Friday, October 25, 2013

Sherlock Holmes: A Comparative Study

Mythology not withstanding, I've often argued that Sherlock Holmes is the original comic book superhero. But for the fact that he was created before the age of comic books, it's hard to dismiss that Holmes' uncanny, almost super-human ability, his faithful sidekick (Watson), and a ruthless arch-nemesis (Moriarty) would eventually become tropes of the comic book form. It makes sense then that the Victorian era super sleuth would make such a huge splash in our comic book super hero obsessed culture of the early 21st century with three very popular incarnations.

In 2009, Holmes gets the big-screen special effects extravaganza treatment with Guy Ritchie's Sherlock Homes and it's 2011 sequel Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows featuring modern day matinee idols Robert Downey, Jr and Jude Law as H. and W. respectively. In 2011, Stephen Moffatt and Mark Gatiss reinvigorate the story by updating it to modern day London for the BBC with Sherlock, while in 2012, CBS went a couple of steps further by transporting a modern day Holmes to New York City and replacing the affable Dr. John Watson with the notably more female Dr. Joan Watson in its series Elementary.

With a third Ritchie film in the works, an approaching premiere for a third series of Sherlock, and Elementary succeeding as one of the few hit shows of the 2012 TV season, it's safe to say that Sherlock isn't going anywhere. And, since I'm about to embark on my own Sherlock adventure (Directing playwright Steven Dietz's adaptation of Sherlock Homes: The Final Adventure for the Schenectady Civic Players this winter) I thought it would be fun to look at which adaptations do the best at portraying the various aspects of their source material.Below are the categories, and how I think they rate, and why. Let's have a look, shall we? (PS: Spoilers ahead.)


First, I've decided to do the comparison of these characters as a team, because I believe at the heart of the lore is the relationship between these two characters.


Of the adaptations, Moffatt and Gatiss' creation seem to hit closest to the spirit of Arthur Conan Doyle's original idea. Despite being set in modern day, the mysteries they solve and the methods they use are nearest to the source material. Every modern update seems a fun and clever trick that somehow fits just right. (Watson as an Afghan war vet, Sherlock's smoking addiction, Watson's blog.)

The relationship between these two is also the most compelling of their contemporary counterparts. Freeman's Watson is superb in his stammering and disbelief at Sherlock's genius, and Cumberbatch is perfect as the aloof, arrogant crime solver. Watching their interactions together it becomes easy to understand why this partnership has endured for well over a century.

Strongest Attribute: Despite it's modern day re-telling, it seems to hold closest to the core Sherlock values.


Sherlock Holmes as a bare-knuckled brawler? I was wary when I heard about this adaptation, mostly because the previews featured a lot of big budget violence and special effects, but, despite the fact that I find the violence-prone Holmes a less successful departure, it's hard to deny the allure of these two actors.

Downey brings his trademark Downeyishness to the role, but ultimately, I think, his characterization comes off as more daft than intellectually superior. Law is a suitable Watson, and hits all the right notes of exasperated loyalty. Also, he is one of the few incarnations of Watson that adheres to Conan Doyle's own description of Watson as handsome and something of a ladies man, not the roundish, bespectacled counterparts that have preceded him (See ).

Strongest Attribute: The big-screen chemistry between these two movie stars is hard not to love.


When I first heard about the CBS series, I couldn't wrap my mind around why. We already had the perfect updated version of the story with Sherlock so what could an Americanized version bring to it? Turns out, quite a bit. The biggest difference is Liu as Dr. Joan Watson, a former surgeon, she comes into Sherlock's life as his sober companion to help him stay off heroin, the disgrace of which has driven him from his native London to New York City.

Miller is an excellent Holmes brilliantly capturing the heroes quirkiness and portraying him almost as if he were somewhere on the autism spectrum. Liu's task is certainly a difficult one. I'm sure that Sherlock purists are quick to dismiss her, but her Watson, in the world that creator Robert Doherty has made, is compelling. This is emboldened by the choice, so far, not to make a male/female Holmes and Watson a romantic relationship. I hope this decision perseveres.

Strongest Attribute: Carefully and respectfully creating a new mythology allows the characters to grow beyond their staid perceptions.


Despite only being featured in one of Conan Doyle's stories (A Scandal in Bohemia) and mentioned only a handful of other times, it's interesting that Adler's character continues to endure. Each modern version has it's own take on "The Woman".


