To mark the end of the second series of the BBC’s excellent Sherlock, Edwin Davies casts his eye over the show and its cinematic cousin, Guy Ritchie’s Sherlock Holmes and Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows, and the ways in which the two adaptations suit their respective medium.
When Guy Ritchie’s Sherlock Holmes was released in December 2009, it proved oddly refreshing, if only because it was a film directed by Guy Ritchie which was actually pretty good, something which could not be said about anything he had done since Snatch in 2000. More importantly, at least for the purposes of this article, it had somehow managed to find a new spin on Arthur Conan Doyle’s legendary detective, arguably the most influential character in all fiction. Considering that Doyle’s creation had his adventures directly or indirectly adapted hundreds of times, as well as providing the inspiration for hundreds of brilliant detectives – as well as other professions – since he first appeared in Beeton’s Christmas Annual in 1887, it was no small task to find a novel spin on the world’s only consulting detective.
The way in which Ritchie and his writers, Michael Robert Johnson, Anthony Peckham and Simon Kinberg, injected new life into the story was to keep the period setting of Victorian London whilst recontextualising Holmes and Watson as characters in an ’80s action movie, specifically Lethal Weapon, depicting the duo as mismatched crimefighters, one a stuffy but effective by-the-books type, the other a flamboyant maverick. (Yes, that does mean that Jude Law is Danny Glover in this scenario. Though rather than being too old for this shit, he is too betrothed for this shit.) In keeping with this approach, the film focused on the relationship between Holmes and Watson, whose dialogue very pointedly recalled the loving bickering of an old married couple, and Holmes’ rarely-mentioned-in-the-stories pugilistic tendencies at the expense of deductive reasoning (or, to appease my friend Jon Banks, who is really put out by this persistent mislabelling, inductive reasoning) and sleuthing.
Whilst it played fast and loose with the established conventions of the archetypal Holmes story, the combination of the mismatched partners aspect with a strong steampunk influence gave the film an energy that distinguished it from every other Holmes adaptations, creating something that felt simultaneously familiar yet invigorating. Given the success of the film ($209 million dollars in America, $524 million worldwide) a sequel was inevitable, particularly considering that the first film ended, Batman Begins-style, by teasing that Holmes’ greatest enemy, Professor James Moriarty, would be the villain of any such follow-up. As the release date of Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows neared, there were murmurs in some corners that the film would have a harder time impressing than the first, not only because that is the curse that all sequels must overcome, but because in the intervening years an even more thrilling and invigorating interpretation of Doyle’s character had appeared on television in the form of Sherlock, an ultra-modern retelling set in contemporary London.
Created by Steven Moffat (showrunner on Doctor Who) and Mark Gatiss (one of The League of Gentlemen) and starring Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman as Holmes and Watson, Sherlock took its inspiration directly from the original stories, as opposed to Ritchie’s films, whilst giving them clever twists that kept even fans intimately familiar with every clue or revelation guessing. Over its first series of three feature-length episodes, Sherlock quickly established a beguiling mix of frenetic plotting, delightful interplay between the two leads and dazzlingly quick dialogue that helped it become a critical and commercial success for the BBC. A second series was commissioned almost before the first had finished and premiered on New Year’s Day 2012, coming less than a forthnight after the release of A Game of Shadows.
The proximity between A Game of Shadows and Sherlock series two, whilst undoubtedly coincidental, further created the sense that these two renditions of Holmes were somehow competing with each other, since there has never been a time when two versions of the character have existed concurrently, each with a strong claim to being an iconic rendition of the character for a new generation. (It also doesn’t help that both the series finale of Sherlock and A Game of Shadows use elements of the same Holmes story this time around, further heightening the connection between them.) Personally, I find that idea a little wrong-headed since the two adaptations, rather than competing by dint of their shared origins, each takes an element of the character that works for their story, as well as their respective medium, in turn creating complementary works.
As played by Robert Downey Jr., Ritchie’s films accentuate the playful eccentricities of Holmes’ character, as well as the brief references to him being a good boxer, to fit the mold of the ’80s action movie, creating a slightly unhinged eccentric whose shabby demeanour and bohemian lifestyle mask a fierce intellect. Benedict Cumberbatch’s Holmes, on the other hand, is a being of pure intellect. Described in the first episode as a “higher-functioning sociopath,” Sherlock makes the detective abrasive, socially awkward and cruel in a way that he only occasionally was in the original stories, making him into less of an eccentric than a very useful bastard.
