Thursday, January 09, 2014

"Oh, Sherlock, neither of us was the first."

I am astonished by the achievement that is the recent remake of the Sherlock Holmes stories set in 21st century London.

Arthur Conan Doyle's stories always were more than a simple recounting of the accomplishments of the scientific detective who is also, because of his great gifts, a complete social misfit. I am pretty sure that Doyle did not invent that figure. The stories gave almost equal prominence to John Watson, the normal and cheerful friend – normal and cheerful, that is, if you ignore his rather odd devotion to his apparently indifferent friend (?).

The current re-envisioning gives much more prominence to the theme of intimacy and the difficulties of achieving it – not just between Holmes and Watson, but between others as well. 21st century London is ostensibly much freer or at least more freewheeling than Victorian London. But despite social and sexual liberation, the characters in the series struggle to reach out to each other without exposing themselves too much. They are terrified of rejection, and this keeps them just as much on edge as we imagine their 19th century counterparts were.

There must be Holmes fans out there who are raging at this series and its betrayal of some aspect of the canon. But though I'm not entirely satisfied with the stories as told, my basic attitude is one of astonishment at the chances taken by the creators and their rather amazing degree of success. In the last quarter hour of the Sign of Three episode, I sat with my mouth hanging open and my breath bated waiting to see what would come next. And it was the emotional and social struggles of the characters that surprised and yes, ensorcelled me.


  1. It is well documented (and fully acknowledged by Doyle) that he modeled Holmes on his teacher at the University of Edinburgh, Dr. James Bell, a pioneer in forensic pathology. Their relationship was imaginatively explored in a BBC television series Murder Rooms: The Dark Beginnings of Sherlock Holmes (2000-2001) in which the actor Ian Richardson brilliantly portrayed Bell. For all Holmes fans, this is regarded as one of the finest recension/elaborations of the Holmes canon. The series very cleverly interweaves fictional cases with real biographical elements in Doyle's life --- notably the tragic fate of Doyle's father, and how it affected the son, as well as Bell's theories and character. The acting is superb, and the last of the five episodes is the best of all --- tightly written and intellectually stimulating.

    I really like Sherlock --- most Holmes fans seem to. It is very well done. But the Richardson series is even better.

  2. I love the show,and I am a devoted reader of the original stories. But I love the show not so much because it is Holmes, but because it is simply a great show, as you reference with Sign of Three. Holmes went from being rather socially awkward, in the stories, to being, as Holmes, himself, references several times, "a high-functioning sociopath." I suppose this is a typical re-imagining in our times in which everything, from a bowl of soup to a great cathedral is described as "amazing." Still, it all works. The writers push everything about as far as it can be pushed without too much strain. It all woks for me and Cumberbatch and Freeman are exceptional. Watson, as in the stories, is no follower in the shadows, for sure. Good stuff.