Elementary, Sherlock and the adaptation problem

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.


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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.


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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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