Wednesday, October 4, 2017

Eighties Adaptations

I guess we're talking a lot about filmed adaptations now, and that's good, since too often discussion of adaptations devolves into "Is it good or bad? Were they LOYAL to the original? Is actor X perfect as classic character Y?" instead of interesting questions like "Why does a visual medium benefit from this change? What is different about the themes now, than when the previous version was written three decades ago?"

So we've got "Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency" and "The Tick", both originally written work from 1986. Despite very different plots, they are fairly similar thematically: the main character is extremely weird, with unexplained supernatural phenomenon going on with them, and a complete unwillingness to follow conventional society. This character surreally interacts with the rest of society, who are stubborn in focusing on their normal concerns and methods of interaction, and generally willfully blind/dismissive to how much weird shit is going on around them. The title protagonist has a sidekick who acts as a bridge between them and the normal world.

There's a lot of differences, but these parallels aren't coincidentally. The fundamental theme of both is a sort of existentialist "how we let the psychological absurd into our lives."

(I can't believe there isn't more writing on the influences of French existentialism on the Tick. It seems really obvious, from the way "French" is their default variable for "foreign" and the way characters resemble French wrestling costumes, which have always been more about abstractions of our inner selves more than American professional wrestling, and just the way everything is both very erudite in its references (Die Fledermaus) and abstractly non-specific (The City).)

And fortunately, both of these have recently come out on internet streaming prestige TV series.

You can get both from Amazon, and they are pretty worth it.

And they are of course substantially different from the original - but precisely in the way you need to to capture the themes of the original. We're in a different time and a different medium than we were in 1986, and so you have to approach this differently to get to the same place.

What's most notable is... neither of these shows are about the title character. The protagonist and focal character is unmistakably that "somewhat boring sidekick figure" from the written work. In the Tick this is the perennial butt-of-jokes Arthur, and in Dirk Gently it's a completely new character (played by superstar Elijah Wood), due to fact that Gently has a new buddy in each of his novels. But we open with them and their boring life, see their personal struggles, their shock and resistance as this bizarre extrusion from the weird invades their lives, and eventually their embrace of absurd adventure.

We've gone from the main character being Don Quixote, to focusing on Pancho.

And it works really well. The quasi-normal sidekick is a much better stand-in for our modern audience than the mythic figure. We easily identify with Arthur and Elijah. And then the title character now works very well as largely an extension of the main character; both Gently and the Tick are hinted as as figments of the imagination.

(The Tick much more so: he disappears so conveniently that they lampshade it with a moment where Arthur has the revelation that he's imagining the Tick, only to be anti-climactically put down by someone else seeing him. But that doesn't really take away that the Tick has no identity outside Arthur: he doesn't remember anything before meeting Arthur, he's incapable of acting on his own much, and he literally says "I am the you that you always wanted to be." The entire series so far is about Arthur's battle with sanity as represented by the Tick and the emotional state the Terror.)

As always with my reviews, I'm not saying anything very insightful. (I should have a lot more to say about what the Tick and Dirk respectively say about the mental health of the person they are orbiting, for instance.) I'm just really struck no one else is saying this yet. The new Tick series is about Arthur mostly! The Dirk Gently series relegates him to a side character! Why is this so under discussed? Why can't we watch a film and say what we see in it?

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