Adaptation’s a tricky subject; it’s never perfect because it’s an imperfect art, stretching across the chasm between those making it and those watching it. What works for one person is anathema to another and vice versa. Welcome to By The Book. Every fortnight, we’ll compare a book with its visual adaptation. Are they faithful and delightful partners in storytelling, or are the authors turning in their graves through these unholy versions of their work? Tune in every fortnight to find out…
So what better place to start than with the most frequently adapted fiction in the world: Sherlock Holmes? Granted there are around 25,000 versions, so let’s narrow it down – to Sherlock, the BBC’s modern-day retelling of consulting detective Sherlock Holmes and his partner-in-crimesolving, John Watson.
It’s a daunting task to cast someone who’s been seen on screen more than 170 times – or at least, it should be. Benedict Cumberbatch was the only person who ever read for the role. He’s a departure from the traditional – young, pipeless, and rather attractive (thanks to the hair), he nonetheless inhabits Holmes’ rapid-fire deductions and inconvenient cleverness. There are differences – the novels’ Holmes isn’t cruel in the same way that Sherlock‘s Sherlock can be, and his partnership with John Watson is given a more overt life out of Victorian restraints (we’ll let the fandom run with that one). John’s role as a biographer is on the backburner here; it’s his role as Sherlock’s friend that gets the screentime. Cumberbatch and co-star Martin Freeman are a perfectly matched pair, so it’s no accident that Sherlock has catapulted them to stardom.
Creative License: the Grand Mofftiss
It’s important to state here that fidelity is not the raison d’être of adaptation; it’s a hangover from when film was considered the “lesser medium”, and change was sacrilege. The phrase ‘It’s not as good as the book’ should be excised from the English language, so if you’re here to mope then I ask you kindly to take your leave. This is an equal opportunities analysis. Got that? Good.
Sherlock is inherently one big example of creative license, from its modern setting to its increasing reliance on non-ACD characters (hey, Molly Hooper). Creators Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss – “Mofftiss” – play with their source material in the curious, focused way a cat plays with a mouse. In first episode A Study In Pink, A Study In Scarlet‘s ‘Rache’ means not the German for revenge but Rachel; it’s a three patch problem (not pipes); and Sherlock reads John Watson’s life from a mobile instead of a pocket watch. It sets the tone for thrill rides that cherry-pick what works and then bulk it up with Sherlock‘s own house style, leaving us with something that has very much become its own universe.
Mofftiss have quoted series three as “the first time that we’ve gone beyond [the books]”, and judging by their latest offerings (where weddings, character development, and worldbuilding are usurping crime) that creative licence is here to stay. And thank goodness; Sherlock‘s reinterpretations are one of its greatest joys.
Meta: “why’s it got two fronts?”
With a canon source so well-known there’s plenty of room to play, and boy, does Sherlock get the game going. Kicking off with the deerstalker in series two, the show is peppered with references both to ACD’s Holmes and Sherlock’s own real-world popularity, like easter eggs for eager fans. Along with the hat, the series doesn’t mind alluding to a long history of Holmes fanfiction (“Do you have a boyfriend? Which is fine, by the way”), and series two and three have seen ever-more direct references to its own fanbase.
What would Arthur Conan Doyle think?
After a decade of writing, ACD was so done with Holmes he killed him off (only for public outcry to bring him back again), so it’s easy to imagine him looking down on today and crying “Why won’t you stay dead?!”
On the other hand: despite its modern trappings and playful rearrangements, Sherlock does cut through to the heart of the stories. Mofftiss were vehement that Holmes be brought out of his “faux-Victorian fog”, both figuratively and literally; 150 years of exposure has led the deerstalker, pipe, and an escalating dimness on Watson’s part to become parodies of themselves. Stripping it back down to clever crimes and cleverer deductions is simply bringing it back to the man ACD created. Holmes was at the forefront of the science of his day; that day was just 150 years go, is all.
So then, as an adaptation, how does Sherlock do? There’s room to improve – it has yet to modernise its racial and LGBTQ* diversity (and gender, to a lesser extent) – but as a whole this adaptation gets top billing in the history of Holmes. With its superb cast, loving portrayal of characters, and balance between old stories and new ways of telling them, Sherlock has recreated a sleuth for the twenty-first century, and reintroduced the charms of a Victorian one. Sherlock Holmes lives again.
Perhaps the greatest measure of an adaptation’s success is what I’m going to call the “boomerang theory”: it might fly far, far away from its starting point, but it will always bring the audience (both old and new) back there again.
What do you think of our latest feature? Is the BBC’s Sherlock the best adaptation of Conan Doyle’s work or is it pure blasphemy? Let us know what you think.