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

Thursday 16 December 2010, 10:33

Stephen Mangan Stephen Mangan Actor

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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.

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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.

Stephen Mangan as Dirk Gently surrounded by a wall of paper notes.

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 1.

    I am a massive fan of the Douglas Adams novels, more so even than Doctor Who which seems like a rather oxymoronic statement to make since I am finishing a 200,000 words plus book based on Doctor Who, there's an inflatable dalek in the corner of my room watching me type this and my attire is not too dissimilar from that of the Doctors but it's true. Oxymoronic or not, the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy started just about everything good in my life and it is with some gleeful sense of coming full circle that I write this comment using the very profile and username from H2G2 that started off my life on the internet and gave me the name of my most important literary creation.

    On to the subject of whether it's right for a tv series to deviate from a book I would point out that Douglas never let any one version of the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy in one format be the same as another in a different format so if anything we should be having a go at Harry Enfield for being too like the literary version of Dirk Gently when he played him on audio and thus bucking the trend by failing to buck it.

    Also I must admit that when I saw the trailer for Dirk Gently I noticed a number of similarities to the new Sherlock adaptation and indeed the way you two (including the man who plays Richard Macduff, wonderful actor) look seems to be a direct parody, even down to the haircuts and there was rather a shot of tweed which seemed to be reflecting the new Doctor but these similarities are no bad thing.

    Even with a cynical mindset having an Dirk and Dick (or Gently and Macduff if you prefer) updated in a manner akin to a new Doctor and Sherlock is no bad thing as it puts bums on seats, allows BBC Worldwide to make rather nice comparisons to aid selling it and means other genius and sidekick shows will be able to start without too much fear of Moffaty vengeance and if said shows occur then a few might run and that can only be a good thing in the long run.

    From an uncynical view parodying or even homaging popular shows is something which Douglas always did and I'm glad to see the trend continues even if, as I suspect, such similarities are largely skin deep.

    Personally I like the idea of a young-ish man playing Dirk as it allows for the potential of an incredibly long running series and however unlikely that might actually be, I'm pleased to see the potential.

    Anyway sorry for the rather essay length comment and some of it not being entirely relevant.

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    Comment number 2.

    There was the small matter of Zaphod Beeblebrox being described in the book as having "fair tousled hair stuck out in random directions, his blue eyes glinted with something completely unidentifiable, and his chins were almost always unshaven." and BBC television made a dark new-romantic pirate.

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    Comment number 3.

    In the same TV series, the book said "Trillain was slim, darkish, humanoid, with long waves of black hair, a full mouth, an odd little nob of a nose and ridiculously brown eyes. With her red head scarf knotted in that particular way and her long flowing silky brown dress she looked vaguely Arabic", and they cast a platinum blond American.

    Basically, get the story right, and we will forgive the hat and diet.

    Anyway, when we move on, you can now, of course, get pizza delivered to your door (or hospital bed).

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    Comment number 4.

    The hat I can just about get over, but if this adaptation fails to include a horse and a pink monk, I will be furious. That is all.

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    Comment number 5.

    Hate to break it to you Jamie but there is not only an absence of monk but also no Reg.

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    Comment number 6.

    Having now seen the TV version the answer is so it is at least recognisably from the source material.
    Do it again. Get it right casting wise - Sorry Stephen, you're good but you're not Dirk - and try to stay with the original story or be honest and say that its based on characters created by Douglas Adams. This wasn't Dirk Gently Holistic Detective Agency.
    PS - if including the fridge then explain why Dirk is prevented from accessing the one at home. Properly.

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    Comment number 7.

    @AuroratheBlack - it didn't ever say it was Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency. It was called Dirk Gently. That in itself should have told you that it was not going to be the book, even if SM's blog post hadn't explicitly done so.

    I love both books and DA's writing generally and I thought that tonight's show did an admirable job of capturing the spirit of both the character and the world of DG without feeling the need to stick to the plots of the books beyond the most tangential moments.

    SM was an unexpected choice when I heard he'd been cast but in fact I thought he did a great job.

    It was simplified Dirk Gently, sure, but it struck the right note for me and I suspect it might encourage people who caught and enjoyed it to read the books - and that's got to be a good thing.

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    Comment number 8.

    As for the monk and the horse, they were semi-included if you looked closely at the whiteboard before it was painted over :-)

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    Comment number 9.

