Everything is (Dis)Connected
Ever since the early days of film and television, the question has been asked: how much fidelity does an adaptation owe to its source material? I don’t think there’s any one useful answer to this question. there have been exceedingly faithful adaptations that have been wonderful (John Huston’s version of The Maltese Falcon comes to mind), and others that have been a disaster (Zack Snyder’s relatively faithful but completely point-missing Watchmen). Likewise, extremely loose adaptations of existing stories can be horrible (the infamous Roland Joffé remake of The Scarlet Letter) or fantastic (Noah Hawley’s Fargo TV series), or somewhere in between (David Cronenberg’s Naked Lunch). With some adaptations, though, the end result is so completely removed from the spirit and/or the form of the original work, you have to ask: why did they bother?
Such is the case with Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency, a new BBC series based — so loosely that they may as well have come from a planet where the original material didn’t exist — on a series of novels by Douglas Adams, himself a Beeb vet most famously responsible for The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. The series has hit a peculiar nerve with nerd nostalgists, but it is so completely misbegotten on every level — witless, overdone, flashy, poorly assembled, violent, meandering, and worst of all, boring — that it not only bears no noticeable relationship to its source, but to the aesthetic and cultural tradition from which it emerged. It’s a stupid, blunt, pointless piece of work that is a universe removed from anything in the original material; one suspects that there’s a good reason it didn’t appear until Adams had been dead for fifteen years.
Dirk Gently is a frenetic piece of work that seems to hold the increasingly common opinion that you can make a comedy by just throwing a million things in front of the camera at once in hopes that no one will notice that they completely fail to cohere. Ironically, given that the novel series follows the adventures of a possibly supernatural and possibly fraudulent semi-professional detective who insists on chasing the most unlikely of leads based on the notion that everything is connected to everything else at a sub-atomic level, the show holds together like a plate of spaghetti hurled against a brick wall. It tries to be too many things to too many people: it’s a genre work, a comedy, a sci-fi series, a parody, a satire, a character piece, a procedural, and a meditation on the nature of reality that utterly fails at everything it tries to be.
While it’s under no obligation to be faithful to the original works, and owes nothing but a royalty payment to Adams’ estate, it’s amazing how many things Dirk Gently manages to get wrong about why the original books were successful. Updating their settings to the modern era, it loses all of its charm; failing to recognize the difference between surreal humor and absurdity, it botches both of them; and, hoping to create an air of mystery around its main character, it manages only to make him seem unpleasantly annoying and random. The cast does it no favors: Samuel Barnett plays the character as a sort of psychotic imp more akin to Superman’s Mr. Mxyztplk than a low-rent, metaphysical Sherlock Holmes. In the books, Gently tried the patience of everyone around him, but the reader was always on his side; in the television show, you keep hoping he’ll get run over by a bus. Elijah Wood is competent enough playing his latest victim/client/companion, but it’s a deeply unsatisfying role that Wood has played all too often in recent years.
Far worse than these bad performances, however, is the story they’re in service of. Dirk Gently was created and written by Max Landis, son of filmmaker John and former internet enfant terrible who hasn’t aged well into the role of a genuine talent now that he’s taken his work to the broader public. Confined to web series and comics, it was easy enough to ignore his vast flaws as a writer, but on this much larger stage, they’re laid out for all to see. He can’t write anything with the least bit of structure, and his best bits are inevitably cribbed — and none too subtly — from other people; he infuses his work with pseudoreference while completely draining it of meaning; and worst of all, he’s just not that funny. Occasionally he’ll hit upon a good bit (an ongoing gag about an anarchist clique called the Rowdy Three, even though there are five of them, could have been a decent Adams gag), but he doesn’t know when to quit, what to do with it, or how to make it flow into the greater direction of the material without clanging around like a pinball.
Landis also fails where his inspiration succeeded by means of his complete tone-deafness. Adams took traditional mystery and supernatural stories and stood them on their ears, making his ghost stories completely ridiculous and terrifying at the same time, and imbuing the modern-day existence of the thunder god Thor with both ludicrous comedy and genuine majestic tragedy. Landis doesn’t do any of that; like the 2005 film adaptation of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, he goes big and broad, thinking that it’s the scope and scale of Adams’ stories that make them good and funny, not the way he burrowed down past his own inventions to reveal the universal irrationality of intelligent life that lay underneath. Landis builds story for its own sake, never thoughtful or thorough enough to ask himself why, and his humor is ultimately nothing but surface and situation, without Adams’ gift for language and style. For the latter, Landis substitutes slickness, hence the utterly preposterous invention of Bart Curlish, a spasmodic black-ops super-assassin and arch-nemesis to Dirk. One wonders how Landis came to believe that what the series needed was the addition of gratuitous violence and a sub-Tarantino backstory.
None of Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency‘s enormous deviations from its source would be worth complaining about if the final product was worthwhile on its own. But it isn’t; it’s an ineffectual, unnecessary mish-mash of better predecessors and original material that just flaps around like a trout on a dock. If this is the end result, why sully Douglas Adams’ reputation? Why not just make it a Max Landis original, so everyone knows who really bears the blame?