This is Sherlock Holmes’ year, we’re just living in it. No less than three new versions of Conan Doyle’s classic detective are launching this year across three different media and three very different approaches. The obvious question of course is why? The less obvious question is which, if any, will succeed?
It seems oddly fitting to start with the version of which we know least. Sherlock filmed in January, a sixty minute pilot designed to update the character to modern London. Superficially it’s the least interesting of the three until, that is, you examine the cast and crew.
Created by Stephen Moffat, about to take over the reins of Doctor Who and co-created by Moffat and Mark Gatiss, Sherlock appears to have taken great pains to maintain the basic tenets of the characters and stories. Holmes is still brilliant but socially inept, Watson is still compassionate, slightly dogged and his closest friend. They even live at the same address.
But Moffat and Gatiss both have a reputation for surprising decisions and the fact that Moriarty is mentioned in the press release is I suspect, very deliberate. This has the potential to be one of the most interesting takes on the character in decades and with Benedict Cumberbatch as Holmes and Martin Freeman as Watson, the central cast are certainly about as strong as it’s possible for them to be. Sherlock looks set to air later this year and it’ll be interesting to see how it fares.
Stepping across to comics for a moment, Leah Moore and John Reppion are currently writing a Sherlock Holmes series for Dynamite Entertainment. Moore and Reppion have been quietly carving a name for themselves in the industry for some time now and their Albion series was simultaneously a celebration and a particularly nasty subversion of some classic English comic characters. They get the peculiar combination of courtesy and violence, tea and blood-soaked shirts that lie at the heart of this sort of English fiction and it’s this sensibility that they bring to Sherlock Holmes. The idea behind the series is simple; these are the stories Conan Doyle didn’t get to tell, stories set in the Victorian London we know so well, starring Holmes, Watson, Lestrade and the rest but in comic form.
The end result is impressive. The debate about whether comics are better telling decompressed serials or compressed stand alones is rendered moot here as the script, along with Aaron Campbell’s art imitates the erudite language of Conan Doyle’s work through pacing rather than dialogue. The first story, ‘The Trial of Sherlock Holmes’ is currently two issues in and in that time we’ve seen Holmes arrested for a murder he seemingly cannot be innocent of, Watson and Lestrade united against a curiously unhelpful Chief of Police, Holmes remarkably relaxed to be in prison and something terrible moving in the shadows of London High Society. These two issues are packed with incident and information, filled with exactly the sort of dense, informative plotting Conan Doyle excelled at but unfold at a unique, deliberate pace. This is prose storytelling in comic form, done not just right but exceptionally. The principles of the character have rarely been more honoured without it once seeming like slavish adherence to the text.
At the other end of the spectrum, the trailer for Guy Ritchie’s Sherlock Holmes film arrived a couple of weeks ago and caused a minor stir in fan circles. The film casts Robert Downey Junior as Holmes and Jude Law as Watson and judging by the trailer sets them against the beginnings of the occultist and spiritualist movement that Conan Doyle himself would become so infamously drawn to.
The trailer is just over two and a half minutes long, gives both Downey Jr and Law a chance to shine and drives home one point over and over again; this is not your father’s Sherlock Holmes. It shows Holmes engaged in a bare knuckle boxing match, a singularly inept fight with a villain in a shipyard, diving out of the House of Commons into the Thames, failing to pick a lock and being knocked out by Irene Adler. There’s gunplay, explosions and the sort of rapid fire deadpan humour that Downey Jr excels at.
It looks, in short, marvellous. This is the other road to take with Sherlock Holmes, eschewing purism for a format where the characters are rendered down to their barest essentials (Brilliant, eccentric detective, compassionate, long suffering friend, charming, wily female criminal) and then something entirely new is built on top of them. It will, and has I’m sure, enrage purists as the character appears to be rendered down to nothing more than Indiana Jones in period London, the Doctor without his TARDIS.
But that’s not the point. The point is, Holmes CAN be rendered down in this fashion, can be altered, changed as the author requires. He’s very nearly a perfect character, unique but mutable, an ideal that stands a little outside the norm and able to reflect whatever an author brings to it. Holmes is a mirror held up not just to the crimes he investigates and the society within which they occur but also the authors who stand behind him.
This is the central point of Paul Cornell’s magnificent ‘The Deer Stalker’. Available for free on the BBC website it’s a dizzying story that begins with Watson in hiding as mysterious soldiers stalk London and culminates in a moment of post-modern surrealism that not only explains every different incarnation of the character but puts each on an equal footing. He’s an elemental, pure figure and as a result is oddly mutable, a figure adept at disguise be it textual or meta-textual.
Which brings us to the definitive Holmes variation; Gregory House. He’s an irascible, bitter, sarcastic junkie with a dogged, overly compassionate best friend, an establishment figure who is as irritated by him as they are awed and a group of young, eager hopefuls who want to prove themselves. He even lives at 221B.
The medical detective show is in its fifth season and, for all the changes made to cast and plotting, for all the focussing in on the lives of individual characters and the quietly dark hearts of the Princeton Plainsboro staff, the stories remain basically the same; a patient with impossible symptoms is admitted, House tries something and it works a little then fails, tries something else that fails and makes it worse then tries something else and nine times out of ten, cures the patient. Not everyone goes home whole but by and large, everyone goes home. More often than not, House wins and more often than not, he takes no satisfaction from that at all, constantly turning to the next puzzle, the next case. He’s a constant, both in the hospital and the series and that has itself become a plot point. Recent episodes have begun to explore the concept that House is terrified of change, that his constant bullying and cajoling of patients and staff is to hold them in line, to keep them from breaking ranks, breaking the pattern.
This is the genius of the show, taking the format of the original stories and hanging a lantern on them, using that repetition as a character beat in and of itself. House is a constant and he’s trapped by that constant, his genius a fragile structure based on a single friendship and the total control he exerts over his staff.
House is Holmes taken to the nth degree, a snarling, sarcastic figure with a horrific childhood that tortures as much as it enables him. The last half season alone has seen him attempt suicide in the name of clinical information, risk permenant brain damage in a desperate attempt to save the love of his best friend’s life and hire a private detective to keep tracks on his friend and his staff. He’s a disaster, a barely functional human being who uses his constant humour to hide the very intellect, the very concern he’s desperate to prove he doesn’t have. House is a far darker, far more driven figure than Holmes and when the time comes for his Reichenbach Falls it’s very difficult to imagine him returning.
But for all the vicodin and motorcycles, the prostitutes and the lewd comments, at his core, Gregory House is Sherlock Holmes. He’s the same driven, brilliant, slightly doomed figure updated to the present day and placed in an entirely unique context that not only allows him to stand out but also throws a blinding light on Sherlock Holmes and the lives the two men all but share.
When it comes down to it, Holmes is Holmes, regardless of whether his name is Sherlock or Greg, whether he’s in print or on the screen, in 19th Century London or 21st Century America. He’s both unique and uniquely mutable and that means he can be whatever is required of him, however impossible, or improbable, it may seem.