Fitting It All Together: Arvind Ethan David Talks Navigating Dirk Gently’s Multi-Media Adventures
This autumn, the universe’s most inefficient sleuth will move into a new medium, as Dirk Gently becomes the animated hero of the BBC America/Netflix TV series Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency. The series boasts an impressive pedigree: inspired by a duo of novels by the late Douglas Adams; co-produced by Netflix, BBC America, AMC Studios, Ideate Media, and IDW Entertainment; starring Elijah Wood, Hannah Marks, and Samuel Barnett; and written and co-executive produced by Victor Frankenstein/Chronicle scriptwriter Max Landis.
Douglas Adams is, of course, best-known as the creator of The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy, but in 1987 and 1988, he published a pair of novels centered on Dirk Gently, a “holistic detective” whose methods generally involve fumbling around, investigating matters other than those he’s employed to handle, and somehow manages to solve some mysteries along the way. These books (Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency and The Long Dark Teatime Of The Soul) won both popular and critical acclaim, and Gently’s uniquely un-traditional style of operation has proven irresistible, most recently returning to the public eye in a series of comic book miniseries from IDW.
ComicsAlliance had the chance to speak with Arvind Ethan David, who is both the author of the IDW comic series and, as a partner in Ideate Media, intimately involved in the upcoming TV adaptation. The conversation was lively and far-ranging, touching on subjects including Douglas Adams’ ongoing influence in popular culture, Dirk Gently’s enduring appeal, and David’s personal connection to the character and property.
ComicsAlliance: So, going into a project like this, where you’re adapting what is, for many, a lesser-known property… I suppose the first question one would ask is “Why adapt Dirk Gently?”
Arvind Ethan David: Well, I guess there are many reasons, but in my case, there are a few specific personal ones. I’ve loved the books, the character, and Douglas Adams since I was about 16, when I adapted the first Dirk Gently novel as my high school play. Now, if you’ve read the first Dirk Gently novel, you’ll know it’s un-adaptable, into any form. It wouldn’t work as a play, as a comic, as television… It’s barely even a novel, and yet it’s somehow a work of genius. It manages to contradict its form, but be wonderful at the same time.
But I adapted it as my high school play. And the resulting production was, shall we say, amusingly incomprehensible. It somehow was a success within the small confines of the school, and by a bizarre series of coincidences, Douglas Adams came to see it. And right there, my life changed — and in many ways, started.
So that’s my particular answer to the question of “why Dirk Gently” — this has been, for me, not exactly a journey, but that was a starting point. And then, like Frodo, I had many detours, some byways, a few dead ends, and a few cul-de-sacs. I became a film producer, and a playwright, and I spent 16 or 17 years doing those things.
Douglas sadly died in 2001, and we had become friendly and remained friendly up to the point of his death, he was a hugely important figure in my life as a young man starting out. But he passed away, and life happened, and I hadn’t thought too much about Dirk Gently, except for every few years, wondering if it was time. Because, if you were to make a list of the stories you wanted to tell, this was always on my list, certainly in my top five.
And then about two years ago, I was at a wedding, as it happens. And Douglas’ old agent, Ed Victor, was also at the wedding. And we started talking, and he said to me, “Arvind David…” He’s an older gentleman, he’s in his seventies but very vital, very energetic, he’s known me since I was seventeen, and he says: “Arvind David. Dirk Gently. We’ve finally gotten the rights back, I think it’s time!” And I said, yes Ed Victor, it is time.
So that is why I’m making Dirk Gently in every format, medium, and genre known to man.
CA: So then, you’re adapting Gently to other media. And you touched on the difficulty of that, which actually seems to be a hallmark of Douglas Adams’ work. There have been a number of adaptations of The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy in different media, and they’ve each met with resistance. The ’80s TV series was limited by budget and the existing technology, DC’s comic book adaptation struggled to work within the format restraints, and while I happen to love the 2005 film, it also divides fans pretty sharply. I enjoy it as a riff on an idea, which focuses more on the spirit than the specifics…
AED: Well, yes, that film is a love poem more than anything else. It’s clear that Hammer & Tongs, the director/producer team, loved Douglas, loved his work, and I think they get the tone exactly right, I think it’s often very funny, and I think it’s very well cast. What it fails in, and this is the chasm you face when you try to adapt Douglas Adams, is it fails in plot. It tries vaguely to honor some version of the plot that is in the first three books, and that way lies madness and disaster because Douglas was a genius of prose, of character, of tone, and of ideas. He was not, and he would be the first to admit this, a genius of plot.
