Great Sherlock Holmes Debate 2 – why BBC Sherlock is the winner for me

I will be on Team Sherlock for the MX Publishing Great Sherlock Holmes Debate 2 which takes place next Sunday (March 18).    We will all be debating live in London – some of us in person, others via the web/phone.  There will be three teams, one supporting the Warner Brothers film franchise, my team supporting BBC’s Sherlock and a third group in favour of the more traditional interpretations.  There will also be a discussion about how the BBC will tackle The Empty House, the CBS series and, undoubtedly, a lively interchange about ‘that suicide’.

I think that I have already made my views quite clear over the last few months with regard to Sherlock v Mr Ritchie’s blockbusters.  But I thought that maybe it was time to pull everything together in one blog ahead of this major event in the Holmesian calendar.

Let’s start with BBC Sherlock and why it gets my vote:

BBC Sherlock appeals to men, women and viewers of all ages – therefore the series has a greater impact on the long-term future of Sherlock Holmes than other interpretations which have a more selective target audience.

The women in the Ritchie film were simply ‘window-dressing’ and were unconvincing, a few token females eclipsed by the ‘bromance’ and action.  But in Sherlock, the women are professional and believable – a police sergeant, the manager of a medical recruitment company, an expert at a museum, a pathologist etc.

BBC Sherlock gets the balance right between appealing to existing fans of Sherlock Holmes and also attracting a new, contemporary audience.  Sherlock is innovative in the right way – cerebral, detailed and capturing the essence of the original characters.  For this reason, the series is more likely to make someone want to read the original stories.

Sherlock’s stylised, unusual formatting means that it has achieved the perfect balance between being popular but still retaining the feel of something niche and cult-classic.  It’s not a sell-out.  It’s slick, clever, brave and different – a perfect tribute to the spirit of the original stories.  But for me, the Guy Ritchie films feel like a bit of a cash-in rather than  something made with a true love and understanding of the source material.  Sherlock is done with a lighter touch, a greater sensitivity than this block-busting, commercial romp.

People want to talk about Sherlock.  My blog about how Sherlock might have faked his own death is by far and away the most viewed item (more than 4,000) on this blog and has attracted the most comments.

Sherlock’s ‘suicide’ was the most talked about TV mystery since the whole ‘who shot JR?’ scandal.  The national press, including the broadsheets, all ran stories and it was even mentioned on the BBC news.  The impact was huge.  This is the difference with Sherlock; it gets people talking and thinking, especially in the context of a riddle, an intellectual problem which I think Sir Arthur himself would have loved.

Thoughts on the Guy Ritchie films:

There are inaccuracies in the Guy Ritchie films which, in my opinion, are unforgivable and make it seem as though the makers didn’t thoroughly read the original stories.  What about poor Mary Morstan, Watson’s first wife who he met during The Sign of Four?  She has been replaced in the film by an entirely new character.  This doesn’t seem right when the setting and period are the same.

Even though I find the aggressive marketing off-putting, it’s the strap-line which really kills it for me – ‘Bigger, Better, Funnier’.  It sounds more like a spoof than a serious attempt to portray Sherlock Holmes on the big screen.

As a character, Sherlock Holmes is all about the small things – paying attention to tiny details which seem insignificant to everyone except himself, taking on cases which seem so small that the official police don’t understand their significance.  Bigger is not better.  The first film was big and funny enough.  As Game of Shadows is ‘bigger’ and ‘funnier’ then surely it becomes a parody, a joke, and a million miles away from what Holmes is really about.

Matthew Bond, a critic in the Mail on Sunday, attacked the film’s ‘anything goes’ humour and summed up my concerns perfectly with the line – ‘The damage this sort of cavalier approach does to the underlying Holmes franchise is incalculable.’  My worry is that Ritchie has turned Holmes into a comedy figure, lowered the tone.

My concern is that the film franchise somehow devalues and trivialises the character of Sherlock Holmes, making him too commercial.  I fear that the forthcoming CBS series, Elementary, will further this process – full of shiny, attractive people with perfect teeth.  And a female Doctor Watson, I could drone on for hours about that one . . .

