In which we consider the perils of an updated adaptation
When I was in my early teens, one of my favourite books – even though I didn’t really understand half of the plot at the time – was Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency, by Douglas Adams. With a plot which was cobbled together from two separate Doctor Who stories, and which relies on the works of a poet I’ve never even read, it can be a little tricky to understand.* When I heard that it was going to be on Radio 4, I had to listen, purely to see if it was adaptable at all.
They haven’t done badly so far, to be honest, although the plot has been twisted round in various ways that, with one episode to go, don’t quite make sense yet. On the other hand, they haven’t quite pulled off updating the story to the present day – some parts would have been much better as a 1980s period piece.** And they did leave in at least half of my favourite joke.***
This isn’t meant to be a critique of the series, though, especially as it still has one episode to go. This is something I’ve spotted, which Radio 4 have been quiet about so far. Radio 4 are also going to dramatise the other Dirk Gently novel.
There’s a small clue on their website: it refers to DGHDA as the “first series”. Really, it’s a standalone book – the only characters apart from Dirk who pop up in the other book, The Long Dark Teatime Of The Soul, are Miss Pearce and Sgt Gilks. What makes it so obvious, though, is that quite apart from the plot-based changes, the producers of the current radio series have made other changes to DGHDA, adding references to tLDTotS to link the two books together. I’m also pretty sure they’re going to change tLDTotS to add in characters from the first book, too, to try and present them as a cohesive pair.
Whether this will work or not is another matter. Bookwise, The Long Dark Teatime Of The Soul is rather patchier and had more plot holes than Dirk Gently; although one of the things they both have in common is that small asides, or scenes which appear to be a quick joke, can turn out to be an important plot point later on.**** I’m enjoying the radio Dirk Gently so far, but I’m not completely convinced, and I don’t know why its adapters thought they had to do more to link the books together. Maybe I should write to them and ask.
* Particularly, you have to know that Coleridge’s Kubla Khan is, as far as poems go, pretty short. Wikipedia has a very thorough and spoiler-filled plot summary, which explains most of the trickier bits.
** How many people still use tape-based answering machines, instead of voicemail? How many people still refer to “car phones”? A story with a plot revolving around people leaving messages on answering machines, and stealing answering-machine tapes, doesn’t really make sense if you move it forward twenty years
*** “There’s no such word as herring in my dictionary!” Unfortunately, unless I wasn’t listening properly, they missed out the setup line which comes many scenes earlier.
**** At the start of Long Dark Teatime Of The Soul, Dirk had recently set up work as a fortune-teller, in drag, to get some cash in – but gave it up when everything he said, however outlandish, came true. It seems like a throwaway comic scene, at first – but in actual fact it contains important hints to what is going on later in the book.