Like most people, I have read about the exploits of Sherlock Holmes, the most famous fictional detective. However, I had mostly read abridged versions of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s stories. Recently I have been trying to plough through the unabridged Complete Works but the going has been tough. The stories are more than a 150 years old and the writing style is naturally dated and dry. Some of the stories themselves also feel a bit ridiculous given the plethora of crime novels and serials we have been exposed to. So basically to read the original works and enjoy it, one always has to keep in mind the time period when it was written and make allowances for it. Kind of spoils the fun. More literature and less a good detective story, if you know what I mean.
That’s why when it comes to favourite literary sleuths, I always turn to Monsieur Hercule Poirot – he of the ‘little gray cells’ and the passion for order and method. More importantly, Agatha Christie’s detective stories are much more about the psychological human drama behind the murders. This in itself renders them timeless because the key human passions remain the same whatever be the generation. They are also written about a 100 years after Sherlock which makes them more readable but again, they do contain several stereotypes which seem amusingly old-fashioned and sometimes downright racist in today’s world.
Anyway, I digress. What has, in fact, prompted me to write this piece is BBC Entertainment’s inventive new series, “Sherlock”. This is a Sherlock set not in Victorian, but contemporary England. While the idea of a modern setting might make purists scoff, it is surprisingly effective in reinvigorating the franchise. The adaptation is intelligent, witty and entertaining – it retains the soul of the original while bringing in a 21st centurytwist. London, where most of the stories are set, is not a rainy smog-filled city with the clattering of horses’ hoofs but a bright and lively one to be traversed in the ubiquitous black taxicabs. There have been 2 seasons so far with only 3 episodes each but each one has been a gem. Only a few Holmes stories have been used for the main episodes with their plots suitably tweaked. For instance, the first episode is “A Study in Pink” derived from the first Holmes story, “A Study in Scarlet”. However, there are several passing references to other Holmes tales scattered throughout the episodes for the aficionados. “The Greek Interpreter” becomes a story about comic book related murders, “The Geek Interpreter”, “The Speckled Band” becomes the case of a “Speckled Blonde”and so on.
A big reason why the series works is of course, Sherlock himself. Sherlock is played to perfection by Benedict Cumberbatch who portrays Sherlock as a slightly eccentric, “high-functioning sociopath” with just the right amount of charm. Cumberbatch uses his wonderfully deep voice to great effect as he delivers rapid-fire speeches giving the impression of his tongue struggling to keep pace with his mind. His intense ice blue eyes and razor sharp cheekbones add to the image of an intense, obsessive and incredibly intelligent mind. His Sherlock is however also one who is childishly gleeful at the prospect of a serial killer and goes into a sulk when he can’t find a challenging case. This strange man-child is focused only on the gratification of his own need to solve mysteries and has an alarming disregard for social skills. But despite his negligent attitude and sharp tongue, he is still capable of caring quite deeply – for his friend Watson, for Mrs. Hudson, his landlady and for ‘the woman’, Irene Adler. In keeping with the times, Sherlock also prefers to text message his associates, uses the GPS to track criminals and is trying to give up smoking by using nicotine patches. Trust me, it's more entertaining than sacreligious. The constant know-it-all behavior, the immense egoism, a certain ruthlessness are all present but strangely seem almost expected in a man so gifted.
Martin Freeman essays the role of Dr. John Watson, the closest thing to a friend that Sherlock has. He is the perfect foil to the mercurial Sherlock and brings in the Everyman point of view and bewilderment when faced with the Sherlock’s brilliance. The camaraderie between the complex Sherlock and the forthright John (‘not’ Holmes and Watson) hits the right notes and has the nowadays-mandatory touches of bromance thrown in.
This reminds me of Guy Ritchie’s adaptations of Sherlock Holmes tales. Let me just say that I find them vile; especially when I compare them to the TV series. Like most of his other popular roles, Robert Downey Jr. plays himself and reduces Sherlock Holmes to a clownish ragamuffin. The movies are like any other modern action-adventure Shanghai Knights kind of a flick and the Jude Law and Robert Downey chemistry is forced. Guy Ritchie’s movies could have been about anybody else but definitely not Sherlock Holmes, the greatest detective of all time!
To appreciate the genius of Sherlock Holmes, read the books if you can, watch him in his original Victorian setting in the older BBC series or best of all… watch ‘Sherlock’.