Yesterday we put together a list of the various different ways in which Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s tales of Sherlock Holmes have been dramatized for film and TV. Today we have a more singular intention. To show why, of all the adaptations of this most iconic figure from English literature, Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss’s Sherlock is the outright winner.
Let us begin, or should I say, the game is on:
To take nothing from Elementary being set in New York, Sherlock Holmes is a product of London. The crimes and misdemeanors that he and Watson encounter are rooted in British society, British morals, and London’s way of treating those things, from Buckingham Palace to the bins around the back of Speedy’s Cafe. And London is a city that wears its past like a fine coat, so it does not matter at all that Sherlock is set more than a century after Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s original stories. That old and misty London is still very much alive in a world of wifi, sexting and motorized carriages.
2: Benedict Cumberbatch as Sherlock Holmes
When dramatizing Conan Doyle, there’s only one rule you have to obey, get your Holmes right, and you’re most of the way there. Benedict plays Holmes as a bird, specifically a falcon/emu crossbreed that has very little interest or understanding of human interactions beyond their use as motivation to commit crimes. He sees the world from on high, ready to pounce when his prey is most vulnerable. And sometimes he lands heavily. It’s of almost incidental interest to Sherlock that this aloof, piercing quality gets certain people rather hot under the collar. And naturally that is part of his charm too.
Of course, every falcon needs a falconer, so…
3: Martin Freeman as John Watson
When your hero is someone as unusual as Sherlock, it’s important that he (or she) has an earthly representative, so that their thought processes are rendered into intelligible English for those of us unlucky enough not to be a genius. But Martin Freeman, for all that he is that everyman, plays Watson as far more than and admiring onlooker. He’s the proxy Sherlock sends to start preliminary investigations, he’s a medical officer, he’s capable of decking his close friend with a single punch. He’s had bad days. So while we’re getting to know Sherlock Holmes through Watson’s eyes, we’re also starting to see Watson as a man of action, a hero in his own right.
4: The One-Liners
Oh just all of THIS, plus every one of your favorite funny bits too. It never stops, even when disaster is imminent.
5: Andrew Scott as Moriarty
Every good hero needs a villain, and with Sherlock being quite the high-functioning sociopath that he is, you need someone of equal mental acuity (he’d say more, but let’s not bicker) to provide a decent challenge. We know from Sir Arthur’s books that Moriarty is that man, but no one reckoned on the black-eyed and hyper performance Andrew Scott delivers. This is a man who is prepared to steal the crown jewels, to discredit and humiliate his detective nemesis, just to dull the pain of being the sharpest tool in the box. Scott’s Moriarty is a raw nerve, a peeled brain, and as such he’s capable of anything, and genuinely terrifying.
6: The Music
Part The Third Man, part The Ipcress File, and all enticing. If you ever meet David Arnold or Michael Price, you’ll be sure to shake their hands, won’t you?
7: Everyone Else
You’ll notice, if you take a quick dip in the bubbling magma pit of Tumblr, that all of the opinions, pro and anti, tend to be about script and story, rather than actors, and this is chiefly because Sherlock is just so beautifully cast. Una Stubbs plays Mrs Hudson as an easily shocked and frail English landlady, but as an audience, we know she’s made of sterner stuff and the more we find out about her life, the more it becomes clear that there is very little that she can’t deal with. And if she’s mum, Rupert Graves as Lestrade, is dad. He doesn’t always understand what his boys are up to, and sees more of himself in Watson than he does in Holmes, but he’s very loyal, very proud of them, and helps them clean up their messes with as good a grace as he can muster, in the face of intolerable teasing.
Mycroft Holmes is a far colder fish, one of the things Mark Gatiss is particularly good at putting across. His job is to make the inhuman Sherlock look almost cuddly and he does it beautifully.
And that’s without even mentioning Louise Brealey as the ever-crushing Molly Hooper. She may adore Sherlock from afar but it’s a very chaste kind of love, not a physical attraction. She’s no Irene Adler (hats off to Lara Pulver), and she’s not about to try to be, but oh how that love aches.
8: The Heartbreak
The tragedy is that it takes Sherlock’s ‘death’ for John to say these wonderful things of his former partner. English reserve is never more powerful than when it is defeated by raw emotion.
9: The Mind Is A Muscle
Other franchises may attempt to update Holmes by making him more of a fighter, a true action hero, but the glory of Sherlock is that his principal weapon is his mind, with the sharp tongue and beady eyes as secondary armaments. That’s it. There’s some running, a bit of jostling and punching, some guns, even, but all Sherlock Holmes really needs is the chance to observe and the space to think (two words: mind palace). And then an arena in which to show off afterwards.
10: The Fans
Having John Watson as a celebrity blogger is a great way to involve reality in the work in which Sherlock operates. Mr Holmes is famous enough to have a trademark hat. Who else in the modern age can truly say that apart from Matt Smith’s Doctor in Doctor Who, and he doesn’t even wear it all the time. So there are fans in their universe and there are fans in ours and Steven Moffat’s job is to acknowledge both communities while still creating a drama that feels true to itself. Of course, fans being fans, there’s a certain amount (total) of debate as to how well he has succeeded. Which is, in a way, its own proof of success.
WATCH: ‘Sherlock’s Andrew Scott In ‘The Stag’ Trailer
‘Sherlock’ Co-Creator Mark Gatiss Interviews Martin Freeman
Never Mind Sherlock Holmes, Say Hello To ‘Curly Fu’
Steven Moffat Conducts Interview with Benedict Cumberbatch