Douglas Adams' Dirk Gently: How slavishly should a screen adaptation follow the book?

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It's been made very clear to me, mainly through conversations on Twitter, that a lot of people hold the Dirk Gently books in great affection and that they are going to be very upset if we don't get it right.

Dirk is described as "a pudgy man who normally wears a heavy old light brown suit, red checked shirt with a green striped tie, long leather coat, red hat and thick metal-rimmed spectacles".

Well, I'm a man; we got that much right. But I'm not that pudgy and I play Dirk wearing none of the clothes described.

Does that matter? Should they have scoured the country for a chunkier actor? I believe there are some out there.

Without the red hat is the whole enterprise doomed to failure? Is playing him without a green striped tie tantamount to dancing on Douglas Adams' grave?

There are still people out there furious that James Bond is being played by a man with blond hair.

A blond Bond? The books say he has black hair falling down over the right eyebrow!

It's a thorny old question - how slavishly should a screen adaptation follow the book?

Some people won't be satisfied unless the images they had in their head whilst reading the novel are translated exactly onto the screen.

But what most people want, I imagine, is that they enjoy the screen version as much as, if not more, than they enjoyed the book and that the spirit of the book is preserved - if not the thick metal-rimmed glasses.

In my opinion Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency and The Long Dark Tea-Time Of The Soul are unfilmable as written.

You couldn't begin to do justice to them in a single hour of television. Too much happens, there are too many ideas.

So Howard Overman, our writer who knows a thing or two about writing for television, as any of you who watched Misfits will know, decided that if he was going to write an hour of telly then it needed to work as an hour of telly first and foremost.

It sounds obvious but you'd be amazed how often that isn't the priority.

Once that's established and you realise that you can't shoehorn the whole book into that time, you've got some decisions to make, what's in and what's out? What do we need to invent or add to make what's in work?

Once everyone's happy with the script, you cast it. Again, does it matter that I don't look like the Dirk that's described in the books? Is it enough that the actor gets the spirit of the character?

Dirk is one of the most interesting and complex characters I've played. He's charming, irritating, bright, funny, hapless, unreadable, transparent, roguish, chaotic, philanthropic and possibly dishonest.

If I get all that right, am I allowed to be too thin?

Television is a team sport, novel writing isn't. Our film has creative input from Howard, me, the director, the producer, the rest of the cast and dozens of others.

And all the stuff from the books that doesn't feature is still sitting there ready for us to use once the BBC commissions a 58-part series...

I'm extremely proud of how it's turned out. I hope you enjoy it.


Stephen Mangan plays Dirk Gently in Dirk Gently.

Dirk Gently is on BBC Four and BBC HD on Thursday, 16 December at 9pm.

Comments made by writers on the TV blog are their own opinions and not necessarily those of the BBC.

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  • Comment number 70. Posted by dsr101

    on 9 Jan 2011 13:44

    A great show just begging for a series. Love the portrayal, and as a fan of Douglas Adams it's fantastic to see it being broadcast to a wider audience.

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  • Comment number 69. Posted by American David

    on 8 Jan 2011 05:32

    Loving the series and your portrayal. Could care less about the costume or the pudginess. And I am a huge fan of the books since I was young.

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  • Comment number 68. Posted by nn

    on 8 Jan 2011 02:00

    Only one thing: we want more!

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  • Comment number 67. Posted by Sir Ad E Noid

    on 3 Jan 2011 19:44

    I think that to try and cram this story into a 60 minute TV show was a mistake. An extra 30 minutes could have fleshed out the characters a bit and include the monk.

    What we got was an 'Adamsesque' show which was enjoyable in it's own right, but not really satisfying to the legions of fans. I thought that Stephen Mangan's performance had a bit too much of the modern Dr Who about it in terms of eccentricity, but each to their own.

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  • Comment number 66. Posted by ZombieJay

    on 1 Jan 2010 12:08

    Having watched it a second time, with my towel, to make sure; I must say it was as good and enjoyable as I think a pilot of a TV adaptation of a DA book can be. As already observed- stop complaining about it not being a direct 100% accurate adaptation as Adams himself changed stories and characters as he moved from one medium to another. It's the essence that's important and I felt it was captured well. Can you imagine a commisioning editor greenlighting a BBC4 pilot which included time travel, electric monks, ghosts, alien ghosts and the fundamentally interconnected expense of bringing it all to screen? People are too ready to strangle a new show at birth if it isn't perfect nowadays and it's a shame. Give it a series, give it a chance to grow and breathe and mature and if you don't like it there are 500 other channels- most showing asanine pap with no imagination- to entertain you, or you can go and read a book.

