Whenever I hear about one of my favourite novels being adapted for the big screen, or the moderate screen that fits in my house, I’m wary. Not wary in a “I hope they don’t mess this up” kind of way, but wary in a “They had better not mess this up” kind of way.
Well, one of my favourite novels was adapted for a TV show (again) and I’ve seen the first season. And I have thoughts…
I was very wary of clicking play on the trailer for the BBC America Dirk Gently series. I removed all sharp objects from my immediate vicinity before watching. If you’re a fan of Douglas Adams’ novels, you may want to do the same. Out of wariness.
Well, at least they won’t be butchering Dirk Gently, because I’m not sure that this is Dirk Gently.
This wouldn’t be the first time we’ve seen a book adaptation with the lead character portrayed by someone who doesn’t physically match the role. I’m talking about Tom Cruise playing Jack Reacher. Twice. Anyway, I’m not sure that Samuel Barnett really fits the Svlad Cjelli (aka Dirk Gently) middle-aged, overweight, poorly dressed, loser mould.
He is portrayed 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. Source
And after viewing the first season, I’m even less convinced this was a portrayal of Dirk Gently. Okay, so clearly Max Landis and his team are going for more of a “youth” vibe. Landis obviously thinks that the only way to write a quirky character (quirky being code for annoying bellend) is to have them bounce off of the walls with manic energy. Which is not something a pudgy middle-aged guy in a dirty suit does.
Then we have not-MacDuff. Elijah Wood is portraying a character named Todd. He’s meant to be more of an everyman for us to relate to (see video below for discussion). So no symphony of nature, no Susan, and no hallway couch. Todd’s relationship to “Dirk” is the typical cliched odd-couple, with the non-quirky character being inexplicably fond or loyal to the person ruining their life.
So two characters that aren’t that great* who get up to weird adventures. Right? Well, the adventures are… kinda… dull. Douglas Adams had Dirk save the world from a ghost of the people who created life on Earth, and the Norse Gods who are a bit peeved about not being admired anymore. Landis has Dirk investigating gifted people swapping bodies… and stuff.
I’m really not sure what Landis was going for. But then again, I’ve watched Bright, which leads me to conclude Landis probably doesn’t know what he’s trying to do either.
After watching this panel discussion you’d be forgiven for thinking that everyone involved had a good grasp of the material they were adapting. Landis professes to being a big fan of Douglas Adams’ writing… Yet his takeaway from Dirk Gently is manic energy guy running around being weird. The panel discusses capturing the essence of Dirk Gently, but I didn’t see the loser conman and his intricate adventures that really were holistic.
It often baffles me why screenwriters diverge so far from the source material – it feels as though I discussed this recently. Do they buy the rights but forget to buy a copy of the book for the screenwriters? In this instance that doesn’t appear to be the case. Is it just that they aren’t usually looking to do a direct adaptation but more of an “inspired by” screenplay? In which case, why buy the rights and use the character names? Landis did moan about the lack of original ideas in cinema – but this is also the same guy who talks up sequels to films nobody wanted to see. Are writers trying to avoid a direct comparison between book and adaptation? Again, why buy the rights, since the screenwriters clearly have an idea for a movie/TV show and the source material is essentially made irrelevant?
In many instances, a direct adaptation would make more sense. Beloved books would often be best served by being faithfully adapted to please fans and appeal to new fans. The source material has proved itself already: so use it! Some changes are necessary, either for run-time, or translation between mediums, but this can still be done faithfully. So why doesn’t it happen more often? I personally suspect that the screenwriters aren’t being asked to do faithful adaptations for a variety of reasons, including having bosses who don’t care about the source material. In the case of Landis, I question his abilities… I sat through this adaptation, his movies Bright and American Ultra, and think it is fair to conclude his abilities are lacking.
Maybe one day we’ll see a good adaptation of Douglas Adams’ work.**
*The characters aren’t that great, but the acting is on point. So can’t blame the actors.
**Yes, I am aware of his various radio plays and the old Hitchhiker’s Guide TV series. I can’t even remember what the latter was like it has been so long since I’ve seen it.