A Study in Adaptation

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The BBC series Sherlock proves what good writing can do: transport characters and plots written in Victorian England superbly to the modern world of iPads and other detection devices

“Afghanistan or Iraq?” asks Sherlock Holmes of his would-be accomplice Dr John Watson by way of an introduction. The tone is curt. This is the moment where fans of the super sleuth curl their toes in heady anticipation: Holmes is going to make one of his landmark deductions using invisible clues to piece together an accurate picture of Watson’s background. And this is precisely what follows, with Holmes’ razor-sharp brusqueness pitched against Watson’s mounting incredulity. Here we have one of the most legendary first meetings in fictional history—with some telling readjustments, of course, especially since this is not taking place in Victorian London. No horse carriages, no Gothic street lamps in the mist, no ink-splattered sheets of parchment.

The talk is all about cellphones and the internet, terrorist threats and biological warfare. And yet, as most fans would heartily attest, there’s nothing tacky or blasphemous about this contemporary reimagining of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s detective series. Far from it.

Two seasons old, the BBC TV series Sherlock—set firmly in 21st-century London with all its modern-day trappings—is already a rage, and you don’t need a super sleuth to tell you why. It’s the sort of smart adaptation we only dream about—one that retains the quintessential spirit of the original while intelligently reworking the material to make it relevant to the current day. Quite simply, it’s racy, pacy and ferociously clever. The characters are sharply drawn, the casting is pitch perfect, the dialogue is crisp and the banter always witty.

Take Holmes himself. Played to perfection by Benedict Cumberbatch, he makes for a cold, narcissistic, tech-savvy genius in sharp contrast to Martin Freeman’s more affable, well-meaning Watson. Holmes almost takes pride in his general dislike of mankind and is only too aware of how badly he is needed—yet loathed—by Scotland Yard. And he abounds in acerbic one-liners, like the one aimed squarely at a cocky Scotland Yard forensic expert: “I’m not a psychopath, Anderson, I’m a high-functioning sociopath. Do your research!”

The writers have clearly done their home work. Relocating the story to modern-day London would have entailed answering some tough questions, especially if they had to keep the premise plausible: how does one remain loyal to the source material without it becoming either a crutch or an impediment? How much should be retained? What should be modified? What can be removed or changed altogether? For instance, it’s instructive to see how the presence of modern-day technology alters the very complexion of the original stories. Information is now available at the click of a button, so the pace of the narrative changes completely. The original Holmes employed the latest technology to assist his deductions, so there’s no reason why the contemporary Holmes shouldn’t.

Some iconic elements could not be changed: Holmes’s famous Baker Street address remains 221B. In fact, it’s emblazoned on his front door despite the fact that it is unlikely for a front door in modern-day London to display more than just the house number. Interestingly, much of the shooting could not take place on Baker Street because of the bother of having to meticulously disguise the number of things already labelled ‘Sherlock Holmes’.

And for most of the stuff that’s been reworked, the transition has been surprisingly smooth. For instance, the series begins with Watson having just returned from military service in Afghanistan (a clever tweaking of the original where he was injured after serving in the Second Afghan War of 1878–80). And instead of maintaining a journal that documents his adventures with Holmes, Watson writes a regular blog which updates the world at large on the duo’s exploits. And of course, the lead pair address each other by their first names rather than the traditional Holmes and Watson—a point which only the most rigid of fans would quibble about.

Personally, I was impressed by how there was none of that hogwash about ‘Elementary, my dear Watson!’ For me, that was the clincher. It proved that the writers really wanted to get this right. The catchphrase is popularly associated with the super sleuth but not many are aware that it is not actually part of the canon. Homes never actually exclaimed ‘Elementary!’ except in The Adventure of the Crooked Man when he describes the simplicity of his deduction. It’s the film versions, beginning with The Return of Sherlock Holmes in 1929, that embedded the phrase in popular imagination, making it almost a motto of sorts.

Incidentally, Elementary is the name of the American version of the Sherlock series, and is ready to premiere in a month or so. Set in present-day America, it features Holmes as a former Scotand Yard consultant fresh out of rehab who teams up with his sober companion Watson. In a not-too-original twist, the character of Watson is a woman.

Of course, reinventing a classic canon is not new. In fact, this series came quick on the heels of another very recent adaptation of the Holmes adventures by Guy Ritchie. The Ritchie films are already a franchise with two films out and a third awaited. Both his film adaptations—Sherlock Holmes and Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows—retain the Victorian setting of the original stories, but unspool with a pulse and pace that are very modern. There are gun battles, gang fights and deadly chase sequences through the gritty labyrinth of London’s streets. Robert Downey Jr plays Holmes as an eccentric detective-for-hire who uses his brains just as readily as his fists. Jude Law’s Watson brilliantly makes for a sober counterpoint to Holmes’s bohemian irreverence. Guy Ritchie’s signature slickness is stamped very clearly on everything from the action scenes (replete with powder kegs exploding in dreamlike slow-motion) to the buddy-buddy bromance of the lead duo. The crackling Holmes-Watson chemistry is the highlight of the films—the two leads play off each other’s idiosyncrasies with intuitive ease.

Entertaining as these films are, opinion is divided and responses are mixed when it comes to Guy Ritchie’s action-packed rendition. Many find it too gimmicky or feel it veers too far from the iconic 1980s’ TV series starring Jeremy Brett (who is widely considered the definitive Sherlock Holmes). And just when we thought the age of Sherlock reinterpretations is over, along came the BBC’s smart and savvy Sherlock. I suppose every generation needs a new Sherlock—quite like Shakespeare.

This doesn’t mean that everyone loves the BBC series. The show has its share of detractors, but they are a small bunch—the sort who will nitpick any deviation from the canon. But the primary reason why the show works so well is that it’s really well written. Adaptation is not an easy thing. When something is recast from one medium into another, a lot can be lost. But loads can be gained too. Many would quail at the task of reinventing a character or story that is so deeply entrenched in popular lore.

Don’t we have a rich mine of stories of our own that could do with some inventive retelling? What about Feluda or Byomkesh Bakshi? These are popular stories that seem to have fallen by the wayside. And it might be interesting to see how both of them can be updated for the Internet Age. Reinventing them does not merely mean giving the characters cellphones and iPads, but trying to actually understand how these tales would best fit a modern context. Some would say that Feluda or Byomkesh Bakshi are too embedded in a particular Bengali context. But that’s like saying Holmes is too Victorian in its context. So I don’t buy that.

It takes guts, as much as talent, to do the needful. Who would have thought that Sarat Chandra Chattopadhyay’s Devdas would lend itself so well to a modern retelling? Who knew that the story of Othello could be so successfully relocated to a village in Uttar Pradesh? But for every Dev.D and Omkara, there is an unfortunate Aisha (a sloppy reworking of Emma) or an irredeemable Sholay-inspired Ram Gopal Varma ki Aag. It’s not that good scriptwriters are hard to find. Rather, it has more to do with the fact that a good adaptation involves much more hard work. It’s so much easier to be lazy and stick to an old TRP or box-office-driven formula. And it’s far more risky to finance or endorse a creative endeavour that tries to do something new.