The modern day is a good time to be a fan of Sherlock Holmes. The character, created by Arthur Conan Doyle and featured in a number of novels and short stories, has been around since 1887, so fans have always had reasons his deductive reasoning and uncouth attitude towards others. However, in recent years the character has become so big and interesting that countries have been practically fighting over who can do it better. Of course, one would imagine that Britain have the edge, that being the country wherein Sherlock was invented and resides in story. However, that isn’t necessarily the case.
In 2011, Guy Ritchie directed a sequel to his earlier 2009 film version of Sherlock, A Game of Shadows. The title role was reprised by Robert Downey Jr. whist Jude Law took up the reins as Dr. John Watson again. Robert Downey Jr. was convincing and the sequel was a marked improvement upon the first, which was not bad but not amazing either considering the quality of actors and producers attached to the project. The biggest problem with the film series was perhaps that Sherlock Holmes didn’t quite seem like himself. Yes, he solved crimes and battled wits against Professor Moriarty, played brilliantly by Jared Harris, but he was also very comedic in a way that Sherlock is rarely portrayed. It had all the elements of a Sherlockian film but the main character felt like Robert Downey Jr., not Sherlock Holmes.
A lot of the same criticisms were recently made about the new James Bond film, Skyfall. Like the 2009 Sherlock Holmes film, I felt that it wasn’t bad but it wasn’t really awe-inspiring either. It was better than Casino Royale and A Quantum of Solace but it’s still a step behind the golden days of Bond. Daniel Craig returns as James Bond and stops an eccentric bad guy while delivering an endless run of one-liners and puns. What more could one want from a Bond film, right? But just like the Sherlock films by Guy Ritchie, it often feels like I’m watching someone play at being Sherlock or Bond rather than really believing that the character is who they pretend to be. That kind of immersion goes a long way to making an audience enjoy a film.
Steven Moffat and Benedict Cumberbatch have actually pulled this off quite well. If you’re a frequent reader of this blog then you’ll be aware of my love for Doctor Who and I’ve often written on what Moffat has done in recent seasons. And you may remember I delved into the season finale of Sherlock after the second series was over, but one of the standout elements of Sherlock is Benedict Cumberbatch’s portrayal of the character. More often than not, directors and writers will highlight or underplay certain elements of the character that make him less like Arthur Conan Doyle intended. In the old Granada Television series, Sherlock, played by Jeremy Brett, he was a brilliant detective but he was very dry. In the film series, he has been made lighter in doing so the films have also made him less of an ass. That’s what Cumberbatch captures quite excellently. Sherlock Holmes was not a nice person. Sometimes this is explained by a lack of social skills, in the same way Sheldon Cooper’s lack of understanding in social situations can make him difficult for Leonard and Penny to relate to in The Big Bang Theory. Whatever the reason is, Cumberbatch’s Sherlock Holmes is certainly an ass. He doesn’t like people and only involves himself with them if it benefits him in some way. He has very little patience for anything he doesn’t care about, which was quite true of the original Sherlock Holmes as well.
Perhaps one of the best depictions of Sherlock Holmes is a character that isn’t even called Sherlock Holmes. Gregory House, the titular character in the TV series House and played by Hugh Laurie, has all the famous characteristics. His intelligence exceeds that of the average man and his deduction skills are famed. Not only that, but he’s a real jerk, insulting people when they make stupid remarks and admonishing people for even slight carelessness. And yet, he feels unbelievably human because he still desires all the things that regular people do. He wants love and he wants success, but he’s too much of a jerk to attain either of those things. Oh, and he has a drug problem.
That’s the other part of Sherlock Holmes that gets glossed over very often. Sherlock Holmes has a serious drug problem. It’s not really presented as such in the literature because it was written during Victorian and Edwardian periods of England, so the use of cocaine and morphine held fewer stigmas. However, in the text, Sherlock uses both drugs in as a stimulant for his mind. Dr. John Watson is smart enough to know that too much cocaine can’t possibly be good for him and even in later stories when he uses much less, the good doctor admits that Sherlock is still an addict.
Most adaptations, such as the films, do show his drug use but it is a lot less pronounced than it appears in the books. House is, again, more faithful than most named adaptations in that it shows the Sherlock-inspired character continually struggling with his addiction to Vicodin. More recently, the US made Sherlock Holmes TV show Elementary portrays the character as a recovering addict. In many ways, this could be considered to be drawn from the 1974 novel by Nicholas Meyer, in which Sherlock goes to rehab and his time away is explained by him having foiled a plot by his math tutor, Professor Moriarty. It’s interesting then that the American version of Sherlock Holmes, which cast John Watson as an Asian female (renamed Joan) who is no longer a doctor but rather a sober companion, is more faithful to the canon and even the expanded universe than even most British television shows and series’ have proven to be.
Before it even aired Elementary got a bad reputation because Moffat turned down an offer to adapt the BBC show Sherlock for American audiences. So CBS went ahead and made their own. They made quite a few changes, such as the aforementioned gender change for Watson, but on the whole I actually thing they did a very good job. The changes seem to work quite well, surprisingly. It almost feels like a CBS decided if Moffat wouldn’t give them a Sherlock adaptation that they would make their own and make it better. And they did.
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