Elementary, Sherlock and the adaptation problem

Feature Gem Wheeler 14 Feb 2014 - 07:00

Gem compares Elementary and Sherlock's approach to adapting Arthur Conan Doyle's original stories...

Warning: contains plot details for Sherlock series three and Elementary season two.

Unless you’ve been hiding out in a mysterious foreign country since 2012, you’ll know that Sherlock recently concluded its third series by presenting us with another tantalising mystery. The last time this happened, it was the thorny question of how Sherlock managed to survive his leap from the roof of St Bart’s. This year, we’re left to wonder how Moriarty apparently brushed aside the small matter of a self-inflicted bullet wound to the head. It’s comforting to know that times may change, but Sherlock’s capacity to induce fevered speculation and waves of online outrage will be with us for some time to come. 

We’ve been granted no fewer than three recent interpretations of the consulting detective. Robert Downey Jr’s take on Holmes plays fast and loose with Arthur Conan Doyle’s iconic character to hugely entertaining effect. Purists, however, should probably look elsewhere. Enter Sherlock and CBS’s Elementary, which, after much scepticism on the part of Sherlock fans, has surprised those who bothered to give it a chance by being ever so slightly brilliant. In Jonny Lee Miller and Benedict Cumberbatch, we have two completely different Sherlocks. Many feared that Elementary would merely retread the ground covered by the BBC’s version. Instead, we’ve seen the same material reworked by both in subtly different ways. Double the canon-referencing fun, then – and the most astute of the armchair detectives among you will have had a field day spotting exactly how they do it.


The adaptational approach taken by Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss, co-creators of Sherlock, has generally involved stripping a Conan Doyle adventure to its essentials, preserving just enough of the original while tweaking the fine detail of characters and plots to fit a modern setting. Some clever updates do the trick: instead of describing a tricky case as a three-pipe problem, a reformed Sherlock relies on three nicotine patches to see him through particularly fiendish tests of his logic, while the bulletholes in 221B’s wall form the shape of a rave-era smiley face rather than the ‘VR’ with which the Victorian Holmes defaced it in honour of Queen Victoria’s Jubilee. Other aspects of Conan Doyle’s original stories, of course, need no real adjustment at all. Sherlock still meets John Watson (Martin Freeman) in St Barts’ Hospital, and – just like his nineteenth-century counterpart – this Watson’s recently returned from military service in Afghanistan. Some things, sadly, never change. 

The choices made by Elementary’s showrunner, Rob Doherty, have been a little different. He’s circumvented the difficulty of establishing a distinctive identity for his show by stranding Holmes in New York; continuity with the canon is maintained by the presence of familiar figures such as the obligatory Watson (Lucy Liu) and Gregson (Aidan Quinn), who’s lost his northern English background but retained his blunt persona. As for the good doctor, she may have abandoned the medical profession after a surgical error left a patient dead, but her caring nature and steadfast loyalty to her new charge means that the inspired concept of Watson as sober companion is entirely in keeping with what we already know of the character. Her gender change isn’t entirely unprecedented, either. Joanne Woodward played a female Dr. Watson to George C. Scott’s flamboyant Sherlock Holmes in the 1971 film, They Might Be Giants; admittedly, that movie’s Holmes was the alter ego of a psychologically fragile playboy, but in the great melting pot of allusions, every influence counts…


We wouldn’t get to see Miller’s Holmes in his natural habitat until the second season’s opener, but by then his bridges had been decisively burnt. 221B had been made over with tasteful blandness by his brother, who, at the very end of the episode, took the symbolic step of detonating all his annoying younger sibling’s worldly possessions. Not everything was left in the past, though; Mycroft followed Sherlock Stateside, only to open a restaurant called Diogenes, which, in another of their fictional lives, was the name of a gentleman’s club frequented by a certain languid civil servant. 

