal person, wrapped up in himself more than anything else. This means we get very few monologues; Dirk’s random guesses and theories emerge naturally in his narrative.
12 But No puns or wordplay
A blessing for some of us, a curse for others. Much of Adam’s humour worked on terrible puns, and it’s rather missing from the series. Not even a single Dirk innuendo.
13 Dirk is much less punchable
Gently has always had a touch of hobo charm to him. The educated Cambridge graduate of the books however has been swapped out for a more manic and sympathetic character. The new Dirk is relatable and alien at the same time, and both the lead characters are strongly cast.
14 The conspiracy is real
The American military complex is usually a punchline in British satire. In this new (and distinctly US-centric adaptation) the military has genuine interest in Dirk and the havoc that follows him around. This almost feels like a whole new origin for Dirk.
15 Way more subplots
Usually, it’s the books that are more complex, but the novels are pretty short and sweet when compared to the hours of screenplay that Landis has had to write. So we get weird inventions, bizarre cults and exotic neurological illnesses as integral plot points. All very Dirk Gently in feeling.
16 Dirk’s powers almost make sense
Sort of. The chaotic nature of the main character is always a little vague and questionable in the novels, whereas the new show has him as the centre of whirl wind of chaos. It all ties together. Kind of. That’s the fun of the series.
17 The princesses rescue themselves
Adam’s wrote some interesting female characters into his other work, but they were sorely lacking in the Dirk Gently books. The young Landis already has many motifs and one of them is that damsels in distress are perfectly capable of rescuing themselves, thank you very much.
18 Broad and diverse cast
Again, moving the story away from cozy middle-class Southern England has the benefit of a much more relatable and diverse cast. You’ll find your favourites easily with the show.
19 Still no romance
Fans of Dirk will be relieved to hear that the new version still has no idea about girls. At all. He’s still terribly, terribly English in that regard.
20 Unknown Armies
The show gives us just the tip of the iceberg, in terms of worldbuilding. It’s hard to escape the feeling that they are many, many weird cults with weirder secrets just round the corner for Dirk to stumble on.
21 More to come
They are only two Dirk Gently novels, three if you count the unfinished Salmon Of Doubt. Adams passed away in 2001 aged 49. A second season of the TV show is already on its way, with more to come.