x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 24 January 2018

Adapting Douglas Adams: Dirk Gently hits the screen

As the BBC embarks on an adaptation of another of Douglas Adams's creations, fans keep their fingers crossed.

Author Douglas Adams's creative genius has been adapted for film and TV with mixed results. Here, a scene from the BBC's 1981 adaptation of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy.
Author Douglas Adams's creative genius has been adapted for film and TV with mixed results. Here, a scene from the BBC's 1981 adaptation of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy.

"A common mistake that people make when trying to design something completely foolproof is to underestimate the ingenuity of complete fools." This Douglas Adams quote could easily be applied to the 2005 screen version of his masterpiece The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. Everything at the time said that this film - which was released four years after Adams' death - had to be a winner. Great dialogue, great visuals, great characters: surely he'd designed the perfect vehicle for an adaptation.

The film was dreadful. Fans of the author will be hoping that the BBC fares better with its TV adaptation of Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency - his brilliant but often-overlooked stab at the mystery genre - which began production this month. Adams described this book as a "detective-ghost-horror-who dunnit-time travel-romantic-musical-comedy-epic", which was his way of saying it wasn't your average mystery novel.

This was quite right, too. The likes of Elmore Leonard, after all, generally don't feature time travel and ghosts in their work; neither do they have their plot lines start with a search for a missing cat and end with a quest to find the Secret of Life. Adams had touched on this particular theme before. The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, as even the most non-committal Adams reader will recall, featured a super-computer called Deep Thought, which, after seven-and-a-half million years of analysis, announced that it had arrived at "The Ultimate answer to Life, the Universe and Everything." (The answer being, of course: 42.)

This novel, which was published in 1979 (shortly after it debuted as a BBC radio series), is possibly one of the strangest books ever written, and certainly one of the funniest. In later years, Adams delighted in the fact that people would conduct earnest discussions about what 42 could possibly mean, but it is also clear that he was interested in exploring more than the slapstick potential of a whale slamming into the Earth at terminal velocity.

As the legions of die-hard Adams fans will argue until the Ameglian Major Cows come home, The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy is an astute political and social satire, taking pot shots at everything from mindless bureaucracy to bad poetry. It is also, these same fans will claim, a prescient book, anticipating subsequent technological advances (the Hitchhiker's Guide of the title is an e-book) and those yet to come (his Infinite Improbability Drive, a power source for one of his spaceships, apparently still gets quantum theorists going).

Certainly, in the three decades since Hitchhiker's Guide was first published, the book's imaginative leaps have yet to be matched. The story begins with a drab suburbanite named Arthur Dent waking one morning to find contractors at his front door, there to inform him that his house is to be demolished to make way for a road. A short time later, a squad of intergalactic demolition experts arrive to remove Planet Earth from the proposed route of a hyperspace bypass. His subsequent travels hitchhiking through the galaxy bring him into contact with a cast of characters that makes the cantina scene in Star Wars look pedestrian.

The secret to Adams' staggering powers of invention wasn't that he could conjure ideas that lay outside the realm of experience - as is sometimes said - but that he was able to see what a strange place the world around us is. Describing a particular fleet of spacecraft, for instance, he wrote that "the ships hung in the sky in much the same way that bricks don't". Being able to wring a laugh (and a fresh perspective) from thudding Newtonian physics: that was Adams' genius.

Adams also had a knack for one-liners. His work is filled with stuff like: "He was a dreamer, a thinker, a speculative philosopher... or, as his wife would have it, an idiot." One of his more famous quotes concerned his rather whimsical approach to publication schedules: "I love deadlines. I like the whooshing sound they make as they fly by." That said, Adams was prolific and varied in his creations. In addition to publishing more than a dozen books (some posthumously), he made radio shows, computer games, TV scripts and (two whole years before Wiki) an open-source online encyclopaedia (h2g2, which, Adams being who he was, favoured the quirky: "World's Largest Catsup Bottle" and "An Idiot's Guide to Trolling").

In person, Adams was known to be unassuming and a little goofy, but beyond all this there was a profound and original thinker. Even his silliest quips generally had a serious point behind them. The number 42 may not mean anything - that was the joke - but this very fact speaks volumes about the human propensity to look for ultimate meaning. Although, it must be said, the author was anything but a cynic.

As well as being an avid technophile (he is often cited as being the first person in the UK to own a Mac, and remained an Apple champion to the end), Adams was a passionate environmentalist and animal-rights activist (he took a special interest in the rhinoceros). When he wasn't writing, recording, producing, editing or promoting his work, Adams could be found somewhere, giving a speech about something.

This unflagging energy, perhaps, is what caused Adams - as his friend Stephen Fry put it - to "leave the party far, far too early". Adams died at the age of 49, on May 11, 2001. Just a few days prior to this, he had given a lengthy and elaborate talk at the University of California, Santa Barbara, appropriately titled "Parrots, the Universe and Everything". In typical Adams style, the talk led the audience through a maze of subjects, delivered with deadpan wit. "Twigs were absolutely wonderful," he said at one point, having meandered into the topic of tool use among primates. "If there had been copies of TwigUser Magazine around, those creatures would have been lining up for them." You sense that, if he'd lived a little longer, this image might have made it into one of his books.

Adams died so suddenly, he didn't really have the time for any last words. But then, maybe he didn't need any. In The Long Dark Teatime of the Soul, the follow-up to Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency, Adams has a character say this: "I may not have gone where I intended to go, but I think I have ended up where I needed to be." That, surely, works just fine.