By Joanna Swafford
Thanks to the witty, fast-paced BBC’s miniseries Sherlock, a new generation is becoming obsessed with the famous fictional detective (played by Benedict Cumberbatch) and his best friend and sidekick, John Watson (played by Martin Freeman). Sherlock, created and written by Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss, consists of 90-minute episodes that follow our hero in present-day London. This Sherlock is a self-described “sociopath” who considers “sentiment” and most other people (Watson excepted) beneath his notice and cares more about his cases than his clients. Watson, as in the books, is a veteran recently returned from fighting in Afghanistan, but in this version, he initially blogs about Sherlock’s adventures as part of his PTSD therapy. The series covers many of the pivotal plot points of the stories: Holmes and Watson meeting and becoming flatmates, the famous hiatus when Holmes fakes his own death, their reunion, and Watson’s marriage to Mary, as well as many cases.
The cases in Sherlock often have clear connections to the original stories, as even the titles demonstrate: for instance, A Study in Scarlet becomes “A Study in Pink,” “A Scandal in Bohemia” becomes “A Scandal in Belgravia,” and The Hound of the Baskervilles becomes “The Hounds of Baskerville.” The stories are also bursting with scattered, subtler nods to its source texts: “A Scandal in Belgravia” contains a brief montage of Holmes solving crimes, including the murder of a “speckled blond,” a quip that alludes to the much loved-story “The Speckled Band.” The series is particularly invested in making use of modern technology: its episodes hinge on smart phones, computer passwords, or rumors of incredibly powerful computer programs, and the show highlights its fascination with all things digital through dramatic floating word overlays when characters type, deduce, or text. The series also makes use of transmedia storytelling, as Watson’s blog actually exists and is updated in time with the show, often detailing cases that are not shown on screen, including “The Speckled Blond.”
While the show has a dedicated following, it also has a number of detractors, who are displeased with the show’s queerbaiting and representations of women (especially when compared to the stories) and people of color. These discussions can lead to lively discussion and a better understanding of both the adaptation and the original source material.
Questions for Discussion
How is the relationship between Sherlock and John characterized, and how is it similar to or different from the relationship in the stories? How does Sherlock treat John, and how does it relate to the stories?
What narrative, musical, and cinematographic strategies does the series use to show Sherlock’s intelligence and deductive abilities? How do those strategies relate to Conan Doyle’s strategies? What do the differences in strategies tell us about differences in media, genre, and audience?
The original Holmes stories have an international scope: they meet Irene Adler (an American), the King of Bohemia, and a man from the Andaman Islands, and they travel to the Reichenbach Falls in Switzerland, to name just a few examples. How and why does Sherlock echo or alter that geographic focus? How does the show’s portrayal of people from beyond England echo or alter the story’s own anxiety’s about Otherness and “foreign” influence?
Irene Adler in the stories is an American opera singer who outwits Holmes with her deductive abilities and skill at disguise—her cross-dressing even fools Holmes—and leaves town with her husband. Her brilliance causes Holmes to reevaluate his previously negative opinion of all women. Irene in Sherlock (in “Scandal in Belgravia” from Season 2, episodes 1) has a very different role. How is she represented? Do the changes to her character and fate alter the quasi-feminist message of the original? How do the changes to her character also alter the portrayal of Holmes?
Frankel, Valerie Estelle. Every Canon Reference You May Have Missed in BBC’s Series 1-3. LitCrit Press, 2014.
Porter, Lynette. Sherlock Holmes for the 21st Century: Essays on New Adaptations. Jefferson NC: McFarland, 2012.
Primorac, Antonija. “The Naked Truth: Postfeminist Afterlives of Irene Alder.” Neo-Victorian Studies 6.2 (2013): 89-113.
Stein, Louisa Ellen and Kristina Busse, eds. Sherlock and Transmedia Fandom: Essays on the BBC Series. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2012.
Vanacker, Sabine and Catherine Vynne, eds. Sherlock Holmes and Conan Doyle: Multi-Media Afterlives. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013.