After the strict adherence to canon of the Jeremy Brett years, straight conversions of Conan Doyle’s original stories wouldn’t have been the right approach for either show. In any case, modern settings naturally required adjustments to be made. At first, Sherlock’s creators chose to stick fairly closely to their source material, adding a few distinctive twists to keep each tale relevant. At its best, this approach gave us A Study In Pink rather than the original scarlet-hued puzzler, combining an exhilarating update of Holmesian tropes with tongue-in-cheek reminders that we’re not in Conan Doyle’s universe anymore, that ‘Rache/Rachel’ gag being a case in point. The Great Game was another fine example, using the espionage plot of The Adventure of the Bruce-Partington Plans as a jumping-off point for a twisting tale that managed to blend references to several of the original mysteries in one satisfying package. After this tour de force, it perhaps wasn’t too surprising that Moffat and Gatiss should target Irene Adler, the Baskerville hound and Sherlock’s final tussle with arch-nemesis Moriarty for series two, with varying degrees of success. Series three has, inevitably, seen them revert to a slightly looser reinterpretation of the canon; The Sign of Three owed nothing to its near namesake, The Sign of Four, but a nod to the title, a victim (Major Sholto) and a locked-room mystery.


Elementary’s rarely tackled individual Conan Doyle stories head on. Instead, obscure allusions are scattered throughout each season, creating an appealingly Holmesian atmosphere while permitting new tales to be told. We encounter half-forgotten figures from the original stories; one of my favourites was Langdale Pike, the mine of gossip who perched himself by his club’s window in The Adventure of the Three Gables, all the better to keep abreast of stories to sell to the gutter press. Miller’s Holmes knows him better as a CCTV operator in Trafalgar Square; like his nineteenth-century counterpart, Pike prefers to remain unseen, but delivers the goods nonetheless. One of the more faithful stories was The Marchioness, which used the mysterious disappearance of a familiar horse named Silver Blaze to drag an unwilling Holmes back into the orbit of Mycroft’s former fiancée, a woman he himself once knew rather too intimately. Elementary’s Irene Adler was even more disconcerting than Sherlock’s (well, she did turn out to be Moriarty, after all) but both shows were united in identifying Charles Augustus Milverton as a source of true, insidious evil. Sherlock renamed him Magnussen (played by the superb Lars Mikkelsen) and recast him as a deeply sinister Danish newspaper magnate with the world’s darkest secrets at his fingertips. Elementary, meanwhile, made him a grubby blackmailer typing his way to a sticky end. As the great man himself would doubtless remind us, the devil is in the detail.

Most telling, however, are the deeper changes made to those well loved characters. Elementary needed to carve out a niche for itself, and one of its most distinctive features is its very different sleuth. Cumberbatch’s Sherlock describes himself as a ‘high-functioning sociopath’. He isn’t, but he can be abrasive, often callous, and neglectful even of the feelings of those who truly matter to him. His personality traits are informed not just by Conan Doyle’s master detective, but by his fictional successors; there’s a touch of Gregory House in his barbs, and, as Dr. Watson wryly notes on one memorable occasion, more than a hint of Spock in his cool logic.


Miller’s Holmes, meanwhile, is a different proposition. Social conventions are of no interest to him and his family life redefines the term ‘dysfunctional’, yet there’s a rich seam of kindness and empathy beneath the awkward façade. A single scene defines Miller’s spin on the character. At one of his regular Narcotics Anonymous meetings, Holmes talks to the group about the underlying reasons for his plight. For a man with such acute powers of observation, the sensory overload of modern life is almost unbearable; his drug habit was – before his friendship with sober companion and partner in detection, Joan Watson – the only way he knew to drown it out. Perhaps, he muses, it would have been better had he been born in another, simpler time.

That fish-out-of-water displacement’s exactly why a twenty-first century Sherlock Holmes retains such irresistible appeal, so much so that any number of thoughtful reinterpretations will always be welcome. His unbreakable bond with Dr. Watson will endure, regardless of the good physician’s gender, while it doesn’t matter too much whether brother Mycroft’s a rakish restaurateur or an all-powerful bureaucrat. As long as there are blackmailers at large, murderers on the loose and criminal gangs running rings around the world’s police, there will be a place for Sherlock Holmes. Which version of the world’s greatest detective you prefer to accompany in his pursuit of the truth is up to you, but one thing’s for certain: the game’s still very much on – or, just possibly, afoot.

Read more about Elementary, and Sherlock on Den of Geek.

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AVClub recently ran an article making a case for Elementary being the superior of the two shows. Sherlock is definitely more purely entertaining, but there is a good case to be made for Elementary since it has so much more time for its characters and can actually present them in real situations without constantly weaving labyrinthine plot elements together. Plus Sherlock really is kind of All About Sherlock. The procedural structure definitely limits Elementary but it outranks its contemporaries in the field, no CSI gimmicks. Apart from Holmes' brain...

