Conan Doyle’s detective welcomed on the small screen

February 5, 2014

Courtesy of BBC One

Sherlock Holmes is no stranger to screen-time. Currently the world record holder for most adapted character, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s fictional detective has been translated into radio plays, films and television shows, including two that are currently on the air. While literary adaptations like “Harry Potter” tangle with how to preserve the accuracy of their texts, bringing Holmes to life brings up a second issue: how to find new ways to adapt such a beloved character.

In terms of modern revamping tendencies, both BBC’s “Sherlock” and  CBS’s “Elementary” chose to reassign their brilliant sleuths to cases in modern times. This shift works on many levels. Changing the setting from Victorian England means that only the characters and, more importantly, their relationships to one another, remain constant.

Holmes and Watson’s friendship remains at the heart of the stories, Watson serving as the reader’s window into Holmes’ life. But while the good doctor has always acted as a narrator for their adventures in the books, the power of video transforms this one-sided relationship and gives Watson more responsibility than just chronicling the duo’s adventures. Instead, he becomes an important part of solving them. But revitalizing the character can be done in other ways as well.

“Elementary” writers chose to cast Lucy Liu as Watson. Despite the initial uproar among Holmes fans, actress Liu has grown into her role, turning Joan Watson from a glorified babysitter for an unstable Holmes into an amateur sleuth-in-training, adding a teacher-student aspect to the partnership.

“Sherlock,” on the other hand, does not attempt to reinvent the wheel. After all, the Holmes-Watson dynamic contributes greatly to popularity. Instead, co-creators Mark Gatiss and Steven Moffat reached for an aspect of the Holmes canon that is usually left alone: his cases.

While most adaptations simply translate Holmes’ cases for the screen, Gatiss and Moffat try to rethink the different facets of each mystery, allowing them to twist and spin devoted fans’ expectations. This approach remains faithful to Conan Doyle’s stories while showing off an intriguing new angle.

Part of the success of this strategy is that “Sherlock” only generates three episodes per series. In comparison, “Elementary,” with its 24-episode season, creates a case per week, thus turning it into a procedural. Audiences seem to like both tactics, as each show consistently draws audiences in the millions.

Thanks to these television adaptations, many viewers are much more familiar with the shows than the literary material on which they are based. The same can be said for “Game of Thrones,” “The Vampire Diaries” and “Pretty Little Liars,” all of which are immensely popular book-to-screen adaptations. In some cases, the shows even offer improvements on their original sources.

Though fans of literature are often disappointed by film adaptations, it appears television proves a much more satisfactory medium — especially when the adapted character is Sherlock Holmes.

A version of this article appeared in the Wednesday, Feb. 5 print edition. Nivea Serrao is a staff writer. Email her at entertainment@nyunews.com.

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