The two depictions of Watson differ less, since Watson has fewer defined characteristic to draw from, so both Jude Law and Martin Freeman play the doctor as a stoic, good-hearted man willing to help his friend despite the risk involved and obvious disdain that both Holmes display towards the women in their lives. The key difference, since Sherlock starts with Holmes and Watson meeting for the first time and both Sherlock Holmes films take place after their relationship has been firmly established, is that Law’s Watson is a little more familiar with Holmes’ eccentricities, whilst Freeman gets to play Watson as he is discovering all the oddness of his new friend for the first time.
On a deeper level, though, the aspects that the two adaptations choose to focus on illustrate the ways in which characters on television can differ from those in films. To speak in very broad terms, it is more acceptable for a character in a television show, particularly a main character, to be abrasive or even unlikable than it is in a film. I don’t want to speak in absolute terms here, since there are plenty of television series based around characters who are intended to be incredibly likable and relatable and there are films in which the main characters are intentionally unsympathetic. To cite a recent example, I saw Kenneth Lonergan’s Margaret the other day, a film which is undoubtedly troubled and messy, albeit brilliant, and one which makes no attempt to portray its central character as even remotely tolerable.
However, there is a great tradition of television characters who are difficult to like, either through their demeanour or their actions, which can be seen in modern shows like The Shield, Luther and House, all of which revolve around central figures who are brilliant at what they do, but act in ways which are not endearing. (Considering that House is itself a modern reworking of Sherlock Holmes – right down to having a name which is a synonym for ‘Home’ and therefore a play on Holmes – but with a doctor instead of a detective, it’s hardly surprising that Gregory House is prickly, to say the least.) What all of these characters have in their favour is that they are compelling, and even as Vic Mackey murders a fellow cop in cold blood or burns the face of gang member on a hob, you want to see him escape the people who are out to uncover his corruption because he’s fun to watch and we secretly want to see just how depraved he can become over the course of The Shield’s story.
Furthermore, what makes these characters compelling is knowing that a given episode of the show is not the last that we will see of them: we can always tune in next week to see what they are going to do next. Television as a medium is well-suited to studies of obsessives who are willing to go to great lengths to achieve their goal, even at the expense of their personal lives, since we can see that toll unfolding over a long period. The amount of time involved in watching a television series also means that you have time to get invested in and get to know a character, discovering what makes them tick and coming to understand something of their worldview, no matter how warped it may be.
The reason why Cumberbatch’s Holmes is such a perfect television character is that he can be harsh and cruel to everyone around him – including his one friend in the world, as seen in the recent episode “The Hounds of Baskerville” in which Holmes used Watson as an unwitting guinea pig to test one of his theories – whilst slowly revealing different facets of his personality without ever having a sudden change of heart. Seeing how Holmes gradually softens towards Watson over the course of the two series of Sherlock feels like it has been earned because of the amount of time we have watched him treat everyone around him with utter distain, giving those moments of humanity greater weight and meaning. Were the Holmes of Sherlock to be the star of a film, he’d either be too caustic for mainstream audiences or be forced to soften uncharacteristically by the end to give him a typical cinematic arc.
Downey Jr.’s Holmes, on the other hand, would be almost insufferable on television. That level of glib, hyper-verbal eccentricity is entertaining over the course of two hours, but over a whole series it would be wearying, and the relationship between Holmes and Watson would get pretty stale if drawn out over an entire show. Those bursts of eccentricity work beautifully in a cinematic format because they are contained, rather than allowed to drag on until their become interminable. This Sherlock Holmes feels less like a compelling and complex character than a funny abstract, which is no bad thing because Downey Jr. is great in the role and is pretty much the only person who could pull that particular trick off as well as he has, but it’s also the reason why his Holmes would never work on television in the same way that Cumberbatch’s has: there’s no depths to plumb, just an entertaining surface.
The crux of this is that these two adaptations, even though they are drawn from the same source, highlight the things that television can do better than film and vice versa. Television, due to the length of time afforded to a series as opposed to a film, can paint more fascinating and complex characters than films can because they have the opportunity to unravel the layers of those characters at a leisurely pace. Rather than trying to cram a whole arc into two hours, television can examine every aspect of a person whilst also delivering propulsive, thrilling entertainment. On the other side, films can deliver spectacle and slick, superficial entertainment with a far greater ease than television because they don’t have to get bogged down in the minutiae of a character. They can get in and get out in two hours and deliver a sugar rush which is great in the moment then fades gently.
That difference lies in the ways in which the two Holmeses use their deductive (inductive) reasoning: one constructs elaborate scenarios, weighs up the options and tries to cover every angle until he reaches the correct solution, the other figures out how to most effective punch someone.
The finale of Sherlock series two airs tonight on BBC1 at 9:00pm and the whole series will air in the US on PBS from January 15. Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows is currently in cinemas.