TV movie review: Dirk Gently (2010), directed by Damon Thomas
So, back in August, when I saw the BBC were going to turn Douglas Adams’s holistic detective Dirk Gently into a TV-show, I was terribly delighted. What a brilliant idea! Douglas Adams is one of my favourite writers and the sheer genius of that man never ceases to amaze me. In mid-December, safely tucked away on BBC4 where it was sure not to grab too much attention, it was broadcast.
Before this, I had found out who was going to play the major parts in it, but that was just about it. It would have been a good idea for me to have read more about this production beforehand, because then I perhaps wouldn’t have minded so much. Before the Hitchhiker’s Guide movie came out, I read someone’s thorough review of it, and was glad that I did, because I went to the cinema already knowing everything that had been changed, so that I didn’t have to sit there going “but … that’s not right!” over and over until finally, “this sucks!”
Seeing as how I have only learned afterwards that the scriptwriters never meant for this to be any real adaptation of the first book, but rather just a “based on the characters”, it would have softened the blow. My expectations for this production were high, real high (did I mention exactly how much I absolutely bloody revere Douglas Adams?) so when I sat down and very soon into it realised that hang on, that’s not what they do in the book, WHAT THE HELL HAVE THEY DONE?!, I was disappointed, to say the least.
Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency is a book about a fairly dodgy private detective, who stumbles on a computer programmer whose sofa is stuck on a staircase, and whose millionaire boss (who also happens to be his cello-playing girlfriend’s brother) ends up a ghost. There is also a story about an electric monk (programmed to believe things fervently so that we don’t have to) who comes out of a portal in a Cambridge college professor’s private rooms, that also serves as a time machine.
Dirk Gently, on the other hand, is about a really dodgy private detective (Stephen Mangan) who stumbles on an unemployed bloke (Darren Boyd), whose girlfriend’s (Helen Baxendale) ex is a millionaire who disappeared. Oh, and an old lady with a cat. And a time machine. (The cat business, I never followed that properly, need to re-watch it at some point.) That’s about it. Except they’ve kept the names from the book, and removed everything else that made it brilliant. The electric monk and Cambridge gets a nod in the shape of some scribbled words on a wall that Gently uses for jotting down ideas. Cheers for the nod to the fans, but umm, like someone said on the IMDb boards: anyone who gets that reference knows what a horrible failure this programme was.
I went into this thinking it’d be an adaptation of the book, not something else. If they felt the book was impossible to translate to screen, and therefore didn’t do an adaptation of it, but just something based on the book’s characters – they could’ve kept the main characters from the book out completely and just gone for showing what a dodgy yet brilliant detective Dirk Gently is. He could have had the same time travel plot without the need for Susan and Gordon, for instance.
A detective show starring Dirk could be a hoot – like a quirky, philosophical scifi version of Sherlock Holmes. But this thing doesn’t quite have the right feel and it doesn’t have the heart (or the brain – an iPhone that still switches on after 15 years in a box? Really?) to quite be the Dirk Gently we know and love. It’s a jumbled mess.
It’s not that it’s low production value. It doesn’t look too bad, even though you can tell it certainly doesn’t have the budget of Merlin, Spooks or Sherlock. It’s not that there’s a problem with the actors – they’re all very good. Stephen Mangan does a terrifically dodgy Gently, trying to rip off old ladies, even though he completely fails to look anything like the Dirk Gently I picture. And I suppose that’s part of the problem. He doesn’t look like Dirk, but more importantly, he doesn’t feel like Dirk. Darren Boyd as Richard MacDuff, yeah, I can see that. Helen Baxendale as Susan, yup, that too. Their characters feel right.
I think if it was a series, I could get used to Mangan and maybe eventually, he’d feel right too, making the part his own thing. I wouldn’t say he was mis-cast, but it’s like a friend said about Daniel Radcliffe when the first Harry Potter film came out: “He isn’t Harry Potter, he just plays Harry Potter.” And that’s what I mean. Boyd and Baxendale are Richard and Susan (well, sort of), Mangan plays Dirk.
Oh, I don’t know. Maybe a re-watch will make it better, now that I know what the makers intended by it. Or maybe I’ll just re-read the book instead and hope that maybe the next big detective series from the UK is one about a man who doesn’t mind ripping off old ladies, pretending to look for their missing cat by following clues that lead him to a sunny beachfront bungalow in Barbados …
1.75 out of 5 cats.