Elementry is terrible, Lucy Lui is grating. Sherlock is amazing.

Gotta correct the author in 2nd to last paragraph. Holmes does not wish for a SIMPLER time, but a quieter one:

'So in my less productive moments, I'm given to wonder if I'd just been
born when it was a little quieter out there, would I have even become an
addict in the first place? Might I have been more focused? A more fully
realized person?'

Also I think Lucy Liu is great in the role. I think men viewers, in particular, have harder time accepting her because in this imagining she is much more Holmes equal than in any other adaptation.

I was a big fan of Sherlock, but series three was painful to watch. Anyone else remember when it used to be about solving crimes rather than putting Holmes in 'fish out of water' situations (stag parties, a relationship)?

You dont actually watch Elementary do you! I watched a few but they are so Castle (ish) in style that they arent worth wasting time over.

Just to clarify, this feature's based on the first season-and-a-bit of Elementary (UK speed) and the first three series of Sherlock, all of which I've seen.

It's not that men have trouble accepting Lucy Liu as Holmes' equal because of some kind of difficulty accepting her because she's female. Sex doesn't enter into it. The problem is the strange, rushed direction they took with Watson towards not being the sidekick, and being the partner.

It's that it was so sudden. In the more recent season 2 episodes especially, Watson has been exactly Holmes' equal - occasionally surpassing his deductive and observational abilities. Since very early in season 1, I realised that if I spent my time comparing Elementary to any previous incarnation of Sherlock Holmes, I would be disappointed. So I didn't! I've not looked at it as Sherlock Holmes since, and I've very much enjoyed almost every episode. It isn't difficult to accept that this incarnation has a Watson that is Holmes' equal - fair enough. But if you're going to take that direction, do it from the beginning. Episode one. Season one.

In Elementary, Watson HAS been intelligent from day one, but Holmes was something else (as usual). The character was typical Holmes, really. A deductive mind people can't begin comprehend. The speed, accuracy, and logic to his deductions second to none. That's what's interesting about his character, and that's why any incarnation of the show should be shown from Watson's perspective - never inside Sherlock's bloody mind (Sherlock S3, I'm looking at you, you utter Tumblr bootlick). So, merely by accepting Watson as his partner.. Watson becomes his intellectual equal?

Elementary IS a show about a partnership, now. That's lovely - but they've blurred the characters of Holmes and Watson far too much. Holmes is the mind, Watson is the humanity. Holmes has been humanised greatly, and Joan's powers of perception are second only to Holmes himself from just over a year of his presence? And yes, yes.. I know. You can't watch Elementary expecting Sherlock Holmes. I know. You're supposed to enjoy the show for what it is in itself, I know. It's just, that's exactly what I was doing the entire time.

Having watched the entirety of the two shows, they are completely different animals, with only a name in common. The author has done well to hit the main differences on the head. Sherlock is a sprawling, engaging tale that is pure exhilaration for three episodes and then it fades into the background, whereas Elementary is a show you can really fall in love with, watch week in week out and really connect with the characters. Holmes' character development in Sherlock inevitably feels rushed and I think that where Elementary has the edge is the superb Natalie Dormer, whose portrayal of Irene Adler/Moriarty is superbly written and brilliantly acted and the way she destroys Holmes is so vastly superior to anything that Sherlock has been able to do to him. She left him a drug addled mess and then came back for more. The Holmes/Watson relationship is fascinating and a lot less tongue in cheek and whilst Lucy Lui is no Martin Freeman, Johnny Lee Miller is very different but in my mind, equally engaging to Benedict Cumberbatch.

I was ready to hate 'Elementary' when it first appeared, but watching several episodes from the first season, I thought it was doing a decent job of carving out its own niche. But it's still so far behind 'Sherlock' it's untrue - the British show feels like an effective modern day adaptation of Holmes and his world, the US one just feels like a detective show featuring a bloke called Sherlock Holmes. I stuck with 'Sherlock' because I found it a satisfying watch, with strong scripts and an excellent cast, but 'Elementary' (Jonny Lee Miller's very good Holmes aside) fell by the wayside as it floundered in mundanity.