Okay, so one thing we American's got right was casting this vixen as Irene Adler. I mean, she's not only Margaery Tyrell (Game of Thrones) but she's also Anne Boelyn (The Tudors). Dormer appears in four episodes (so far) of the series and is perfectly cast, even if the role and her relationship to Holmes departs significantly. In fact, one major departure, indicated in a major spoiler below, is part of what makes her my favorite.

It's easy to imagine anyone, even Sherlock, falling for the Irene Adler that Dormer presents. Here, she is an American Art restorer whom Holmes met before leaving London, but it is the truth of her identity that makes her really exciting. (See below. Seriously, though. Spoilers.)


I always imagined Irene Adler as less a criminal mastermind and more of a woman doing just what she needed to do to get by. It's what separates her from the Moriarty's of the world. Pulver, in the BBC version, is a little bit more Catwoman than her counterparts. Here, she is a dominatrix of British, not American, decent. Her crimes are more efforts at self preservation, as her character holds a smart phone with tons of encrypted information. Though, the reveal of the password to open it (I am locked.) was one of my favorite moments of the shows second season, her backstory left me feeling a little flat.

Her character, and Sherlock's reactions to her, seem to be the best representation of Conan Doyle's writing, but doesn't quite make for the most interesting version.


Rachel McAdams turn as Adler in the blockbuster films was something of a disappointment, if only because she seemed to be primarily a plot device and there solely to up the film's romance factor.

As played by McAdams, Adler certainly retains much of her independent spirit, but her essence gets lost in the big budget spectacle and is over-shadowed by Downey's scene chewing.


Like Adler, Moriarty's presence in Conan Doyle's work is not as prominent as later adaptations might imply. He was actually devised as a way for Conan Doyle to kill Holmes.


First, hey sexy. Second, Andrew Scott's Moriarty in the BBC imagining is dark, dangerous, yet undeniably alluring. The reveal of his character is so well orchestrated, you can't help but feel Sherlock's surprise, fear and attraction to the "Napoleon of Crime."

What Moffatt and Gatiss, through Scott, bring to Moriarty is a perfect foil for the Sherlock they've created. They seem to be of an age, where other incarnations portray Moriarty as older, and both characters seem driven by competition. Scott makes Moriarty's desire to engage Holmes in a game of wits work by creating a character who can change his dangerous courses on a whim.


That's right. In a major twist on the original story, it is revealed that Irene Adler is in fact an alias created by the devious, and female, Jaime Moriarty. Personally, I loved this twist, and in a world where Watson is a woman, why can't Moriarty?

Between the casting of the terrific Dormer, and re-imagining these two characters in a new way, the show proves that their decision to up-end much of what we know about Sherlock, has allowed them to create new and exciting surprises!


Jared Harris (aka, Lane Pryce on Mad Men) is about the closest one can imagine to the image of Moriarty that has persevered. He is older, angrier, and more evil than the others, so it would seem. In the film, he is perhaps the most loyal to the source material.

Harris' Moriarty certainly rings all the right bells, but something about his role in the overall story makes him just another big-budget baddie.



Sherlock's relationship with the police has always been central to his ability to solve crime, and both TV adaptations bring two different characters from the Conan Doyle Canon to life. On Sherlock, the great Rupert Graves plays Inspector Lestrade (left) and Aidan Quinn (right) plays NYPD Captain Thomas Gregson. Both are strong representations of the original characters invented by Conan Doyle, but Grave's Lestrade is the perfect combination of frustrated reliance that plays out in a brilliant season 2 plot. (My only qualm with Dietz's play script is that he has excluded both characters.)


In the films, Stephen Fry's funny, spirited performance as Mycroft is a highlight, particularly in the second film. He perfectly creates the right level of annoyance to Downey's Holmes and is sufficiently off the wall to be of the same gene pool.


In Elementary, Mrs. Hudson (Candis Cayne) has only appeared once, as a transgender womanand old friend of Sherlock's who made a life as a "mistress and muse for powerful men".

I'm hoping that this Mrs. Hudson returns as recurring or series regular. This is another significant departure for the series, and one I believe could really pay off.


The famous flat is probably best represented in the Sherlock series, though the residence on Elementary, referred to by it's leads as "The Brownstone" is an adequate New York representation.
Full Post

No comments:

Post a Comment