    Well, I just came to post my comment, but someone's beaten me to the punch at getting in first. To AuroratheBlack, I will point out one thing: the programme was simply called Dirk Gently, not Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency, nor The Long Dark Teatime of the Soul. The implication is there that this is not an adaptation of either book.

    I enjoyed it, though figured out the explanation just before it was presented in the story; mainly came on here looking to see when the next ep was coming, somewhat saddened to see it's a one-off (at present). With luck we will get to see a commission in the near future for more eps and maybe a chance to adapt the books, mayhap in say four eps each (hmmm, is that a bit too Doctor Who?)?

    I don't fully agree with AtB that you're not suited to the role, I think it would be impossible to match everyone's vision of what he's like, for me I feel he should have been played slightly more buffoonish (not a word I ever really expected to use); he is truly oblivious to how ridiculous his theories appear on the surface, no matter how truthful they actually turn out to be.

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    Comment number 10.

    Just watched the episode. This is a book I read for the first time very recently and I was thinking how good it would be translated to film, especially Dirk's dialogue. On the negative side this did not only omitted the monk and the horse it also left out Coleridge, the whole Cambridge Don thing, the ghost etc etc. It also changed the relationships between some of the characters and of course cut some characters completely. On the plus side it did give a good sense of Dirk's manic amoral character. Always nice to see Helen Baxendale too. I hope it gets another chance to get things right. Stephen Mangan is a good Dirk...but the books have so much more.....please keep trying.
    Much Love

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    Comment number 11.

    It did not capture the spirit of the character, and it was not a good hour of television.

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    Comment number 12.

    It be very unfair to say that this was bad, it was quiet good, I quiet like the different Dirk Gently, bear in mind H2G2 was different in every version in some detail so what's not to say let this be different?

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    Comment number 13.

    To be honest Mangan is right, an hour is not enough. When I read the book I was thinking a full Hollywood blockbuster with maybe someone like Robert Downey Junior - though Stephen Mangan would do just as well! Having seen the recent Harry Potters which slavishly follow the text to a large extent I think that some texts lend themselves to that sort of treatment, especially when written by a genius like Adams.

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    Comment number 14.

    It was a good show, very funny in places, Mangan did a good job with Dirk in my opinion. Hopefully they will film some more.

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    Comment number 15.

    This was, at most, "based on characters inspired by the book" rather than an adaptation.

    As an hour of TV drama it was by turns obvious to the point of heavy handed and weakly tenuous. Is Stephen Mangan what you get when David Schneider is too expensive or was Schneider threatening to gurn just a little too much?

    Still, on the plus side, Helen Baxendale, eh?

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    Comment number 16.

    Agreed it's not really the book(s) but neither was it claimed to be. Nevertheless an hour was far too short to develop the characters properly for a one-off. Now if it's intended to be a pilot for a future series then that's different.

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    Comment number 17.

    One or two slightly harsh comments here.

    I found it quite enjoyable if a little obvious halfway through as to the punchline - but I think anybody who has digested Adams' work to any great degree will probably also have seen where the plot was going a little bit too soon.

    Okay SM is not playing Dirk religiously to the books but Harry Enfield pretty much did that already for the radio series - I'm happy to see it spun differently.

    I hope this is a tester and some more episodes will be commissioned with one crucial proviso: a much knottier, less fathomable plot.

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    Comment number 18.

    I really enjoyed it. There's plenty of things that should have annoyed me, in particular that McDuff wasn't a "crunch-head" computer programmer, and the missing bits of the story.

    Given the similarity of the original book of Professor Chronotis to "The Doctor", his rooms to "the TARDIS", removing these from a pilot for an ongoing series seems good.

    As any Doctor Who fan will have seen the reconstruction of "Shada" many times, I guess the BBC would not be interested in seeing that again.

    If there are to be more hour-long episodes then there are plenty of stories in the books that could be expanded into an hour-long stories.

    But... where was The Great "virtually everything you decide today will be wrong" Zaganza?

  • rate this

    Comment number 19.


    Dirk Gentley's Holistic Detective Agency (book) minus Shada minus City of Death equals Dirk Gently (TV show)

  • rate this

    Comment number 20.

    I watched the show last night and to be honest I'm in two minds. I really enjoyed it visually and the acting was really good. I'm a huge fan of both SM and Helen Baxendale, although I agree with theocupier on David Schneider, he MUST have been unavailable. My issue is that it was a 'based on' job which could have been so much better. With the limited time available as a pilot so much was just touched upon and even more completely omitted. I love the books and I'm sure that if a series is commisioned then they'll put a lot more flesh on the bones.


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