Some iconic characters and literature are iconic partly because they are set in a particular time or place which in big ways and small, is part of the story. The should-have-been-a-blockbuster John Carter, brought to film in 2012, was set in the 19th Century because the main character’s personality was very much set by the standards, ethics, and experiences of that time. Some iconic characters can be updated, but usually it’s in such a way that there is only the faintest semblance to the original work. The movie Clueless was based Jane Austen’s Emma, but no one really looks upon Clueless as a movie adaptation of Emma. Similarly, 10 Things I hate About You was based, loosely, on Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew. It strikes me as weird that the classics inspire so many teen comedies.
But sometimes characters just seem to work better in the milieu that they were originally conceived. Although I admit that’s highly subjective. My first introduction to the Sherlock Holmes character was through the books of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, not as would be more common today, through film. So that set my view as to how Sherlock Holmes should be portrayed. Movies have gone in a different direction however, as most of the classic Basil Rathbone Sherlock Holmes movies were set in the period they were made, the 1940’s. But to me, the more recently made Robert Downey Jr. version of Sherlock Holmes seems more “authentic” because they were set in the Victorian era, and let’s face it, is there a character that Robert Downey Jr. can’t play?
So when the BBC version of Sherlock hit the Netflix queue, I was wondering how I would accept this 21st Century version. One thing that bugs me about the updating of iconic characters is that they necessarily live in a world that isn’t ours. We live in a world in which Sherlock Holmes is very much part of the popular culture. Sherlock takes place in a world where there was no Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, and no Sherlock Holmes stories. But as far as the answer to the question of if I could accept this, apparently, yes I can. The show works.
One thing I was curious about was how they would portray Holmes, not as a detective, but as a man. Doyle’s Holmes was highly intelligent but his stand out quality, what made Holmes who he was, was his keen observation skills. The same skills that allow Shawn Spencer to fake psychic powers in USA Network’s Psych.
But we 21st Century types tend to medicalize everything. So I was curious as to how Benedict Cumberbatch would portray Holmes. What would be his major malfunction? It turns out, they did have that in mind and Holmes answered that question in the very first episode, A Study in Pink, “I’m not a psychopath, Anderson, I’m a high-functioning sociopath, do your research.” That’s an interesting choice and I’m not sure why the producers went in that direction, rather than what I thought was a more obvious one, a high functioning autistic or someone with Asperger’s. The characteristics of a sociopath don’t really lend itself to enhancing a someone’s observational skills. I can only assume that Asperger’s was just too obvious but they still wanted some personality disorder to justify Holme’s keen intelligence and observation skills. There has to be some justice after all. We couldn’t have a normal person have those skills.
The character of Dr. John Watson, portrayed by Martin Freeman, seems much more human and relatable in contrast to Holmes. Watson, just like the original Dr. Watson that Doyle wrote of, is a returning Army doctor back from Afghanistan (some things never change!). This updated version of Watson is having difficulty adjusting to civilian life when he comes across Holmes and somehow passes Holme’s strenuous roommate test that is as challenging as Sheldon Cooper’s roommate agreement.
More so than any other version of Holmes, this one treats Holmes and Watson as not just colleagues but roommates, with all of the various conflicts that entails. But Watson isn’t just a sidekick. This Watson still has very much of the soldier in him and is a man of action when the situation requires it.
So at least through Series 1 (Series 2 isn’t out on Netflix yet), this updated version seems to work well. So well that CBS, in keeping with their practice of ripping off the BBC is coming out with their own Sherlock Holmes version this fall, Elementary. Whether this is a pale rip off of the BBC version or an original retelling remains to be seen. Sherlock Holmes in New York? Is there even a Baker Street in New York?
We’ll see how that goes. Sherlock has proven that you can do an updated, 21st Century version that’s very watchable. So I’ll be looking forward to Series 2 showing up on Netflix.