by Maxine Calleja Urry
Here’s a mystery to puzzle over: two Sherlocks, a couple of Watsons, a pair of Mycrofts, and a double helping of deliciously vicious Moriartys. Between Stephen Moffat and Mark Gatiss’ Sherlock television series and Guy Ritchie’s Sherlock Holmes film franchise, there’s a whole lot of deducing going on. Which of the two is more deserving of our discerning fan love? To whom do we, as good Conan Doyle fans, owe our allegiance?
Whenever two high-profile productions with achingly similar source material pop up within spitting distance of one another, the same war cry always goes out. The powers-that-be of Hollywood tend to have a way of playing copycat which often leaves the audience to choose between two films which seem – at a quick glance – to be more or less about the same thing.
There are plenty of examples of these kinds of twin features, and inevitably one is always touted as being better than the other. In some cases this is true; in my opinion, Neil Burger’s The Illusionist can’t really hold a candle to Christopher Nolan’s The Prestige, for example. This is not because The Illusionist is a terrible movie, not at all, it just isn’t in the same league as The Prestige. Not even Paul Giamatti could tip the scales. And I freaking love Paul Giamatti.
What I’m trying to say here is that this is a dangerous game to play, so for once let’s just look at what we have in hand: two very distinct adaptations of a hugely beloved piece of literature.
There is, however, another obstacle to get past here. As with any adaptation, people are going to ask the question “which is the better portrayal of the books?”. Well, I’m going to stop you right there. Put down the picket signs and extinguish the flaming torches; neither of these two are the most faithful adaptations of Conan Doyle’s work ever put to celluloid. That honour would probably go either the Jeremy Brett television movies, or the Basil Rathbone films of the 1940s, and that in itself is a bit of fan-boy fisticuffs for another time.
Without the distraction of vying for the crown of Ultimate Adaptation, it might just be possible to look at these two productions in their true light.
On one hand we have the Guy Ritchie film franchise, still bound in the Victorian setting which we are so thoroughly familiar with, but given a little modern edge with the addition of the subversively stylish steampunk look. The action is packed in eye-wateringly tight and Robert Downey Jr’s Holmes has the sort of glib charm that has been missing from the long procession of stoic and stodgy, dourly Victorian Holmeses that came before him. Conan Doyle actually did write the great detective as having possessed quite some degree of charm, not that you’d know it for all the looming sourness we often see portrayed. This is not to say that Downey Jr is the best Holmes, only to say that he’s certainly an interesting one. He is a Holmes for the new century, still anchored in the last century, and I believe that this is where the adaptation loses itself a little.
Ritchie keeps the films in a Victorian setting, but he’s not really content to play with Victorian toys. In my mind I always refer to these movies as SherLock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels, and that’s a little bit telling of how I feel about it. Playing with the steampunk idea lent the first film, and its subsequent sequel A Game of Shadows, some pinch of style, but it comes at the cost of Conan Doyle’s works. There is something sadly un-Holmesian about these films, though that doesn’t stop them from being fun romps to watch.
Adaptations, I feel, don’t have the be cut-and-paste carbon copies of their source material, but I still think they need to preserve the original tone. Plot differences are allowed, changes are acceptable, so long as they keep the soul of the book alive. It’s for just this reason that I have to love the BBC’s Sherlock.
Now, I’m having problems saying this without sounding like a crazy fangirl, so let’s just get this out of the way early: Benedict Cumberbatch. He’s the sort of man who’s irresistible to women who like their blokes tall, pale, and odd, which is fortuitous indeed because those women already like Sherlock Holmes anyway.
In this form, Holmes is a little more rude and brusque than Conan Doyle ever really wrote him, but this is a rude and brusque kind of a century we’re living in. This incarnation of Sherlock Holmes is a younger man than we’re used to, with a sharp mind and a sharper tongue. His caustic eccentricity is tempered by a better Watson than we’ve seen in decades; Martin Freeman is truly John Watson as he should always be portrayed. Not the bumbling fool of some films, but the voice of reason, an Everyman who serves to anchor Holmes in the real world. Where Cumberbatch’s performance is a stylised, effervescent brilliance of mile-a-minute rants and jibes, Freeman is grounded, real, and so achingly easy to identify with. In the books, he is the main narrator of events, connecting the audience to the great detective’s world; and fittingly in the show, he’s the character the audience can connect with.
Don’t complain that Sherlock Holmes sends text messages now, even in Conan Doyle’s works he was a man who made use of what technology was available to him. Don’t let it bother you that John Watson keeps a blog, or Lestrade is now a Detective Inspector, or Mycroft makes use of London’s plentiful security cameras. These are just details, little footnotes that help to tell a story, but the story itself remains unchanged.
The reason BBC’s Sherlock works so well is that buried down deep under the billowing greatcoats, the London cabs and the distinctly un-Victorian vernacular, there beats the heart of Arthur Conan Doyle’s great detective.