I like both adaptations but think comparisons of the two are difficult. One has a 24 episode run per year and the other 3 episodes every two years.

Despite Elementary having a much higher demand on the writers it has never compromised on its characterisation of Sherlock for the sake of the story. Sherlock on the other hand gave us the cluster **** that was The Sign of Three in which Sherlock became an idiot incapable of identifying the obvious victim and culprit for the sake of dramatic tension.

Sherlock at its best is obviously the superior show but Elementary has given me so many more hours of entertainment I can't help but feel it is the more impressive of the adaptations. Also Irene Adler as Moriarty was inspired. No one beats Andrew Scott but damn they made a good go of it.

I disagree, there is a subtle but powerful narrative about addiction and living with addiction that gives the show great depth, and there is not a whiff of sexual chemistry between Holmes and Watson in Elementary - a refreshing change from the typical way women and men are set up in relation to each other.

You spent the whole time not discussing what I have notice as men's resistance to Liu as Watson, but it is an extensive non sequitur.

The transition of Watson from guidance provider to equal was slow, evolving and completely appropriate. Holmes had to recognize and VALUE the contributions of Watson - as an equal for her medical expertise (the rice allergy episode) and her ability to get information from people he couldn't (pilot episode).

There is no way an audience would have accepted a character as arrogant as Holmes would have, from the start, regarded anyone at an equal. Watson has earned her equality from Sherlock as well as the viewers by drawing out the ways in which she makes vital contributions across a range of abilities over time.

Series 3 of Sherlock was awful. The plots were convoluted at best and the smarmy meta humor in jokes were off putting. Elementary, despite Lucy 'Can't act for toffee' Lu is actually progressively getting better and better. The tone is far more serious with the occasional nod of humor.

I thought the same thing. Sherlock is probably the better written show objectively but I really enjoy Elementary (possibly more) because of the amount of time that they can spend on character development due to the show's format. It took half a season for SSherlock and Joan to bond as opposed to the single first episode in the BBC version.

I agree with you on everything except for your analysis on the Watson's. I like Lucy Lui's slightly better simply because she is an equal to Holmes in both status and screen time. I like her because she actually feels the need to improve given the lifestyle that she has adopted.

I think he was talking about the actors, not the Watsons. And well, I like Lucy Liu enough as Watson, but Martin Freeman is, IMO, a better actor. Like, a brilliant one. Particularly good.

I like them both differently. Obviously, format conditions what both shows can do. Elementary could never be as fancy as Sherlock in terms of cinematography, and Sherlock could never develop the characters so slowly and progressively (something that has shown in this series 3, when it felt a bit rushed. Coherent, but rushed, even though they made two year gap first and a maybe 6 or 7 months gap later in episode 3).
I just think we are pretty lucky to have both! =) I am more into Sherlock, because procedurals are a bit boring for me and Elementary has too much of that, but I love how they write characters and how they play with gender and sexuality. I also love the female characters, who actually seem real and complex. Both are perfectly enjoyable shows!

I like that about Elementary's Watson, but I do think they overdo it some times. The cases tend to be quite easy (I am bad with procedurals because I don't watch a lot of them, and I still guess most of them way before the end of the episode), and sometimes it looks as if Sherlock is not that brilliant because of that. If Watson is occasionally as clever or better at deducing than Sherlock, well, Sherlock simply looks slightly above normal, when he should be brilliant and way ahead of everyone else, the smartest in the room. She can be clever, and useful, and skilled, but she shouldn't be better than Sherlock at the solving cases, never. IMO.

