“‘Do you include violin playing in your category of rows?’ he asked, anxiously.”
– A Study in Scarlet by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
As a devoted admirer and fan of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes series, I was naturally sceptical of a modernisation. Particularly after seeing the attempt at a Sherlock Holmes film in 2009, where the adaptation of such fantastic literature produced a horrific failure which did not even remotely approach a decent or watchable film. Casting Jude Law as Watson and Rachel McAdams as Irene Adler were some of the most shocking mis-castings in the long shameful history of mis-casting.
However, such spectacular failure to do justice to the original is often encountered when film-makers and television producers attempt to adapt or modernise a brilliant and classic piece of literature. Hence, I approached the first episode with a mixture of apprehension, curiosity, and a general raising of eyebrows. Imagine then my surprise at finding the series not only watchable, but also interesting, well-cast and entirely enjoyable!
Traitor! I hear you Sherlock Holmes devotees shout. But it’s not so! And this is why.
1. Sherlock Holmes has been cast very well.
He (Benedict Cumberbatch) is tall and lean, just like Conan Doyle created him: “In height he was rather over six feet, and so excessively lean that he seemed to be considerably taller.” Moreover, he is excellently played by Cumberbatch as an arrogant, insensitive genius who loves knowing that his intellect is far superior to that of everyone around him. We aren’t meant to like Sherlock Holmes for being a kind gentle character, or having strong morals, or being interested in the common good, because he neither is nor has any of the above. On the contrary, he is often quite the opposite; a rather smug eccentric who is always right, and worse, always knows he is. But we respect and admire his talents and admit to his having a superior intellect and incredible methods of deduction.
Aside: I actually love that Sherlock Holmes is so blunt and insensitive. It means that on some levels we can know what he is thinking and I admire someone who isn’t afraid to say what they think or believe. I suppose it helps when you are always right.
2. Dr John Watson has, again, been cast well.
Martin Freeman provides an excellent rendition of Watson, suitably sceptical of Sherlock at first, but gradually converted, hearing the incredible methods of deduction, to astonishment, wonder, and admiration. Just like the character in the book. Marvellous!
Aside: I think it helps that Martin Freeman is easily recognisable as Arthur Dent from the film adaptation of The Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Not a very good film but the character is one who, in essence, has a lot in common with Dr Watson. Mainly I suppose, that both of them are ordinary people who meet extraordinary people and their relatively normal worlds are turned into worlds of astonishing and exciting adventure.
3. Many parts of the episode are easily recognisable as adapted straight from the book.
The conversation about flatmates and their vices. The place the crucial murder takes place; “‘Lauriston Gardens, off the Brixton Road'” is straight from the text, as is the debate between “Rachel” and “Rache”, the direct quote being, “‘Rache’ is the German for ‘revenge'”. There is the mobile phone scene which is an updated version of the Sign of Four scene in which Watson gives Sherlock Holmes a watch to test his abilities. Sherlock’s rise in Watson’s estimation is shown the same way in both series and novel, by Watson’s praising “‘Wonderful!'” and Sherlock’s expression giving away that he was pleased by Watson’s “evident surprise and admiration”. And of course the notable first meeting comment, “‘You have been in Afghanistan, I perceive.'”
4. Finally, the comedy element.
There is an element of the humourous in all the Sherlock Holmes novels, which has been superbly adapted into the series. My favourite quotes from the first episode are probably:
– Watson: That was ridiculous. That was the most ridiculous thing I’ve ever done.
– Sherlock: And you invaded Afghanistan.
– Sherlock: Shut up, everybody! Shut up! Don’t move, don’t speak, don’t breathe! I’m trying to think! Anderson, face the other way you’re putting me off!
– Anderson: What? My face is?
Ah, the wonderful witty intellectual talent. It could really only be Sherlock Holmes.
So yes, it is a modernisation of classic literature, and no, Sherlock is not exactly the man of the book. But he is a good and decent adaptation of the character, who does possess elements of the genius that is Sherlock Holmes. This, the main characters being cast well, and the producers realising that it would be sheer idiocy not to refer to the text, have all come together to make this really work. So well done on the first episode, and keep up the good work.