You may or may not know this, but I am a huge fan of Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes stories. Consequently, I find the recent spate of film adaptations of the series rather interesting; while there is, of course, plenty of room to mess up his character, a good adaptation of a favorite writer's work is always welcome.
The two versions that seem to be getting the most attention these days are the movie Sherlock Holmes with Robert Downey, Jr. and the BBC TV series Sherlock with Benedict Cumberbatch. So, curious, I went and watched the first movie and Season One. (Have yet to see the sequels A Game of Shadows or Season Two, mind.)
Note: This post contains ruminations on the details of both, so if you call character analyses spoilers, consider yourself warned.
Also: This post is over 1000 words long. I'd apologize, but I've been stewing over this for a while and have really wanted to blog about it. Here's a link to a video of the simulated evolution of the universe instead if you'd just like to move on to something more interesting than me rambling about mystery fiction. Or, you can just skip to the end questions. I welcome your comments both on Sherlock Holmes and/or the universe. :)
First, in case you don't know much about the adaptations, the movie is set in the Victorian era (as with the stories) and the TV series is set in the present-day--and the two different adaptations seem to have sparked an internet flame war over which was closer to the original. They did this wrong, that wrong, Doyle's Holmes would never have done such a thing, they've corrupted the Holmesian deduction, etc., etc.
I'm not a purist when it comes to taking a work to the screen, but there are some things about Holmes you can't change without turning him into a completely different detective: viz., his legendary deduction.
Both adaptations used the deduction differently. The movie presented a scene with Holmes deducting as slow-motion with a voice over, explaining what he saw and then replaying the scene in real-time, which I found fascinating to watch: There seems to be nothing remarkable happening as the blanks are filled out, until you realize he's predicting everything that's about to occur and processing it much, much faster than a normal person could. The TV series, on the other hand, used text instead, spelling out Holmes' thoughts. Most of time, he also explained everything to the people standing by in a rapid-fire summary of reasons why he'd made the conclusions he did.
Both, in my view, did a pretty good job with Holmes' thought process. It's the rest of his personality--and who they cast as Watson--that makes the difference.
Robert Downey, Jr.'s Sherlock Holmes is zany and brilliant, successfully bringing in the original's apparent randomness and dramatic flair. He's a bit too random and overly energetic, but he's also humorous and avoids being cold, distant, and inaccessible.
Furthermore, there was some great interplay between him and Watson (Jude Law), and Watson was a much more 3-dimensional character in his own right: Capable of deducing some things on his own and actually standing his ground in a conversation with Holmes. He's not really a bumbling sidekick, which I appreciated, because characters who stick around just to make the main figure look good get annoying pretty fast.
Benedict Cumberbatch's Holmes, on the other hand, is cold and cutting. He's closer to the original in his part as the indifferent, calculating genius who dominates everyone and hasn't a care in the world for other people's perceptions of him--or for other individuals, really. A self-proclaimed "high-functioning sociopath" (though check out this post for reasons why, precisely, he's not a sociopath) there's minimal or zero regard for the actual lives of the people involved with the cases he takes on. It's the chase, the game, the thrill of the intellectual challenge that keeps his interest. The series emphasizes the negatives of Holmes more than the positives, and makes him more uncaring.
Watson (Martin Freeman) is also more like the John Watson of Doyle's stories: Sticks to Holmes almost all the time, doesn't do very well on his own, and is easily shut up. Though there are some funny exchanges between the two characters, he doesn't have quite the spunk of the movie. (The last ten seconds of each of the above trailers illustrates this difference pretty well.)
The two adaptations are, basically, aiming for a different kind of Holmes. Both are brilliant detectives and both solve the case with unique reasoning--but the movie heads for an accessible, more lovable version, while the series goes for the darker, sharper take.
Then there's plot. The movie is almost completely unrelated to the original (except for some dialogue and deductions), following a plot that was certainly not one of Doyle's. The last two episodes of Season One of the TV series (there are three, total) also have a main storyline that's different from the source material, but overall, the series is much more strongly linked to the stories--and the first episode (A Study in Pink) follows a similar plot as A Study in Scarlet, from the pills down to Watson's first meeting with Holmes, and even the second and third have numerous references to various stories.
And, finally, setting. Of course, placing a Sherlock Holmes story in the time period when Doyle was living can certainly help the integrity of an adaptation, and I do think the movie pulled it off quite well. Seeing Holmes using modern-day technology, however, was novel, and changed the nature of his deductions in interesting ways--though, and I'm not the first person to say this, when it comes to a character like Holmes, it's more the man than the setting that matters.
Overall, the series made the greater impression on me. The movie was great, really, but it didn't seem quite as close to the original Holmes, and everything felt tighter and clearer in the series: The plot, the setting, and above all, the characters. I'd recommend watching both adaptations, but the series more so.
And one final point that I thought the movie actually handled better than the series: Women. Sherlock Holmes is a bit of a misogynist in the stories (not that this is the only problem with the stories; there are several points that don't translate well to today), but I was kind of hoping they'd make him a little more modern.
The movie, at least, gave Irene Adler the spotlight and had her doing some significant things. Oh, sure, she's another femme fatale, but she does have a brain, even if she usually uses it for crime. All the women in the TV series, however, were unimpressive (barring Mrs. Hudson, who is such an amusing landlady). In The Blind Banker I thought they were about to make a strong female character out of John's girlfriend, but no. Soon she was playing the damsel in distress with nothing particularly redeeming happening afterwards.
(I take that Irene Adler makes an appearance in Season Two, but, and though I shouldn't judge the episode before I actually see it, I can't say the trailers look promising. Sigh. The one woman Holmes ever respected, and they make her his stereotypical downfall (well, almost--no one gets the better of him in the end, of course).)
Seen any Sherlock Holmes adaptations? If so, which one(s), and what did you think? If you've seen the movie and the TV series, which do you think was the better adaptation?
(And in case this combines fandoms you're interested in, I had a great time laughing at this collection of Wholock (Sherlock and Doctor Who). Makes sense, too, since Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss have worked on both series.)
-----The Golden Eagle