In preparation for the American premiere of the third season of PBS’ Sherlock, starring Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman, I’ve been rewatching the first two seasons and reading the original stories and novels by Arthur Conan Doyle. And I’ve come to a conclusion. Sherlock is superior to its source material.
Explaining why I think Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss’ adaptations are better than Conan Doyle’s work is relatively easy. Deciding how much credit Moffat and Gatiss get for their success was more more tricky. In the end, however, I think Doyle gets most of it.
What Arthur Conan Doyle Did Right
What Conan Doyle did superbly right in his stories and novels is create the vivid, particular character of Sherlock Holmes, who deserves his enduring fascination and appeal.
I think this fascination springs first from the fact that Sherlock Holmes is a fully-formed literary character who is at the same time largely two dimensional (a quality he shares with the other characters in Conan Doyle’s stories, unfortunately).
The reason this contradiction succeeds so brilliantly is that Sherlock Holmes seems to be suffering from an autism-spectrum disorder, which explains his intellectual powers, his deep knowledge of arcane subjects, his passionate focus on problems that interest him, his inability to read social cues or manage social interactions (though indifference might be the cause), and in particular, the but-faint glimmers we get of Holmes’ interior life.
With most of the characters in Sherlock Holmes, we cannot penetrate beyond their surfaces because they have no character beyond their surfaces. With Holmes, his impenetrability is part of his essence; we don’t understand him well because Holmes is indifferent to such questions himself; and perhaps the greatest mystery of all in the stories is the nature of Sherlock Holmes’ soul.
Conan Doyle gets full marks for investing Holmes with extraordinary powers of observation, analysis, reasoning, and deduction, and for creating compelling examples of these qualities in action.
Finally, he gets credit for filling his stories with intriguing hints: the loneliness of John Watson after his return from the Afghanistan wars; the suggestion that Mycroft Holmes occasionally “is the British government”; and of course the huge dramatic potential found in the character of Professor Moriarty.
What Conan Doyle Did Not Do At All
The problem is that Conan Doyle often does too little with these characters, and frankly too little with many of the stories in the Holmes canon; and I keep thinking the problems rise from either Conan Doyle’s lack of skill as a writer or his lack of interest in the stories themselves.
A Study in Scarlet is a good example. All the good things about Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories are right there, already in place, right out of the gate: the character of Sherlock Holmes most especially, his great intellectual powers, and an impressively worked-out mystery.
But then there are the problems. Holmes and Watson meet cute, and Holmes jumps right off the page like Athena from the head of Zeus, but the management of the beginning of their relationship feels perfunctory. Doyle needs Watson and Holmes to come together and so they do; and the most basic of Holmes-ian questions is not answered, namely “Why?”
Then it is hard to read A Study in Scarlett and without concluding that Doyle simply does not manage plots very well. The majority of the story is advanced through exposition and halfway through the novel, the telling is handed over to the murderer and the scene abruptly shifts to the American West, where begins the long and tedious explanation of the murderer’s motives which involve dastardly Mormon polygamists and the outrages they commit against an innocent girl. (I’m not making that up.) Holmes utterly disappears and it is Holmes that makes Doyle worth reading.
The Final Problem – the story that features Holmes’ famous death at the Reichenbach Falls – has related problems. Here we discover Moriarty and see the only time Holmes and his arch-nemesis meet face to face. Moriarty is interesting. The conversation between Moriarty and Holmes is interesting. Doyle makes the friendship between Holmes and Watson, as they flee Moriarty, feel convincing. But the great chess game of move and counter-move Holmes tells us he’s playing with Moriarty happens entirely off the page, and we get no hint of the details. Worse, the death of Holmes also happens off the page. All this material has huge potential. Conan Doyle, and his readers, just need someone to come along and exploit it.
That’s Where Moffat and Gatiss and Their “Sherlock” Comes In
Perhaps the reason Sherlock Holmes is so enduring in adaptation is precisely because Arthur Conan Doyle’s source material is so full of untapped possibility. In any case, along come Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss – the latest in a long succession of people to take on the job – and succeed brilliantly.
First, they add a layer of internal conflict to the stories by filling out the characters and making their emotions drive the stories as much as the criminal mysteries. Holmes isn’t a natural candidate for the role, but Watson with his war experience and manifest loneliness is.
Moffat and Gatiss bring that loneliness forward, use it to help us understand how the friendship between Watson and Holmes developed so quickly, and most importantly make Watson the main character of their stories and his friendship with Holmes the show’s great beating heart. (I should say that Martin Freeman gets equal credit for the success.) Doyle gave us stories that entertain and delight. Moffat and Gatiss make Sherlock move us as well.
They get even more out of their adaptation of Mycroft Holmes. They add the perfectly logical deduction of sibling conflict between Mycroft and Sherlock; give the brothers contrasting yet similarly cold temperaments; and follow-up on Conan Doyle’s hint that Mycroft “is the British government” and make him England’s spy-master which opens up a rich vein of new conflicts and stories to pursue.
The espionage thriller aspects of Sherlock work particularly well with the increased role Moriarty plays in these stories (an idea that long pre-dates Moffat and Gatiss of course). Moriarty runs a vast, shadowy international criminal conspiracy which in technique and operations is largely indistinguishable from a nation-state’s intelligence service or for that matter a terrorist group. All three run themselves in similar ways: it is their motives and goals that differ.
So Moffat and Gatiss use Mycroft and Moriarty to produce both long-arc conflicts, that is plots that arc through a season or several seasons and tie the whole show together, and as drivers within individual shows, which each have a beginning, middle, and satisfying end. (Well, except for the Hound of the Baskerville’s episode, to my tastes.) Watson plays a similar role, with the emotions of his character producing both long-arc and short-arc conflicts.
I like Moffat and Gatiss’ updating just fine too, although I suppose I can see the point of those people who think it is “gimmicky”. But to set the stories in modern London, you really do have to lay aside Holmes’ dependence on tobacco and cocaine, and you really do have to add cell phones, the internet, and texting.
I also like the “flashy” or “showy” editing, when the scene goes slow-motion and text labels and assorted graphics fly across the screen to illustrate Holmes’ thoughts. These are gimmicks. But they also solve the problem of having Watson ask, “My god, Holmes, how did you figure that out?” and Holmes saying “Elementary, my dear Watson ….” I think we all have had enough of that, haven’t we?
Then there is the running joke about Holmes and Watson being gay. On the one hand, I confess to thinking it is sort of funny. On the other, I’m beginning to think that cheerful jokes about homosexuality are as reactionary as the homophobia still rampant in America and elsewhere. After all, on the most essential level, it should be irrelevant whether Watson and Holmes are or aren’t gay. What is essential is that they care for each other.
Maybe the most interesting question of all is “Why does Sherlock Holmes continue to be so popular?” There must be something about the character that resonates deep in the culture. I have no answer, currently. Maybe after I watch Season 3 I will. Can’t wait to start!