Bringing Sherlock Holmes into the 21st Century

By  · Published on November 9th, 2012

On CBS’ Elementary, Johnny Lee Miller plays a modern-day Sherlock Holmes. The English actor’s interpretation of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s famous sleuth is hyperkinetic. Holmes is indelicate. He jitters. When observing some liar or crime scene, he’s prone to biting his bottom lip – presumably, an outward manifestation of all of those synapses firing off in his big ol’ genius brain. Although none of these character quirks are particularly unexpected or novel they work. Miller is mesmerizing. His performance is the one thing that distinguishes this new series from other crime dramas. But shouldn’t the show’s connection to Conan Doyle’s stories be what sets it apart?

This updated Holmes lives in Manhattan. His female Dr. Watson, Joan (Lucy Liu), isn’t a flatmate but a sober companion – like the Holmes of Conan Doyle’s stories, he struggles with drug addiction. He’s recently left rehab, living in an apartment owned by a father whom he resents, and consults for the NYPD. Holmes also seems to be fond of wearing clothes that are too small for him (but he looks very cute in his child-sized sweaters, so it’s hard to find fault in that). For CBS, bringing the character into the modern age, in part, means making him less refined. He isn’t a gentleman detective; he’s a scruffy, eccentric hipster detective.

Aside from the past substance abuse, Holmes does have a few other recognizable or canonical traits: he plays the violin (and has a complicated relationship with the instrument, trying to set it in on fire in one episode); he’s arrogant; and, of course, he’s English. Notwithstanding these details, Elementary­ – a title that is, naturally, a reference to a line sometimes dickishly uttered by the original character whenever he’d figured something out – really could be called “some young guy solves difficult cases with sharp powers of deduction.” Or if that’s too long, it could be called, I don’t know, The Mentalist. Now, I say that having watched every episode of Elementary – based mainly on Miller’s performance, it’s one of my favorite new dramas this season. But the show is Holmes in name and not much else. A modernized, Americanized Holmes series is basically just a typical, albeit entertaining, crime procedural. And there was a better version of this kind of adaptation in the Vincent D’Onofrio episodes of Law & Order: Criminal Intent.

For a strong interpretation of 21st century Holmes, we have BBC’s acclaimed Sherlock. Created by Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss (who also plays Holmes’ brother Mycroft), the show is successful in its contemporary reimagining of Holmes’ London and it’s fun. Benedict Cumberbatch’s Holmes is more sophisticated than Miller’s – instead of ill-fitting blazers, the character wears nice pea coats and isn’t nearly as jittery. He isn’t totally old school (the guy has a cell phone, after all) but still has a bit of the Victorian era in him, as there’s a kind of stuffy (yet witty) formality to his speech. Neither actor’s portrayal, though, is superior to the other’s – they’re very different, as they should be. But Sherlock is a more literal translation of Conan Doyle’s stories. In its (so far) two-series run, the show has tackled quintessential Holmes tales with a contemporary spin. The entire plot of “A Scandal in Belgravia,” the episode that introduces popular Holmes foe/love interest Irene Adler and is based on “A Scandal in Bohemia,” revolves around unlocking a code on a cell phone. Watson (Martin Freeman), who serves as Holmes’ biographer in most of the original stories, blogs about his friend’s cases. It’s fresh but recognizably Holmes.

But it isn’t this sort of superficial faithfulness to the source material that makes this a more successful interpretation than Elementary. Each Sherlock case has a sense of dread that Elementary is missing – a sense of dread that I think you’ll find in Conan Doyle’s work. The villains are menacing and clever on Sherlock; on Elementary they’re the sort of villains you’d find on CSI. Irene Adler, Moriarty – there’s a game of cat and mouse going on between these characters and Holmes, and that’s something that Elementary needs. Perhaps, not in every episode but there should be some other larger-than-life character or case (it doesn’t have to be directly linked to the original Holmes, and probably shouldn’t be) that elevates the suspense, making the show engrossing and not just entertaining, like a real Holmes tale.

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