Tackling the Empty House:

Sherlock’s The Reichenbach Fall managed the rare trick of improving on the source material in a few very clever ways.  Firstly, the episode presented a more credible, sensitive look at Sherlock’s emotions about self sacrifice, his true feelings towards his small circle of friends and his desire to save them at all costs.  Secondly, it showed, very convincingly, the pain John felt about the ‘death’ of his best friend.

So why did Holmes play dead for three years in the original canon?  It’s never been entirely clear to me to be honest.  Sounds to me like he just enjoyed a bit of an adult gap-year (or three) travelling and experiencing new things while his only friend mourned his death and that of his own wife.

So how will BBC Sherlock tackle this?  There are a few key differences to consider.  Sherlock’s death is a rather more noble action in their version of the Final Problem.  Moriarty/Jim forces him to commit suicide because it is the only way to call off the snipers who are about to kill the people he cares most about.  He fakes his death and goes into exile in order to save his friends.  So far, so forgivable.  But will the writers stick to the original and keep him away for three years?  If so, how can he come back and justify that?  He saw John’s heartbreaking sadness at the gravestone and seemed genuinely moved by it; surely he can’t leave him to mourn for three whole years?  And if he does, forgiveness needs to be harder to achieve than in the original.    He needs to really work for it this time.

In my own novel, Watson has come out from Holmes’ shadow to become a stronger, more confident person during the Great Hiatus and the dynamic of their friendship has changed forever.  Will it be the same for John?  Will he flourish or crumble without Sherlock?  Will he be married or even widowed as in the original?

What about Moran?  So far there has been no mention of him but surely the writers of Sherlock wouldn’t leave out such a vital character?  Was he watching when Sherlock jumped and could he be the man who brings him back to London?  Or perhaps ‘he’ is actually a ‘she’?  Exactly how close were Moriarty and Irene Adler – could she actually be his Moran?

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8 Responses to Great Sherlock Holmes Debate 2 – why BBC Sherlock is the winner for me

  1. Larry Feldman says:

    The thing to understand about the Ritchie films, is that it is as much a “reboot” of the Canon as the BBC Sherlock. Don’t let the fact that it takes place in the correct time period fool you! All the characters are “new and fresh”, the Canon is acknowledged
    but the characters and stories are no more a part of the same continuity a than Sherlock is. Sort of like comparing Buffy The Vampire Slayer TV series with the original movie. It takes the original idea, then makes something new with it. If you watch the Ritchie films from this point of view, it becomes much more tolerable, and you won’t mind all the differences. After all, the original stories are still there to enjoy

    • Kathy says:

      A reboot or a misnomer? Because in both of those movies I saw no Holmes except in the names of the films, and replacing that with Lethal Weapon Goes Victorian would have been perfectly acceptable. And while of course, even BBC Sherlock is not the original, which are of course, everything one needs to savour Holmes, they do not make something new of it by stripping out the original altogether.

      Having said that, I agree that the movies also of course have some good aspects. Jude Law had a brilliant performance, and giving him drinking and betting problems is not out of the realm of possibility, as Watson himself says he had ‘other vices’ when speaking of Holmes’s cocaine habit. The RDJ version’s Moriarty was more of a classic take on him, and I will admit that I did not once feel threatened by his BBC adaptation.

      In the end, however, while I can still call BBC Sherlock an adaptation of ACD’s work, I don’t feel I can do the same with Guy Ritchie’s work on the big screen. He simply made an action movie. Mssrs Moffat and Gattis recreated Holmes.

  2. The Greek 'e' says:

    I thought in the Guy Ritchie films Watson’s wife WAS Mary Morstan! He certainly calls her Mary! Anyway, we all know Watson had a bit of a confusing marriage history so I think there’s a little leeway where that’s concerned!

