Saturday, May 28, 2011


Even though the series is not out here in Germany, I managed to snatch a copy of it on Amazon. And I love it.

I’ve been a fan of Sherlock Holmes stories ever since I started reading the stories at the age of 10. And I’m a big fan of the 1930s/1940s series with Basil Rathbone as Sherlock Holmes. It was the first (and so far basically only) Sherlock Holmes series that took the original stories and planted them into modern times (the modern times then, of course). Now the BBC has made another series that takes the main characters and the main plots of the original stories and puts them in modern times (ours, this time) – “Sherlock”.

It wasn’t as hard then, of course, because it was less than half a century after they were written (and before the huge change that micro processors and computers have made over the last few decades). They took Holmes and Watson from their time, but not very far. A few modern things in the new stories, but not all that much of a change.

Today, however, changes between the late Victorian London of Arthur Conan Doyle’s stories and the modern London everyone can visit today are much bigger. 221 B is a shop by now, even though there’s still flats above it. Yet the basics of the Sherlock Holmes stories are crimes and the hero’s incredible ability of deduction. Both is not bound to one place or one time. Therefore the modern-day approach does work.

The modern Sherlock Holmes is a lot like the one in the books, but he is not the same. Some things are bound to be different today. The quaint thing is: Watson is still a military doctor, still injured in Afghanistan (that’s possible again today, after all). He still hooks up with Holmes to share the rent for a flat. Apart from that, though, a lot of things are different. The murderer in A Study in Pink is the same as in the original story (but I’m not going to spoil), but his reasons are different. The outcome is different as well and there are new things added. Moriarty turns up, again and again, set up as the arch-enemy that is always there, but invisible until the very end. It’s a clever setup, giving the audience something to look out for, something to wait for. The big confrontation that can end this way or that, depending on what the future might hold for Mr. Holmes. Now it’s certain it will hold at least three more movies, so I do get the feeling there’s not going to be a big bang…

Arthur Conan Doyle didn’t write a story about the past when he wrote Sherlock Holmes (he did, not very well in my opinion, in other cases), he wrote a story about the present. That’s easily forgotten today, with over a hundred years between the time the stories were written and the time we’re now reading them – or turning them into films and TV series. In this context, the old series with Nigel Bruce and Basil Rathbone was far closer to Conan Doyle’s own approach, taking the characters from their ‘just past’ period and into the present. Doyle wrote about a man using all technical and scientific means available at his time, travelling by train, sending telegraphs for information over long distance. Today, Holmes would have a computer, a cell phone, all technical equipment he can afford and a chance to use other equipment in times of need (just as he has in the new BBC series). And, as the writers of the new series point out very rightfully in the Making Of I got with the DVDs, Watson would not keep a journal, he’d do what I do as well: he’d have his own blog online. If Doyle lived and wrote today…

What has been done in the last couple of decades (and before, but very much in the last twenty years or so) was to make the movies and series ‘authentic’ by making sure everything was strictly Victorian (or as close as the budget and possibilities would allow). The movies made by the BBC over the last couple of years are a good example for that. They went at great length to make sure everything looked like it would have looked around the time the stories were written. While that means really being true to the source, it defeated the original purpose of the stories. Doyle did not write a piece about the Victorian age (unlike Dickens, who wrote about the social problems of his time), Doyle wrote about modern times. His consulting detective was not meant to be a quaint Victorian thing, he lived and worked in the Now. The audience loved the stories not because of the Victorian setting, not because they were classics (as they are today), but because they were stories of their time. They happened right there and then, they could imagine to walk into one of them.

It is hard to say what Doyle would do or do not, if he lived today, but chance aren’t too slim that the result would very much look like the new series does. “Sherlock” doesn’t fall for the mistake to make the main character too likeable … Sherlock Holmes is not likeable, he’s too intelligent, too self-assured, too strange. That’s one reason why Watson is telling the stories. (The other reason is that Holmes sees all the clues – if he were telling, he’d have to tell all his deductions during the story and that would make it all less interesting.) Yet the chemistry between the characters (Holmes, Watson, Mrs. Hudson, Lestrade, even Moriarty) works. They are believable, they have a depth to them, they can amuse, scare, worry and surprise you.

A modern-day Sherlock Holmes that is much better an adaption than the ‘authentic’ one made for the movies not all that long ago. It is a great time for a Sherlock Holmes fan in Germany to be alive and in possession of a DVD player, indeed.

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