When John Met Sherlock

Like many others, I have often felt that novels don’t really translate into good movies. Not always, anyway.

We get the occasional jaw-droppers like the Lord of the Rings trilogy or The Silence of the Lambs where the movie version may surpass the original source material. There are some like Revolutionary Road or American Psycho which seem just as good. And then there are the clunkers, such as the first four Harry Potter movies, Interview with the Vampire and The Golden Compass.

Helter Skelter: Sherlock
Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman as Sherlock Holmes and Dr John Watson in the B.B.C. One series Sherlock.

Television shows adapted from books, however, are a different matter. For instance, one of the commonest complaints one heard about the Harry Potter movies was that the filmmakers had skipped a lot of the details and finer plot points. One can see what the problem would be for the filmmakers, given that they have only three hours—at the most–in which to tell the story. With television, time isn’t really a problem. The plot can unfold at a slower pace, include the tiniest details and add more layers to the characters and their stories. That is perhaps why we have seen so many wonderful novel-to-television translations, such as Game of Thrones, Sherlock, Dexter, True Blood, Brideshead Revisited, and Wallander that seem to satisfy even the most exacting fans. Starting today, this column will look at some of these shows and examine how they improve upon their source material and also in what ways they fall short. We begin with the B.B.C. One series, Sherlock, which is based on the Sherlock Holmes stories by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.

Anyone who is remotely interested in watching good television is familiar with the basic premise of Sherlock. It is a modern take on the original stories, complete with mobile phones, remote-controlled explosives, and cameras. The characters are all the same: there’s Sherlock Holmes, Dr John Watson, Mrs Hudon, Lestrade, Mycroft Holmes, James (or rather, Jim) Moriarty, and Irene Adler. The names of the cases have been tweaked just a little and they have some points in common with the stories penned by Sir Arthur: The Hounds of Baskerville does feature a hound, in a manner of speaking, while in A Scandal in Belgravia a mobile phone with compromising pictures, rather than a bunch of compromising letters, forms the crux of the plot.

What is really interesting, however, is how much further the show goes than the original stories in developing the characters of the two protagonists and their relationship. Part of it is, of course, because the show is a product of its times, just like the stories. Sir Arthur showed a certain restraint when dwelling on the nature of the Holmes-Watson relationship, which was only natural given that he was writing in the 1800s. Sherlock, on the other hand, comes in an age of greater emotional demonstrativeness. We expect more from the stories than a succession of logical deductions; we want heart. We need to be passionately involved with the lives of these characters and that can’t happen unless they show us their human side. So we love scenes from the show, such as the one where Sherlock thinks John is coming onto him; or the sequence where John instructs Sherlock on how to conduct himself in public. In the original stories, the awe in Watson’s voice was perhaps too strong. Seen through his eyes, Sherlock was scarcely human; rather, he was a subject whose habits and methods were to be studied. The characterisation of Watson too suffered in the stories, because we never really saw him as a person in his own right. His sole qualities seemed to be unflinching admiration for Holmes and a tendency to set aside his life to assist Holmes on his cases.

With the T.V. show, however, we see two flawed and fascinating characters who share a recognisable kind of friendship, which isn’t one-sided. Sherlock, while often impatient with people, clearly cares about at least a few of them. He may not have all the social graces that make up a decent human being, but he is trying. And John isn’t merely a biographer for a great ‘consulting detective’. He’s a good and loyal friend, who isn’t afraid to speak his mind and succeeds in getting his roommate to toe the line. Their relationship is much less lopsided here.

The show has completed two seasons so far, and the third instalment is expected to start early next year. Sherlock ‘died’ in the last episode of the second season, which involved some rather touching farewell scenes. And if the creators of the show decide to get John married off in the coming episodes, it will certainly be interesting to see how the new and improved version of Sherlock reacts to that.

Big Books, Small Screen‘ is a new series that examines books and the television shows they inspire. It is more than the exploration of a pop culture phenomenon: it is an excuse for the author to watch unlimited T.V.
Pooja Pillai is a writer, aspiring baker, and television addict. When she isn't reading or cooking, she blogs at Bibliofanatique about her adventures with books.

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