    I know the Warner Bros films portray more of an actioney Holmes than the canon but I think this is a fair enough adaptation; by the by I feel that Sherlock’s Holmes is overly sulky, grumpy and childlike. In both cases, Holmes of the canon obviously possesses these tendencies but I think it depends on how Holmes is portrayed as he is an incredibly complex and surprising character so it really depends on the adaptation. I’d have to say I prefer Brett and Rathbone as I feel they reflected the character from the original stories better, but Holmes is confusing so I say that both modern adaptations were well done.

    Also, I’d like to point out that I feel Holmes has become too superhuman in his deductive powers in this recent series of Sherlock; the whole point of Holmes’ deductions are that when they’re explained they are “absurdly simple” yet in this series I felt that the whole plotline and Holmes’ powers of deductions were too far-fetched which actually had the effect of reducing Holmes’ magnificence as he seemed to be more guessing and stumbling across strange truths than deducing! I feel that this second series has deteriorated substantially from the first! 😦

    • Larry says:

      I think she meant that, while the girl was Mary Morstan, she wasn’t much like Mary Morstan from the Canon. The same could be said of Irene Adler and Mycroft as well. These characters had maybe a sentence of their stories in common with their original inspirations.

      • The Greek 'e' says:

        Ah, yes, now I see! Of course there’ve been very flexible adaptations of the characters but, like Sherlock, as this is a broad adaptation of the canon, I feel we can forgive such changes. e.g. in Sherlock the invention of Molly Hooper, or Sherlock’s Mycroft who I feel is even more far removed from that of the canon than in the Ritchie films! I don’t mind any of this too much as they’re obviously both a far throw from Conan Doyle’s original works!

      • Kathy says:

        Actually, I took that she meant she was replaced in the action. Mary Morstan in canon is lovely, according to Watson’s narrative, and she is sharp enough to receive a complement from Holmes. So her role in the movie – of analysing the evidence – is justified, but just the same: She appears for all of ten minutes. I would call that being replaced too.

  3. I should naturally fall into the Traditionalist’s camp and it is from there that I should begin my appraisal from.

    The Basil Rathbone films are one of the earliest examples of a film “pastiches” though they started with a story from the Canon. The scriptwriter’s played around a bit with this but it was broadly the story of the gigantic hound. In the subsequent films they took a more contemporary approach but still wove in elements of the Canon. The greatest disservice was the portrayal of me by Nigel Bruce but however inaccurate it was it was done with affection and maybe the aim was to provide the light relief that may be missing from BBC Sherlock when Sherlock goes over the top with his deductions (as in the Christmas scene in A Scandal in Belgravia – the nightmare Christmas you sometimes get when everyone is forced together).

    I saw the first Guy Ritchie film at the cinema (fortunately no-one recognised me) and I was pleased to see so many young people enjoying it. My wife, Mary Morstan, was in the film though what was inexplicable was that Holmes did not know who she was (though she was the client in The Sign of Four).

    There was much apprehension, even from me, about the BBC bringing Holmes and I into the modern day, but that was what had been done before with the Rathbone films. What is different about BBC Sherlock is that it is rooted more firmly in the Canon and is really a retelling of my stories in modern times. I have sat through all the episodes mesmerised by the Canonical references, some of which I do not spot until the second or third viewing and there are maybe more I have yet to find. They are richly rewarding adaptations.

    Less richly rewarding (sorry about the pun) is the second Ritchie film which took the characters (but precious little of the Canon) into a new adventure. It is interesting listening to Leslie Klinger talk about the advice he gave on the film script. He was not consulted very much and it shows. As with the puzzle over my wife in the first film they took a strange (very) approach to the character of Holmes brother Mycroft.

    Both the Ritchie films and BBC’s Sherlock have brought an increased interest in my good friend for which I am grateful but in the end my order of preference will always be to put the original stories first but with the BBC Sherlock a close second and the Ritchie films a distant third. Will the CBS Elementary overtake the Ritchie films? Possibly. But overtake the BBC Sherlock – I doubt it.

    As for The Empty House we will have to wait and see!

  4. Kathy says:

    Ah, as I always say … Martin’s Watson is not going to let Sherlock have it – this time possibly NOT avoiding the nose and the teeth. I can’t say I’d mind: Watson’s response in canon isn’t something Martin’s Watson would do.

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