Solve mysteries by following fate

Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency, produced by Arvind Ethan David, stars Elijah Wood and Samuel Barnett (both above).
Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency, produced by Arvind Ethan David, stars Elijah Wood and Samuel Barnett (both above).PHOTO: NETFLIX
Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency, produced by Arvind Ethan David (above), stars Elijah Wood and Samuel Barnett.
Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency, produced by Arvind Ethan David (above), stars Elijah Wood and Samuel Barnett.PHOTO: NETFLIX

Producer Arvind Ethan David hopes his Netflix TV adaptation of Dirk Gently will inspire people to look for interconnections in life


Books by the late author Douglas Adams are known to be notoriously difficult to adapt for the screen, given how his stories succeed more because of his specific tone and acute observations, rather than actual plot.

Both the film and television adaptations of his most well-known sci-fi novel, The Hitchhiker's Guide To The Galaxy (1979), for example, were met with some resistance from fans.

That is probably why even though the new Netflix TV series, Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency, is adapted from the 1987 Adams book of the same name, the executive producer of the series, Arvind Ethan David, likes to say that the show is more "inspired by" the book than "based" on it.

The 40-year-old British producer tells The Straits Times in a telephone interview: "For Hitchhiker, plot was something that occurred at about page 200. Doing something was never Douglas' interest. Thinking things, saying things, riffing on things, examining ideas and turning them into jokes that illuminated - that was Douglas' genius.

"But I think where a lot of adaptations get it wrong is when they try to do Douglas. You just can't do Douglas - you can be inspired by him.

"And you can be inspired by Dirk Gently, too, by trusting his character and taking him in the directions that the medium demands of him."

The new TV series tells the story of Dirk Gently (played by British actor Samuel Barnett), an eccentric detective who believes that everything in the universe is somehow interconnected. He solves mysteries by following fate, as opposed to collecting conventional clues.

Playing his reluctant assistant Todd is The Lord Of The Rings trilogy (2001-2003) star Elijah Wood.

David says: "When we started working on this show, we decided that we're not going to adapt the books. We're going to take the style, attitude and tone of the character and add all-new adventures."

The TV series is not David's first adaptation of the Dirk Gently book.

When he was 16, he adapted it into a stage play, titled Dirk, for a high-school production.

And when he restaged it again two years later as an Oxford University student, Adams came to see it.

"He liked it and we became friends after that. I guess you could say that that encounter confirmed that I wanted to work as a writer-producer because I got approval from the man himself."

The play has since been reworked and staged around the world, in places such as Australia and the United States.

David, who has also produced films such as comedy The Infidel (2010) and horror flick Tormented (2009), says: "So to do a Dirk Gently TV show now - it's like a joyful and personal return to my beginnings, a childhood dream come true."

1 What is it about Adams that you think still resonates with people?

Everything. His genius shines brighter with the passage of time because you see how ahead of his time he was - in his style, his influence, his impact on popular culture and in the many, many ideas in technology and culture that he was so prescient about: the Internet, conservation and storytelling.

He manages to be profound and funny at the same time.

2 What was the casting process like for Dirk Gently the TV show?

For Elijah's character, he was always the one we had in our mind. We wanted someone dark and layered and he can bring all of that.

Casting Dirk, however, was challenging. You need someone with perfect comic timing and a high degree of verbal dexterity because of all his complex speeches.

He never stops talking, but he has to be likable at the same time as he is annoying.

To find an actor to do that, we had to see dozens, if not hundreds of people. Having said that, as soon as we saw Barnett, it was clear to us he was the one.

3 Why do you think he makes the perfect Dirk Gently?

He has all the technical brilliance that comes from years of British stage work - you know, that very British classical training that he can bring to any role. But he also has this boyish vulnerability. You want to take care of him even as he gets in your face, so he was our slam dunk for the role of Dirk Gently.

4 What do you think the character will mean to viewers less familiar with the story?

I hope the show will inspire people to look out for interconnections in life. It is those interconnections that have meaning, right? If you believe in God and so on, fantastic. If you don't, you're left only with other people.

Dirk, and this is very true of the Dirk in the show, is ironic because he's so keen to be connected and he's not. He's incredibly lonely and unconnected and I think we can empathise with that.

5 Viewers tend to binge-watch shows on Netflix. Do you think your show naturally lends itself to that?

Yes, absolutely. Our show is a mystery wrapped in an enigma, concealed in a secret.

There is a lot of apparent randomness introduced in early episodes and you meet 26 major characters in the first episode. It's not clear how any of them are connected to one another and that's deliberate.

We want people to follow the show slowly and all these little realisations will creep up on them as they watch several episodes at once.

6 How involved was Netflix in the production process for the show?

It has been completely constructive. Any comments that it gave us was to help us and to make sure that viewers would be able to understand the product. It was never a case of, "Can you put more explosions here" just for the sake of it.

7 How happy are you with the finished product?

As happy as I could be. I think what we've made here is very close to what we had thought up. So if you don't like it, it's our fault. If you like it, it's also our fault.

8 How would you like to be remembered?

Well, given that I just turned 40, I hope I don't have to think about that question too hard for another 40 years. That said, I'm really proud of Dirk Gently and I'm going to enjoy that for now, and not think about my legacy beyond that.

•Follow Yip Wai Yee on Twitter @STyipwaiyee

•Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency is out on Netflix.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 12, 2016, with the headline 'Solve mysteries by following fate'. Print Edition | Subscribe