or, “A Brief Discussion about Adapting Literary Characters to a Different Media Looking at a Specific Example.”
I am a fan of Sherlock Holmes. I’ve read all the stories at one time or another. I’ve seen a lot of (but not all) television and movie adaptations (also, I think Benedict Cumberbatch is probably the most quintessentially British name in the history of British names). Some I have liked, and some I haven’t. I think because a character like Sherlock Holmes has such strong personality characteristics, the amalgam most people have is probably quite similar. Here are the defining characteristics as I see them:
3) Easily bored
Now, the details of those characteristics is where there are differences in the amalgam. Some adaptations I think have made too much of his cocaine habit. Some completely ignore that. Some don’t go into his love of music at all. I also think this should make him easy to adapt to film. I think there have been some quite good adaptations of Holmes, such as the television version played by Jeremy Brett. I don’t think the most recent movies with Robert Downey Jr. are very good adaptations. I understand what the film-makers were going for, but it didn’t work for me. There was the problem of Hollywood, which I’ll explain in a second.
There are really only a couple of ways to adapt a literary character with a long span of stories, and this problem actually comes up with comic book adaptations as well. Either the adaptation is of a specific story, it the adaptation is an amalgam of stories. Since most of the Holmes’ stories are quite short, most of the movie-length adaptations have been of the novels. However, some of the television adaptations I quite enjoyed were direct adaptations of the short stories. The most recent movies have been the latter example of adaptation – an amalgam of stories. Comic book movies usually take this route as well. Even for being an amalgam, I still don’t think the recent movies were good adaptations because I think the characters were off.
While I think it’s fairly easy to adapt Sherlock Holmes, I have seen very few good adaptations of Watson. Unfortunately, a lot of Watsons seemed to be too old or too stodgy or too stupid. Holmes was brilliant, true, but Watson was no slouch. He was a medical doctor who served in the military and was the same age as Holmes. The stories also make a point of stating that Watson kept himself in good shape. Holmes relied on Watson for back-up if he suspected he’d need some muscle or a good shot. Oddly, while I didn’t like the most recent movies’ portrayal of Holmes, I thought the movies had one of the best portrayals of Watson I’ve seen. Jude Law looked almost exactly like the Sidney Paget illustrations in The Strand. That Watson also was the man of action Conan Doyle described.
I like the adaptations that are most faithful to the stories, particularly in the case of this character. I don’t see much reason to try to add a twist to a character that’s already so strong. But adaptations don’t occur in a vacuum. Even strong characters are seen through the lens of culture. The small-screen adaptations were more true to the stories because many of those were aiming to be live-action versions of the stories. The recent movies were trying to bring characters to the big screen without telling a specific from the Holmes canon. Hollywood also came into these latest movies. In this, I mean that Hollywood wants to make money, and the easiest way to do this is give people pretty much the same thing they’ve already bought. And Hollywood doesn’t think too much of the movie-going audience, so in adaptations, characters tend to reduced to charactures. So, in the case of the latest movies, I think the film-makers saw an effective but troubled detective and a straight man (which is a horrible simplification of Holmes and Watson) and thought – hey, buddy cop! At least that’s the impression that I got. I got that I was watching a steampunk version of Riggs and Murtaugh. Seriously, to me I was watching “Lethal Weapon: Victorian England.”
The other reason I didn’t think it was a particularly good adaptation was Irene Adler. “A Scandel in Bohemia” is a title of a story published in The Strand magazine featuring Sherlock Holmes. In the Western culture, the hero still needs a love interest. Even though Watson says more than a few times that Holmes finds the idea of a relationship abhorrent because it would interfere with his ability to be a detective (I believe the phrase used is, “like grit in a finely tuned machine”), too many adaptations try to force Holmes into that romantic narrative. It is important to note that Irene does only appear once. It was also clear to me that Holmes’ feelings towards Irene were not romantic (anyway, he never properly met her and was only working the case for two days, I think). She figured out Holmes’ scheme and had the audacity to let him know, and he didn’t catch on to her audacity at the time. She was his intellectual equal. That, however, doesn’t fit into the narrative, so Adler morphs into a former lover.
Some of these criticisms apply to comic book movies as well, but I find it more grating with Holmes because I think the characterization is both strong and consistent, so the adaptations should also be strong and consistent. I don’t think this happened with the latest movies. There was too much Tony Stark in Sherlock Holmes, too much of a Riggs/Murtaugh vibe, and too much summer blockbuster for stories that would be better served by being more low-budget and authentic.