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  • Comment number 65. Posted by Michael Dawson

    on 30 Dec 2010 16:15

    I have just watched this and loved it. Dirk worked just right. Story was quick, intelligent, quirky. Perfect. I was worried it would try to stick too close to the book and fail. It didn't and I hope this means we'll get a series soon. Thanks.

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  • Comment number 64. Posted by Mr Dogbolter

    on 26 Dec 2010 18:04

    I am very familiar with and love both the Dirk Gently books and the two Doctor Who storylines that the first one was adapted from ("City of Death" and "Shada" in case you weren't aware). I mildly disliked the change of setting in the radio adaptations as I felt that the period setting contributed to the tone of the stories and Douglas Adams was obviously revelling in the state of computer technology, the music and various other aspects of British life in the late 1980s when he wrote the books and that updating them simply to include references to mobile phones and the internet was pointless. In all other respects I think it was an enormous success and extremely faithful.

    Judging from Misfits - one of my favourite TV series of all time - I have to say I love the writing of Howard Overman. He's a brilliantly funny writer and I love his characters.

    I agree that you can't cram everything from either of the books into a one-hour TV pilot which is why I question the entire point of the exercise. Why not turn it into a mini-series and do it properly?

    And I'm sorry but if the appearance of the central character of the book is unimportant then why did Douglas Adams bother describing him in such detail? Having said that I like Stephen Mangan a lot, and he portrays Howard Overman's version of the character brilliantly, and I appreciate the regard he has for the original text and the passion with which he defends this "adaptation".

    It was a funny one-off TV event and I literally laughed out loud a lot at one point (quite rare for me), but it wasn't Douglas Adams's Dirk Gently. I am torn. On the one hand I would really like to see a more faithful adaptation of the original Dirk Gently stories dramatised and set in the perpetually twilight/nocturnal world of grimy, neon-lit late 1980's north London that the books invoke in my head but on the other hand I really like this pilot and I am looking forward to seeing it developed into a series to see how Howard Overman extracts and develops the various other strands of the Dirk Gently storylines.

    Very good luck to everyone involved in getting this turned into a series, congratulations to the brilliant Howard Overman and thanks Stephen Mangan for coming on here and hearing out the die-hard fans. Don't take us too seriously, that's our job!

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  • Comment number 63. Posted by SteveDave

    on 24 Dec 2010 08:41

    I've never read the books (as I've got a girlfriend) but I really liked this show. Though some of the jokes fell flat & bits of the dialogue were clunky I think it's a really promising start. I especially liked the Edgar Wright style cutaways.

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  • Comment number 62. Posted by ICT_Echo

    on 23 Dec 2010 18:42

    I understand the idea of distilling the book/s down into an hour of television. I can even appreciate the book/s being the source of a television series. But it failed to translate the laugh out loud or giggle moments from the book onto the screen. I would have settled for one giggle, but none were forthcoming in this disappointing display.

    I read the books back in the 80s as a teenager and can remember numerous scenes from the book that made me laugh, in the same way as HitchHiker's did. The writer failed to include the clever humour of Adams but instead resorted to slapstick and visual gags of the lead characters.

    The writer failed to understand and deliver on the basic premiss of the book. There has to be an event that happens early in the programme that can only be explained by time-travel. Such as a sofa being stuck in a staircase, which is later revealed as only being possible because the time-machine door was opened to allow the delivery men to get it up the stairs. It's the play on the Sherlock Holmes line.

    On the positive side I hope the show gets commissioned because their is still potential in the characters and source material. Perhaps if the writer watched Warehouse 13 they could get some ideas as to how to tell the type of story necessary to do justice to Douglas Adams work.

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  • Comment number 61. Posted by acoustic

    on 23 Dec 2010 16:49

    This was a wonderfully charming programme. so what if it isn't a strict adaptation... It possessed the wit and absurdity of the original source material.
    Really hope this is commissioned.

    More of the same please

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