Year in Review: Holmes on Screen

Sherlock Early Years

As the title says, this post is going to be a quick review of the major adaptations of Sherlock Holmes that graced (or insulted, heh) screens in 2012. I’m only going to talk about the Big Three: Sherlock, Elementary, and A Game of Shadows. I know there were others, but the post has to end some time, and these were the ones that made an international splash.

To start with, I think I should elucidate where I’m coming from. I have a Theory, folks (definitely meant to be capitalized). This theory has nothing to do with anyone else. It’s just my personal way of approaching adaptations, be they visual, print, or any other medium. I believe Sherlock Holmes has two major original components (it’s an oversimplification, and it’s meant to be–we’re talking Big Picture here). Those components are: Setting (including Victorian time period and all the associated moods and tropes) and Characters (including plotting style, because the way the stories are framed, the characters are responsible for that).

My Theory of adaptations is this: You can do one of three things with Sherlock Holmes and have something that works.

1) You can use both the original setting and the original character conceptions, and you’ll have a purist adaptation like the Granada series starring Jeremy Brett. I’m not going to spend time on this, since none of the three adaptations I’m reviewing went this route.

2) You can retain the spirit of the original characters and lose the setting. This seems to be the most acceptable to Holmes fans, adaptations that modernize or change the context of the stories, but give us the Holmes and Watson we know and love.

3) You can retain the details of the setting and lose the exact fidelity to the characters. This is harder to pull off, and it’s always going to irritate some people. If you’re not going for something entirely purist, however, it can be very effective.

Ok, more on all of that in a bit.

Sherlock Holmes

A Game of Shadows, the second Guy Ritchie Sherlock Holmes film starring Robert Downey Jr. and Jude Law actually came out in December of 2011, but it had a major effect on the Holmesian world in 2012, so I’m including it. As with the first film, it was a stylized Victorian romp in which Holmes and Watson were thrown into constant action.

For me, this movie works because of Principle #3 in my theory of adaptations. It’s quite free with the characters of Holmes and Watson and much more broadly comical than anything Conan Doyle penned; however, I find the unrelenting, lavish Victorian settings and tropes pleasingly atmospheric. The Holmes and Watson Ritchie presents are graphic-novelized versions of the originals, but they’re running around in the stylized London I see in my head when I read the stories.

My final verdict on A Game of Shadows is that it’s fun. Nothing more, nothing less. I didn’t expect purism, and I didn’t get it. It has context, though, and a massively Holmesian mood that drew me in and gave me a good time.


Ok, I’ll admit it. The main reason I went to the trouble of explaining my adaptation criteria above is because Elementary, the late-year CBS drama based on Sherlock Holmes, well, isn’t my mug of Earl Grey.

I wanted very much to love a drama that promised a gender-bent Watson and a Holmes played by one of this generation’s finest actors. I know people who love it, close friends, even dyed-in-the-wool Holmesians.

For me, though, it fails the test. As I stated above, for an adaptation to work, I need it to retain either character or setting fidelity, if not both. In this case, CBS is presenting Holmes and Watson in an entirely new context–the United States at the present time. That would be fine, and it could be brilliant, if they gave us the Holmes and Watson we know and love. Instead, my trial run with the show introduced me to a cold, clever Watson, and an impulsive, erratic Holmes. Nowhere did I find the detective and the doctor invented by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Yes, there were Holmesian references and Holmes tropes. That didn’t change the inherent qualities of the show.

I’m not saying Elementary is a bad detective show or even a bad Holmes adaptation. The word adaptation itself has as many meanings as there are people. For me, however, it’s just too far, something that uses recognizable names without enough real Holmesian qualities to be something that works for me.

For the record, I think Lucy Liu as a gender-bent Sherlock Holmes could have been absolutely brilliant. I’d still love to see it some day.

My final verdict on Elementary is that it’s a pass for me, but I certainly won’t complain about other people’s enjoyment of a show that relates to Sherlock Holmes, however loose the connection seems to me.

The Hounds of Baskerville

Did I save the best for last? I might have done 😉

After a long enough wait that I felt my hair turning gray, the BBC finally released Series 2 of Sherlock, the show (or miniseries, if you’re anywhere other than England) that puts Sherlock and John in present-day London.

This series works for me according to Principle #2. The modernization of the setting works because the characters (and situations they get into) are straight off the pages of the Holmes canon, with the quirks, virtues, and spirit of the originals.

I did in-depth reviews of all three of the episodes of Series 2, so I won’t go there again. Sherlock isn’t a perfect show, but the showrunners managed, with the second series, to not just equal the brilliant first outing, but even to top it. This series proves that sometimes, less really is more, especially when we’re talking about three cinema-quality episodes crafted with a respect for the source material that is truly exceptional.

My final verdict on Sherlock is, well, I’m sitting here drumming my fingers waiting impatiently for Series 3.

This concludes my on-screen year in review. Stay tuned for a review of the past year’s Holmesian print offerings.

The Detective and the Woman: A Novel of Sherlock Holmes is available from all good bookstores and e-bookstores worldwide including in the USA Amazon,Barnes and Noble and Classic Specialities – and in all electronic formats including Amazon Kindle , iTunes(iPad/iPhone) and Kobo. Grab it before the sequel launches February 13, 2013!

5 thoughts on “Year in Review: Holmes on Screen

  1. Fascinating. I like your 3-part analysis of adaptations.
    And, ooh, yes, Lucy Liu should play Holmes, and, along with that, I think Jonny Lee Miller would make a really great Watson.

    • I agree. As far as I’m concerned, the show would do well to have them both get hit on the head and wake up thinking they’re each other–permanently.

  2. I am glad that you allow that you “won’t complain about other people’s enjoyment of a show that relates to Sherlock Holmes, however loose the connection seems to me”. I find that the “Elementary” connection is just as tight as the “Sherlock” connection–that is I can come up with as may failures to meet Principle #2 for one as the other. There is no point in my coming up with a list of items where “Sherlock” fails to capture the spirit of the original characters (just as you might have one for “Elementary”). It would be disputed, point by point, by die-hard Cumberbatchians, as well it should. But that highlights what I see as the psychology of fan loyalty. Fanaticism for “Sherlock” runs so deep for some people, they have so much emotionally invested in the show, that the mere existence of “Elementary” is an affront to them. No matter how good it was, “Elementary” would be seen as a usurper and a poor excuse for Sherlock Holmes.

    I enjoy all three of the modern series. There are flaws in all of them when compared to the Canon. If all I saw were the flaws, I would miss the virtues of “Elementary” (yes, they are there); I would miss the virtues of “Sherlock”; I would miss the big-screen fun of the Downey films; I wouldn’t be able to enjoy Brett or chuckle along with Bruce. I would end up like Martin Dakin and deny the Canonicity of half of the Case Book and that way lies madness. I might as well say that the stories weren’t written by Watson at all, but by some underemployed doctor in Southsea.

    As for wishing that Liu was cast as Holmes–cast your mind back to the time of the firestorm that was ignited when it was announced that Miller was cast as Holmes. Do you really think that the media maelstrom would have been less if it was Liu instead? It would have been much worse. The time will come for a female Sherlock Holmes and Doctor Watson, just as I am sure that they’ll be many who object saying, “it’s just too far, something that uses recognizable names without enough real Holmesian qualities to be something that works”.

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