Last week I mentioned the BBC TV series Sherlock in amongst all my ramblings, and as I’ve mentioned Holmes several times prior to this I thought maybe I would write a little bit about them both today. Depending where you are in the Sherlock series, there may be some spoilers – as I write this I have just watched ‘The Final Problem’, which ended the most recent series. I suppose I’ve also been thinking of Holmes more than usual in the last little while because my latest WIP is set in Victorian London and so I guess obviously has a lot of connections to these stories that I’ve loved.
As I think I’ve said here before, I have been a fan of Sherlock Holmes for a very long time. It began one summer when we were visiting my grandparents’ farm and, true to form, I ran out of things to read because I read everything I had brought too quickly. My grandmother lent me a copy of The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes that I guess she had gotten from a book club she belonged to, and I read it the rest of that visit by the light of an oil lamp. It was a pretty good way to be introduced to Conan Doyle’s stories.
I loved them (I guess obviously) and read her copy of The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes as well, and then went on to devour all the rest of the tales. I have a very battered collection of all the Conan Doyle stories that has travelled with me from place to place everywhere I have lived, and I read them through again fairly regularly (remember, I love to re-read). It’s safe to say that Holmes is one of my favorite characters, as I think I’ve said more than once before.
Part of this is because so many of the stories really do just work very well, narratively: they’re exciting and surprising and have genuine moments of horror and humour. So they are just good stories, even if (as I think I’ve mentioned before) they don’t all stand up so well when you really start picking away at them. I think also, although I wouldn’t have realized it at the time, Holmes was another character likely to resonate with me: more than a little strange, not really very good at relating to the society around him (I’m reasonably suspicious how much of his ‘disinterest’ in people is an act), probably spends more time thinking than he really should. However odd he is, Holmes is also always passionately (no really) devoted to the idea of doing the right thing and helping people who need to be helped. He’s prepared to go to prison for that, he’s prepared to die for that. So whatever else he may be, Conan Doyle’s detective is a probably implausibly heroic creation, and I think that’s part of why I like him, too, as I get older and less fond of ‘shades of grey’.
So much for the original. The Sherlock TV series was one I approached with a little bit of trepidation – the idea of a modernized Holmes seemed like something that could very easily be done wrong (I didn’t get past the first episode of the American Elementary series) but I heard good things and so I gave it a try. I liked the first series very much, and I think the writers for it did about as good a job as it would be possible to do of updating Holmes for this new century. I loved the little animations of clues flying around the screen showing Holmes’ deductive mind at work, in particular.
The show has continued, I think, to be generally good since then, although not always of exactly even quality, and I think it has gradually gotten less and less like the Conan Doyle stories as they’ve gone along, until ‘The Final Problem’, which just aired, really only has a very tenuous connection to the original source material at all. I will need to mull it over a bit more, but I think that even considered in isolation, the episode had some very real problems and it may be time to leave this version of the characters. Perhaps the writers have another surprise, although I think the fixation on surprises may be part of the problem.
No doubt some people would suggest this is the reaction of a Holmes purist, and a lot has been written about how fans of Conan Doyle can’t come to grips with the new version. I like to think that’s not true in my case. I think many of the changes made to the characters and settings were actually quite clever and appropriate (I love their version of Irene Adler), and if Cumberbatch’s Holmes is more extreme in basically all forms of his behaviour than Conan Doyle’s character, I think that’s probably necessary. I actually thought the same with Robert Downey Jr.’s movie version of the character; I think for a modern audience to get the impact of how socially inappropriate and transgressive Holmes’ actions in the stories were, the writers need to turn up the volume on them a fair bit. The handshakes he ignores, barbs he conceals in polite phrasing, and of course his general lifestyle, would have been a lot more shocking to a Victorian audience that we necessarily appreciate today, and so both newer version of the character got their eccentricities turned up a few notches. I think that works very well.
It must be an interesting challenge for a writer – not one I have yet taken on – to pick up a character that isn’t yours and try to write new stories for them. It might seem obvious that the right thing to do is to make no changes and follow the original author as closely as possible, but I think imitation is never as good as the original, and I suspect most artists kind of chafe under restrictions that keep them from expressing themselves. So the question presumably becomes how far one can alter a character and make them one’s one before you’ve changed things enough that you also lose the appeal and attraction of the original character, which is surely a big part of the reason for doing a new take on Holmes or another established fictional creation.
I haven’t tried it yet, as I say, but I suspect it’s a very difficult balance to strike. For what it’s worth I think the Sherlock series has, on the whole, done remarkably well in coming up with a version of Holmes and Watson and their cases that’s something that has features that are entirely its own but is still recognizable as being drawn from the original material. I think perhaps in the last couple series they’ve gotten a bit too focused on more and more shocking revelations, and it is somewhat hard to see where they go from here. I can’t think of another unexpected bombshell they could throw in that wouldn’t be either a letdown from what’s gone before or seem (even more?) ludicrous that what they’ve just finished doing.
I hope I’m wrong and that they’ll yet surprise me. I would love some more Holmes stories, but if this series has run its race, I think they did very well.
And the originals are always there, in a little apartment on Baker Street, waiting for me to come visit again. One day I’ll get another oil lamp and do it properly.
Thanks for reading.