Plot was something that occurred to him on about page 200, it was almost an optional extra. If we had time, maybe the characters should do something — but 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.
I think that’s what all the adaptations get wrong, and what I’ve been trying to do with the Dirk Gently comics, and now we’re trying to do with the TV show, is not to try to do Douglas. You can’t do Douglas; you can be inspired by Douglas. And you can be inspired by Dirk, trust the character, and take him in the directions that the medium demands of him.
CA: Well, especially when adapting for a visual medium, I imagine it’s difficult to walk that line. So much of Adams is in the descriptions, and when you’re working in a form that can show, not just tell, you’re playing a fundamentally different game. In comics, you have the option of using narrative captions, but for the TV adaptation, how are you and your team handling the issue of giving that perspective?
AED: Well, the difference between Hitchhiker’s and Dirk Gently is that Dirk has something that Hitchhiker’s doesn’t have: it has a plot engine. It’s a detective series. There are cases to solve. However insane, however non-linear, however multi-dimensional and tangential, this is a detective story. And there are some things that come with that. One of the tropes of the detective story is the narrator. Whether it’s Watson, or whether it’s Miss Marple, or whatever, there’s a tradition of voiceover narration.
Now, we’re not doing the voiceover in the TV show. I do it in the comics, but with comics I feel that a way to give the reader some of that Adamsian joy is to let Dirk talk about whatever he wants to talk about. And in the comics, I have Dirk give us his point of view, I have Sally Mills, our sexy nefarious nurse, give us her point of view, I have Sid the Rhino give us his point of view. And that’s in the tradition of Douglas’ work — in Hitchhiker’s, every character from a blue whale to a potted plant has a point of view!
And I think that, by the way, is a prescription for good writing: make sure that every character has a point of view. Whether you give them a voiceover or not, they have to be real, they have to have a perspective on things.
And in the comics, I can easily do that. And also, in the comics, I can have my extraordinarily gifted artist, Ilias Kyriazis, draw things with a perspective. Because comics are not a literal pictorial medium, you’re not expecting photorealism, so we can experience a visual piece of storytelling that has a narrative perspective built into it. To take one example: the current series is about rhino poaching among other things, and in it, we have a supply and demand explanation of why we are hunting rhinos and elephants into extinction…
CA: Which, in and of itself, is a very Adamsian topic.
AED: Exactly! Douglas founded the Save The Rhino Foundation, he famously marched to the base camp of Kilimanjaro in a rhino suit, there was Last Chance To See, possibly his most important work… it was something very dear to his heart. And it’s also a cause I care about. We’re giving a share of the royalties from the comic to the Save The Rhino Foundation, in fact, as I wanted to honor that in a practical sense. But in a storytelling and equally-practical informational sense, explaining why we do this — the forces of economic supply and demand, and the criminal syndicates that cause rhinos to be hunted to the point of extinction — in the comic, we do it as a jigsaw puzzle. It’s an Adamsian idea made visual. It’s the interconnectedness of all things, through a physical jigsaw, in a comic book.
CA: Well yeah, one thing Adams always managed to do… He made explanations entertaining, and did so in very unique ways.
AED: That’s the bar we kind of set for ourselves, as a creative team. And you know, sometimes we’ll achieve it, and sometimes we won’t, but at least we’re aiming for that.
CA: Are there places where you feel Adams coming through in the characters, and conversely, are there points where you need to remind yourself that you’re the one doing the writing, and you can’t cross that line into emulating someone else’s voice?
AED: It’s a tightrope-walk. You have to be true to the brand, you have to be true to the tone, but… Again, Dirk has something here that Hitchhiker’s doesn’t quite have, and that’s a singular character in the center of things. Hitchhiker’s has several interesting and important and iconic characters, and the most central character, Arthur, is an everyman. He’s not so singular, in that sense. He’s a great character, but he’s that British trope of an everyman stuck in an extraordinary situation.
