Sherlock Returns: Why Moffat’s Modern Adaptation Might Be the Best
Posted on January 20, 2014
Many viewers tuned in to the return of Sherlock Holmes on PBS to watch how Stephen Moffat and Mark Gatiss brought back the iconic character to their modern version. Sherlock’s return, of course, was twofold as the show hasn’t had a new episode in two years as well as solving the mystery of Sherlock’s supposed death at the end of series 2.
Warning: The following contains spoilers for Sherlock
There have been many adaptations of the iconic character over the past century, but particularly in recent times. From Robert Downey Jr.’s Victorian Sherlock as a sharp and dashing genius to Jonny Lee Miller’s modern detective in New York City in Elementary, Sherlock Holmes seems to be the character du jour. And with the latest ruling from a federal judge in Chicago, as reported by NPR, both Holmes and his thoughtful companion Dr. John Watson can be moved from 221B Baker Street to the public domain.
The legal move into the public domain means that “anyone who wants to write new material about the characters no longer needs to seek permission or pay license fees to the Doyle estate. That is, as long as you don’t include any elements introduced in the last 10 Sherlock Holmes stories released in the U.S. after 1922.” We won’t be rid of Sherlock or Watson for a while with their new entry into the public domain. Beyond what is already out there, more adaptations and uses of the characters will be coming to life. The latest news has Anil Kapoor, known from Slumdog Millionaire, as the next embodiment of Sherlock in India.
There have been numerous adaptations of Sherlock Holmes and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s stories since their origins in 1887. A great look at the history behind the stories, Doyle, and multiple adaptations can be found in “Unlocking Sherlock”, a behind-the-scenes special that accompanies the new season of Sherlock (available now in iTunes and Amazon). Some of our preconceptions of the world’s first forensic scientist come from the adaptations rather than from the source material.
Although I enjoy RDJ’s and Miller’s interpretations of being Sherlock, by far the version that captures the spirit that accompanied the original fervor for the fictional world of investigation is provided by Stephen Moffat with Mark Gatiss as head writer. Gatiss, who also plays Sherlock’s brother Mycroft in the current version, stays close to the original stories. Perhaps its his willingness and insistence to mine and deconstruct the original stories in order to create, or even recreate, the new show.
If you haven’t read any Sherlock Holmes stories, I highly suggest starting with A Study in Scarlet, the story that started it all. You’ll find that even though it was written in the later part of the 19th Century that it has a distinctive modern flavor to it – a style of writing that endures through time. For us who are now familiar with forensic shows like CSI and NCIS, the methods that Holmes uses don’t seem out of the ordinary. But for the 19th Century reader, what Doyle created the first forensic scientist through Sherlock, who showed us that the devil is in the detail, as are the murderers.
One of the first major detective stories, A Study in Scarlet is written in Dr. Watson’s voice so that we can get the details of Sherlock through his eyes. So as Watson discovers the brilliance of Sherlock, so does the reader. And not to toot his own horn, but Sherlock (representing Doyle), negates his contemporary fictional detectives such as Dupin from Edgar Allen Poe’s very popular story “The Murders in the Rue Morgue.” While Poe is credited by most as featuring the first detective story, Sherlock dismisses Dupin as being inferior to him in his skills. What a way to take down your literary competition!
And it’s that kind of intelligent arrogance that endears the modern Sherlock to new audiences. Expertly portrayed by the tall and handsome Benedict Cumberbatch, he embodies that dismissive smartest-man-in-any-room atmosphere that makes us both love and hate him (but mostly love). With the very first episode “A Study in Pink”, Moffat and Gatiss very clearly use Doyle’s source material to reintroduce Sherlock to the 21st Century. More than just putting a classic character into a modern setting, both Moffat and Gatiss make sure that the flavor of the story, including language, setting, and plot points, are all present.
Perhaps its their desire to stick as close to the original that helped push their show to the forefront. After all, they use John Watson, played by Martin Freeman, to introduce us to the new adaptation, and the brilliance of Sherlock is once again rediscovered through Watson’s eyes for the audience.
And here we are in 2014, clamoring for the third series much like Doyle’s contemporary audience waited impatiently for the next installment of his stories in the monthly magazines. Bringing the show back after a two-year hiatus as well as bringing Sherlock back from the dead could have been precarious. But the episode has garnered favorable reviews from fans and critics.
For those interested in the source material, Gatiss claims that “The Empty Hearse” is loosely based on Doyle’s story “The Adventure of the Empty House” where the author brought Sherlock back from a faked death. Again, the homage and reliance on the original material help bring Sherlock and Watson alive for viewers today.
Hopefully, viewers who have discovered Sherlock will be enticed to read Doyle’s work. Whether you have yet to watch Sherlock or whether you’re already a fan and tweeted #SherlockLives Sunday night, I highly recommend reading Doyle’s well-written stories (I have The Complete Sherlock Holmes (The Heirloom Edition for Kindle). Not only may it help raise the level of appreciation for the character, it may also point out the brilliance of Sherlock. May Moffat and Gatiss continue to find gems in Doyle’s work for several seasons to come.