I'm in the camp that thinks Elementary is the far superior show. The characters are absolutely bang-on and capture the spirit of the books far more than Sherlock does - in Sherlock, Holmes is a rather nasty, rude, unlikeable character. In Elementary, Holmes is antisocial but not sociopathic - he's entirely focused on his work to the detriment of everything else - it doesn't mean he doesn't care. Lucy Liu's Watson is Holmes equal and caring companion - she admires his uniqueness. Martin Freeman's Watson seems to be dragged around by Sherlock for no apparent reason - the eye-rolling and huffing and puffing is continuous - because, you know, hanging around with Sherlock is such a drag because he's so antisocial. And in Elementary, Gregson has been given a solid role, not just as the idiot Keystone cops portrayed in Sherlock.
Yes, I agree that the episodic formula of Elementary drags it down somewhat, there are enough nods to the books to keep it interesting. As someone else pointed out, Natalie Dormer was fantastic in the dual role of Irene Adler/Moriarty and while I get annoyed at Irene Adler's continual role as Sherlock's love interest (She wasn't! He admired her because she was his equal not because he fancied her!), I thought the way it was twisted to make her Moriarty and her final confrontation with Sherlock was brilliant.
I rather liked Sherlock's first season, but I think that series has become a bloated, pompous mess. The third series had hardly any crime-solving in it at all, much less clever deduction. We're continually told how clever and amazing Sherlock is but the dumb writing is not showing us this. Right now, the only thing Sherlock has going for it are the cool London locations and Benedict Cumberbatch. That's it.
Give me Elementary any time.

I agree. So glad they kept the relationship platonic. And you're right, to have them as friends who admire each other is extremely refreshing in today's TV.

Halanefleur got it spot on.

While I do enjoy Sherlock and Watson's platonic friendship in Elementary, I do find the mysteries rather predictable.

My biggest problem with Watson is purely Lucy Liu's acting - she just doesn't seem to own her role, and it makes Sherlock's admiration for her less believable. She's not terrible, just the blandest actor within the show.

I prefer Sherlock than Elementary. I find it genuine in that it preserves a lot of the character's traits... The most amusing part of watching sherlock is comparing each episodes with the novels. ;) enjoy it!

I enjoy both shows a lot, but in very different ways. I've liked Elementary from the start (back when it wasn't cool to like it!), primarily thanks to Miller's performance.

But as much as I like it, it's never felt even slightly 'Holmsey' to me. Change the character's names and remove the references To Doyle's work and I honestly don't think I would have suspected it was supposed to be another version of Holmes. Truth is, I'd probably have thought it was inspired by Monk.

As I say, that doesn't make me enjoy the show any less, not at all. But it's probably the least Holmes-like Holmes adaptation I've seen.. And not because of the change in location and time period... but simply in terms of the whole feel of the thing.

"Robert Downey Jr’s take on Holmes plays fast and loose with Arthur Conan Doyle’s iconic character to hugely entertaining effect. Purists, however, should probably look elsewhere."

I'd have to disagree with this assessment.
Minor steampunk elements and Downey's cross-dressing aside, the two movies have surprised me with their level of fidelity. Downey matches Holmes with regard to height and build, and while visually his deductive prowess is almost a superhuman ability, it's still within the realm of plausibility. The literary Holmes has also been unkempt, is proficient at bare-knuckle boxing, prone to shooting bullet holes into the walls of his rooms, contemptuous of authority and social propriety, and his relationship with Watson (who is also accurately portrayed by Law), while strained, is strong and reaffirming.
Having grown up with the Basil Rathbone movies where Holmes fought the Nazis, the Guy Ritchie movies might even be seen as more faithful than those.

because of some of the things said on here, I've actually started watching Elementary now too, it's good stuff...

Actually, I have been hiding out in a mysterious foreign country since 2012! LMAO!
But now we are starting to get both "Elementary" and "Sherlock" here too! But I can't decide which one to follow. Go figure!

I've found that the two shows consider completely different strategies for 'modern' versions of Sherlock Holmes. For Moffat and co. that means putting an iPhone in Sherlock's hand and making London a busier place. There's very little consideration of social progress - women and sexual/racial minorities are given just as much short shrift (possibly even more) than the original Conan Doyle canon.

Elementary, however, considers how different modern society is compared to Victorian times - Sherlock even makes a speech about how he might have been more at peace in a 'quieter time' - and as such there is higher, more sensitive representation of different genders, races and sexualities. In that sense, I would say Elementary is a far more successful and considered modernisation of the canon. Especially since I was a little let down by Series 3 of Sherlock, I'd say Elementary is my favourite of the two right now.

Irene Adler as Moriarty not only gave us an interesting spin on both characters, but it also gave us a far more nuanced and less offensive portrayal of Adler than the Sherlock version which is, in retrospect, a downright laughable display of immaterial misogyny.