Dirk, on the other hand, is extraordinary. Douglas used to say that there’s a great tradition of British literary detectives, and Dirk Gently does not belong to that tradition. And in a certain sense, he’s not — but simply because he’s not good at stuff. Unlike Sherlock or any of the others, he’s just not good at being a detective. However he is in that tradition because, like Sherlock, he is an exceptional creation. He is totally unique. And that incredible precision with which Douglas drew him lets us always know what Dirk is going to do. You could put Dirk in any situation, and t could be as weird or as mundane as you would like, and certainly I know that he’s going to do. That’s just baked in to the character.
So I think what I try and do is to go, not so much “how would Douglas write this?”, which I think is just a recipe to drive yourself mad with feelings of inadequacy… instead, I ask myself “what would Dirk actually do in this situation?” The situation in the comic is of my creation, in the TV show, it’s of [writer/executive producer] Max Landis’ creation, but when it comes to what Dirk will do, he kind of decides for himself.
CA: So in bringing an Adams property to the screen, have you gone back and looked at any of his TV work to see how he, himself, brought his ideas to life using a different set of tools? His own Hitchhiker’s adaptation, his Doctor Who and Doctor Snuggles scripts, even the Hyperland documentary…
AED: Well, I’ve read everything and I’ve seen everything. But a lot of those things are very much of their time. And I think the more interesting question, or the more interesting approach, is to look at how huge Douglas’ influence is, and how his ideas have disseminated through culture. Without Douglas Adams, there is no Men In Black. There is no Joss Whedon, no Drew Goddard. The tone that some of the Marvel adaptations have taken, in their mix of the ridiculous galaxy-threatening high stakes, and the witty, pop-culture conscious, minutia-obsessed interactions, I think that owes a lot to Douglas. I mean, that’s not all Douglas, obviously, but it’s a tradition that was a part of, that goes from Oscar Wilde to P.G. Wodehouse to screwball comedy and so on…
CA: Yeah, there’s certainly a case to be made that there’s no Guardians Of The Galaxy without a Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy.
AED: Exactly. That’s a shorter way of saying it, yes! [laughs]
So what we’ve tried to do a bit more is go “okay, what are the best examples of filmmakers working today, filmmakers over the last couple decades, who have taken that Adamsian approach to narrative, and what did they do?” So you look at Terry Gilliam, who was, of course, a close friend and collaborator of Douglas’. You look at the Coen Brothers. You look at Dean Parisot, maker of Galaxy Quest, who we got to direct the first two episodes of Dirk Gently for us. And you look at where that knife edge of science fiction, thriller, and comedy happens, where they all live together, and you figure out what makes those things work.
Because there is, in Dirk Gently, something of The Dude, there’s something of Lebowski, there’s certainly something of Barton Fink, there’s something of Doctor Who, there’s something of Guardians, there’s something of Sherlock.
CA: This is interesting, because, at least to much of the American audience, there seems to be this idea that so much comedy, especially in the UK, is eternally in debt to Monty Python’s Flying Circus. But as we’re talking, I start to think that perhaps Adams has had a more lasting and widespread effect. Python was largely skit-driven, non-sequitur, anarchic absurdity. And Adams’ language-driven, observational dissection of concepts, his flair for mixing mundane and fantastic…
AED: Well, if a genius is anything, it’s someone who can look at the same world we all look at, see something fresh and different, and then describe it so that the rest of us see it, as if for the first time. And I think the Python comparison is interesting because he was a Python, briefly, he was the only person outside the core group to get sole writing credit for scripts. He even performed in one. And he famously said, when he was graduating from Cambridge and trying to decide what to do with his life, he had an exact vision in his mind of what his career would be — until he realized that John Cleese was already doing it.
So I think the traditions overlap, but really again, it’s about the form. Douglas wrote novels and radio and television serials, those forms have an intellectual framework where he really shone, and his influence becomes readily apparent when you look at the other people working in those forms… And again, you don’t copy them, you don’t try to do those things in the same ways, but you can get inspired and then approach the source material you’re working with using that inspiration.
The collected edition of David’s first Dirk Gently comic series, Dirk Gently’s Big Holistic Graphic Novel, and the premiere issue of Dirk Gently: The Salmon Of Doubt both hit comic shops in October. The first episode of the new Dirk Gently series will receive a premiere screening at New York Comic Con, and will air on BBC America on October 22.