This article contains spoilers.
There are currently two on-screen adaptations of Sherlock Holmes vying for viewers’ attention.
Both remakes have drawn criticism in the mainstream press for their deviations from the books, with critics writing polemics against the way Steven Moffat and Guy Ritchie have updated their respective Holmes franchises.
How do these modern versions differ from their source material? Well, there’s more action and a faster pace in both modern adaptations, for a start.
The Sherlock Holmes of the books is often detached and unemotional, but it’s always clear that he cares about Watson. There is a certain tenderness in Holmes – a detached, Victorian tenderness – but it is there. The worst of his antisocial tendencies – shooting indoors and playing his violin in the early hours – stem from caring more about getting his mind to work to its best, than he does about social conventions.
However, Sherlock Holmes in Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss’ Sherlock at times feels genuinely nasty. Telling children that their grandfather is rotting in the ground, and being dismissively rude towards Russell Tovey’s potential client, for instance. His telling Kitty Reilly, the journalist in The Reichenbach Fall, that “you repel me” was more than a little over the top. (She was selfish, ambitious and a little manipulative, but she repels him? A man who deals with criminals more or less every day?)
But, as much as they behave differently, you could argue they are the same basic character moulded by different social pressures. The Holmes of the books is reserved and contained. As much as he’s a forward-looking man of science, he’s a product of Victorian England. His purpose is genuinely to do good work.
Moffat and Gatiss’ Sherlock is more openly egotistical and selfish – which you could argue he would be, born and raised in the late 20th century – the era of rudeness, self-promotion and ‘being real’.
Moffat and Gatiss’ Sherlock series and Guy Ritchie’s Sherlock Holmes films both bring out aspects of the character that were always there to the forefront. The books mention, mostly in passing, that Holmes is a master of disguise and a skilled boxer, but the emphasis of the stories is almost entirely on the mysteries. The seemingly unconnected clues are laid out, which Holmes (or occasionally Dr Watson, if Sherlock lets him) then form together into a pattern which seems logical and a little obvious in retrospect.
It’s interesting to see Holmes’ supreme intelligence applied in different ways. In the first Guy Ritchie film, we see Holmes taking part in a bare-knuckle boxing match through his perspective. We see how he examines his opponents and the flaws he intends to exploit before he exploits them as well as the amount of power he needs to apply to certain points of the body. It’s a radical reinvention, of course, but it makes sense that Holmes, a man of intellect before all else, would fight in this manner.
Holmes isn’t the first character to undergo such a reinvention. Batman, for instance, has been represented in a number of different ways. There’s been the goofy, over-the-top tone of the Adam West series, the 30s-like noir of the animated series, and the Christopher Nolan films, with their more realistic look at the consequences a larger-than-life vigilante would have in a city falling apart.
Rather than detracting from each other or confusing matters, all three of these interpretations feed into each other, providing different answers to the questions raised.
In a way they act as opposing sides of a debate – West’s Batman argues the police would accept highly qualified help wherever it comes from, and that his assistance will ultimately be for the best. The Dark Knight argues that Batman’s actions have triggered an arms race of sorts.
From some of the opinion pieces, you’d think that the Conan Doyle stories were perfect, flawless, and that it’s foolish to even try and change a single thing. But until the last few centuries, this is how stories have been told.
King Arthur’s mythology, for example, has developed over time, with scholars believing Lancelot to have been an independent hero, introduced by Chrétien de Troyes. It’s believed that Homer, rather than ‘writing’ The Iliad from scratch, developed stories that had been told by others of his era.
Both the Ritchie and Moffat/Gatiss interpretations of Holmes are fast-paced and exciting, with twists and turns as each story progresses. These are elements that the original stories lack, or at least don’t have to the same extent.
Don’t get me wrong, I think the books are at least as good as any other interpretation, and certainly better than the Ritchie films with their comic book-like tone. But that doesn’t mean that other storytellers can’t bring new light to the characters and stories, telling the old stories in new and entertaining ways, or telling new stories with the same raw elements.
I don’t think either adaptation has been an unqualified success. One element in the Moffat/Gatiss version I don’t think worked particularly well was the character of Moriarty. Not that Andrew Scott’s Jim Moriarty didn’t work, but that he felt more like a character along the lines of Heath Ledger’s Joker than the Moriarty character in the books.
Jim Moriarty is a chaotic, anarchic presence who puts himself in the spotlight as part of his process of playing with Sherlock, whereas Professor Moriarty is a seemingly respectable mastermind, hiding away within his web.
At the start of The Valley of Fear, when Holmes tells Inspector MacDonald of Scotland Yard that he believes Professor Moriarty (respected author of ‘The Dynamics of an Asteroid’) to be a criminal, he considers it to be ludicrous, even though he admires Holmes’ abilities. The character on the page seems more interesting and compelling to me.
The multiple and conflicting versions of Sherlock Holmes (CBS is currently shooting another pilot, this time for a New York-set series), gets to the heart of what remakes and ‘reimaginings’ can be, if done well.
Those who detest both the Moffat/Gatiss and Ritchie interpretations of Holmes should console themselves that the release of the Holmes films and series have inspired high profile discussion of the books and the (apparently more faithful) Jeremy Brett interpretation.
There’s a famous story in which a journalist asks a famous author how it feels to see his book butchered so badly on film. He replies that his book is fine – and is sitting right there on the shelf.
The moral of which is that even really bad films can act as adverts for their respective novels. The press for The Three Musketeers a few months ago motivated me to finally get round to reading the classic book.
Of course, remakes and reimaginings can undermine the legacy of the original. I’m the kind of guy who gets annoyed at the remake of The Italian Job and the movie version of Mission Impossible, which are so different they seem to have been remade for name brand recognition alone.
The two modern versions of Sherlock Holmes don’t fit in with this problem for me, for two reasons.
Firstly, the Ritchie and Moffat/Gatiss versions, while different in tone, deal with the same themes and ideas, and do so to a high standard. Secondly, Sherlock Holmes, Dr Watson and the related ideas have reached a rare height – along with characters like Robin Hood, King Arthur and a few others. The Holmes canon is one of a very limited set of stories so well-known they can stand up to a variety of interpretations without overshadowing their origin.
So perhaps rather than mourn how the adaptations have steered Sherlock Holmes away from its roots, purists should celebrate the fact they have put the classic stories back at the centre of the mainstream spotlight.