But at least they're solvable and are explained. As opposed to the Sherlock approach, which is for the writers to write themselves into a corner and so never actually explain anything. How did Sherlock get off that roof? We were given several possible explanations, nothing was ever definitive. I'll be interested to see how Moriarty escaped shooting himself. But I suspect it will be more of the same - a wink to the camera and an "I'll let you viewers figure that one out." And yet, everyone seems to think this is clever ...

I so agree with this. This is the best, most eloquent argument for Elementary I've read yet.

Moffat seems to continually think that 'not talking down to the audience' means 'leaving gaping plot holes' and 'never explaining anything or giving any answers'.

Yes, after a few not-so-good episodes at the start (I'd say I started to like it with Child Predator) it evolves nicely.

I like both shows, but Sherlock feels like the Sherlock Holmes adaptation to me, whilst Elementary strikes me as a detective show. Now, don't get me wrong, it's a bloody good detective show. Johnny Lee Miller is totally fantastic; when the show went through a slightly murky period he was the reason I stuck with it, and I'm glad I did. And Natalie Dormer as Moriarty is was genius, a really phenomenal idea that they managed to carry off beautifully. It was around this point I really fell for Elementary. However, it seems a little far removed for a Sherlock Holmes adaptation. I think they've just threw in a few to many changes (female Watson even though Lucy Liu is brilliant in the role, modern day, in America, massive addiction subplot etc). Now, I like the way those changes have been executed, but for it to work as an adaptation they should really have stuck with just one or two. Instead, it just works as a show. And I'm fine with that.

Sherlock can be better but it can also be lacklustre, like Season 3. With just three episodes a season, it's shocking that it's not remotely consistent, whereas Elementary, with over 20 episodes per season, is far more balanced. All I know is that when I sit down for an episode of Elementary, I know that I'm going to enjoy the next hour, whereas with this last season of S3, I was often bored and distracted by the bad writing, plot holes, lack of plot etc.

I get what you mean about not showing London to be what it really is, but if we did see it like it is now, it would be incredibly depressing. We've lost our capital.

The original Adler was a scandalous character. The Sherlock version is really litte more than an updated portrayal based on current expectations that have shifted in the intervening 100 years. The fact that some people find her offensive is strangely enough very consistent to how the original character would have been judged in it's own original context.

Sherlock is superb and a beast of its own at risk of devouring itself.
Elementary is currently the only crime procedural that I watch.
And although it suffers under the pressure of 24 eps , with a few boring cases/eps it is usually quite enjoyable and on occasion (when it is more serialized) brilliant.

By "we've lost our capital" you mean our capital city is a full, thriving and diverse hub of business, technology and politics brimming with a diverse and fascinating array of cultures from all over the world? Because if so that doesn't sound depressing to me, that sounds like progress.

Ah, so you're a blind, leftie traitor! Because anyone that doesn't hate their country can see the sorry state that it's in. Crime has rocketed in London, white English families have left the city in the hundreds of thousands, it isn't London anymore, not remotely. When you drive through now it's like 'spot the white'!

No, I meant that there's millions of immigrants that live in ghettos, that haven't adapted to our culture or even use our language, so that it feels like you're in a different country.
And by politics I assume you're referring to the inclinations of North Africans and Middle Easterns that want us to revert back a thousand years and make second class citizens or women, punish homosexuality, religion differences etc.

But most of the changes Elementary made were superficial - Watson may be female but the spirit and essence of the character remain the same as they are in the books. The addiction element has been really well explored - portrayed as a powerful, pervading part of his character. Sherlock struggles between justifying it by saying it improves his methods but also knowing that it is destroying them as well. It's a constant struggle that I'm sure many addicts will identify with. It's not just shrugged off and/or ignored.

I agree with you about Adler/Moriarty - a genius idea. Again, Elementary kept the basics of the characters correct - Moriarty and Adler were described as Holmes' equals in the books and they are in the programme. And although I'm not a great fan of the continual casting of Adler in the love interest role, I thought Elementary did this well in making Adler not only Holmes' equal but also his weakness.

Describing Elementary as simply a detective show does it a disservice I think - there is some fine writing and characterisation going on here, not to mention some terrific acting.

Plus Holmes and Watson like and respect each other (in both this film and Elementary) which is something I think is gravely missing from the BBC Sherlock series.

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