As frequent readers of this blog probably know by now, I am a bit of a Sherlockian—which is to say I am a devoted fan of, and somewhat of an amateur expert on, the Sir Arthur Conan Doyle stories featuring the Great Detective, Sherlock Holmes. I’m not talking about the vast multitudes of ancillary stories, books, films and pastiches that have been done with the character . . . I know next to nothing about that stuff. I’m talking about the original 56 short stories and four novels by Conan Doyle, from which all the rest of it sprung. A purist, in other words. Oh, I have my issues with some of the original “canon” as it’s called, but largely I am a fan of Holmes as he was written by his original creator.
I have had a number of friends, knowing this about me, still insist I watch the BBC show “Sherlock”, starring the subjects of my SotW above, Martin Freeman and Benedict Cumberbatch. I am usually resistant to read or watch anything that is considered an “update” of Holmes, since I feel that the Victorian era in which his tales are set are a key component of both the charm of the stories and the working of his character. Those stories were set and written in a time of great enlightenment, when science was beginning to take hold of the imagination of the civilized world, and it was conceivable that a person with a brilliant mind like Holmes would indeed seem like a sorcerer to the average man. The modernization of communications, with wires and multitudes of newspaper and periodical publication, made possible Holmes’ celebrity and notoriety, making him the first modern superhero. How could that same sense of wonder and dawning intellectual reason be applied to today’s world, where pre-teen kids have access to virtually any question’s answer with a few keystrokes, and instantaneously communicate with either their neighbor or someone on the other side of the world with equal ease? The easy way would be to make a modern day Holmes into the ultimate hacker, which is both lazy and boring. How could Holmes be brought into the 21st century and still make him Holmes?
Well, I think “Sherlock” has shown exactly how that can be done.
I finally got around to seeing the series, and I think it’s as good as it could possibly be as an updated Sherlock Holmes. Creators Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss obviously understand source material deeply, and have done a brilliant job of keeping the spirit and heart of the world of Holmes intact as they translate it into modern day. The original Holmes used modern scientific methods and equipment to solve his mysteries . . . modern for the late 1800’s that is. Sherlock’s Holmes does the same, but he trades his indexes and newspaper archives for internet searches, his telegraph wires for texting, and test tubes and Bunsen burners for high tech scanners and analyzers. Watson is an army doctor injured in the war in Afghanistan just like in the original books, but the 2010 war, not the Second Anglo-Afghan War of 1878–1880. Mini-taxis replace the dog-carts and hansoms of London. That is all pretty obvious stuff, but they have given a modern twist to many of the other elements of the Holmes canon that are just plain brilliant. Holmes’ army of young street vagabonds, the “Baker Street Irregulars” whom he used as his eyes and ears on the streets of London are replaced by a network of the homeless, who serve as the 2010’s version of invisible and ignored street people who nonetheless “go everywhere and see everything”. Holmes’ celebrity is still the result of the publication of his exploits by Dr. Watson, but rather than being published in magazines they are on a blog that has gone viral.
Moffat and Gatiss also took a page from Peter Jackson‘s adaptation of The Lord of the Rings—working in characters, names, dialog, and specific story details from the original stories (even if they are not in the same context as the originals) to endear the series to hardcore Sherlockians. Most of the stories in the six episodes comprising the first two seasons are based on original tales from the canon, either directly, partly using combined elements from several stories or just having nods to famous moments from the Conan Doyle canon. Even in updating or changing them they do a great job of keeping the spirit of the originals intact.
All that said, the real triumph here is the translation of the characters themselves into modern day versions with their essential selves intact. What made Holmes compelling in the 1800’s, his fearlessness, arrogance, drive, often lack of empathy, detachment, and the oddities that his restless brain demanded of his persona are present and brought into conflict with both his adversaries and his friends. Holmes began as a complex character, even if he became much simpler in the later canon stories. He tried his friendships as mightily as he did the criminals he pursued or the mysteries he unraveled. Cumberbatch and Freeman are outstanding in bringing these characters to life in a real and resonating way that the constant witty but tiresome “bromance” banter of Robert Downey Jr. and Jude Law don’t in the recent films. I enjoyed the movies, but they aren’t really Holmes and Watson . . . how could they be when Watson is half a head taller than Holmes??! The one thing “Sherlock” doesn’t touch much on was Homes the cocaine addict, although they try and make cigarettes his replacement vice. I never really appreciated that aspect of Conan Doyle’s character, and as it was abandoned early in his stories it’s not been touched on in the new series . . . there is plenty of conflict and challenges for Holmes with his own personality demons, he doesn’t need a drug problem to make him interesting.
I thank all my friends who keep pestering me to watch this show, I am glad I finally gave in. I recommend it to Sherlockians and casual fans alike. An update that really works!
Now, don’t get me started on “Elementary”.