TELEVISION: by Symeon J. ThompsonNews Weekly
Rival depictions of a modern-day Sherlock Holmes
, March 29, 2014
Sherlock Holmes is one of the most recognisable figures conjured up by the imagination. He represents certain understandings of human nature, law and order, and particularly the role of reason. Depictions of Holmes show shifts within society’s understanding of these issues, and the value given to particular takes on them.
The third season of the BBC television series Sherlock has recently been shown on Australian TV, and the second half of the second season of CBS’s Elementary is due to screen soon.
Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman
in the BBC series, Sherlock
Both shows have been critically acclaimed, and sharply criticised. Their premise is similar — what if Sherlock Holmes were alive today? But their treatment is different, with each one having specific strengths and weaknesses.
Sherlock came first and is the brainchild of Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss, who are also the showrunners of Doctor Who. It is made up of three movie-length episodes per season and stars Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman as Holmes and Watson.
The series is sharply written, beautifully constructed visually, and very clever, maybe too clever. Rather than focus on individual cases, Sherlock operates more on the level of grand narrative arcs.
This means that the audience is not treated to a traditional detective story with a mystery to be solved. Rather, the mysteries form the background to an exploration of the characters and their relationships.
As has been remarked elsewhere, Sherlock is an exercise in fan fiction, but fan fiction that is “written by well-paid, well-respected middle-aged men with a big fat budget”, as Laurie Penny comments in New Statesman. This isn’t a bad thing, but it does mean that Sherlock is trying to do something very different from just adapting Conan Doyle’s stories.
It’s easy to see Sherlock as the most “faithful” and “traditional” of the two series. It’s set in Britain, John’s a soldier returned from Afghanistan and it doesn’t try to please the PC crowd by playing games with gender, race and sexuality.
But after taking a second look, it becomes apparent that for all its cleverness and style there’s not much there, compared with the stories or other adaptations; that its “faithfulness” is superficial, and that it’s intellectually shallow.
CBS’s Elementary does something very different. It doesn’t just start from the premise of “what if Holmes were alive today?”; it asks serious questions about what sort of person he would be, much like the brilliant and incredibly faithful British series, produced between 1984 and 1994 and starring Jeremy Brett. Stylistically it focuses on the cases and develops the characters and their relationships through those cases, rather than using them as background detail.
Johnny Lee Miller’s Sherlock Holmes is a recovering drug-addict, and Lucy Liu’s Dr Joan Watson is a sober companion. At first glance this is shocking, but on reflection it makes sense. Conan Doyle’s Holmes was a drug-addict and probably a manic-depressive. This is shown quite clearly by the Jeremy Brett series. If Holmes were alive today, it is likely that he would’ve gotten into much harder drugs, and would’ve therefore needed rehab.
Elementary is also more faithful to Conan Doyle in that it depicts the reality of the world in which Holmes operates. For instance, Conan Doyle depicted a variety of women, but many of them were strong, and they didn’t rely upon their sexuality for their power.
The BBC Sherlock series, by contrast, is notable for treating women as little more than objects whose only power consists in their sexuality, such as the depiction of Irene Adler as a dominatrix whom Holmes eventually beats. This is in direct contradiction to the original Conan Doyle stories and to the faithful adaptation starring Jeremy Brett.
Elementary treats women with respect. Joan Watson is no fool, and Sherlock respects her. The showrunners have made it clear that they have no intention of the relationship between them being romanticised in any way, and hopefully they can keep that up. A variety of women are depicted throughout the show, along with a variety of relationships that give a multi-faceted view of human interaction.
There is also the no-nonsense way that Elementary deals with characters from different backgrounds. It has them, but it doesn’t make a big deal out of them. They’re treated with respect and decency.
Sherlock prefers to go with Fu Manchu-style stereotypes that haven’t been seen for a very long time, and for good reason.
Elememtary’s Sherlock is human — a very intelligent, but somewhat disturbed tragic hero, full of flaws. Sherlock’s Sherlock is a badly behaved fantasy of a superman who couldn’t exist.
It’s funny that the upstart American series which superficially seems more radical, more politically correct and less intelligent is actually sharper, more faithful and more “conservative”, in a genuine sense, than the British version.
It shows that we must observe more closely the facts, so that we might deduce the true character of things, instead of judging without sufficient information.
Symeon J. Thompson is a member of the Film Critics Circle of Australia (FCCA).