A Study in Sherlock: Is the BBC's Sherlock the Most Faithful Adaptation of Sherlock Holmes?
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Originally published on the fourth of March 1887, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s A Study in Scarlet introduced the world to Sherlock Holmes. The book’s structure works beautifully to introduce first Dr. Watson and then Holmes to the reader, setting up the grisly mystery along the way. It has since been adapted countless times, whether as a Lovecraftian horror in Neil Gaiman’s “A Study in Emerald,” a young adult mystery series in A Study in Charlotte, or for the BBC’s Sherlock as “A Study in Pink."
That so many of these adaptations skew so close to the original story despite their enormous changes in setting speaks to the quality of the book as an introduction to its characters. Indeed, for many A Study in Scarlet remains the high point of the Sherlock Holmes canon as a whole.
After A Study in Scarlet, things get a little less certain. It’s often said that Conan Doyle grew to hate Sherlock Holmes over the course of the character’s life, preferring to focus on his more serious historical fiction efforts. While it may be apocryphal, there is a certain inescapable appeal to the idea that the near-universally adored detective was detested by his creator. Indeed, the author was the figure of two biographies, one titled, The Man Who Created Sherlock Holmes and another examining his relationship with his own work titled, The Man Who Hated Sherlock Holmes.
While the evidence that Conan Doyle hated Holmes may seem scant, the excellent An Introduction to the Detective Story recalls an 1891 letter in which he wrote,
"I think of slaying Holmes in the last and winding him up for good and all. He takes my mind from better things."
Unfortunately, by the time it occurred to Conan Doyle that he could simply kill Sherlock Holmes, the consulting detective had already gained such superhuman powers that he resisted the attempt. Indeed, after his apparent death in the story “The Final Problem,” Holmes took his revenge on Conan Doyle by returning to haunt the rest of the author’s career. When Holmes came back though, he was diminished. Picking up fully eight years after Holmes’ death, the stories after his revival seldom had the same charm as those that make up the early books, particularly A Study in Scarlet and The of Sherlock Holmes.
All of which brings us to the most recent high profile Sherlock Holmes adaptation... Obviously, if the BBC’s Sherlock describes a similar arc, it does so at tremendous speed. Where the show's first three episodes are generally well-regarded, the series took the bold step of killing Holmes off at the end of its second season, which seems quite ahead of the Conan Doyle timetable. Moreover, the original resurrection of Sherlock Holmes took a good eight years. The century since his first death seems only to have strengthened the detective; after his death at the end of the season two episode "The Reichenbach Fall," Sherlock regenerated in just two years.
Since then, the series has lost its lustre somewhat, with the fourth season enjoying a poor reception compared to its predecessors. Indeed, the show’s own Wikipedia page seems largely derelict since the end of the third season; the critical response to each season stops at season three, with the fourth graced only by a note on its declining viewer numbers from beginning to end.
In that general pattern, the series doesn’t fall too far from the general trend of Conan Doyle’s own Sherlock Holmes stories. As an adaptation, the BBC’s Sherlock is never more faithful to its source material than in its gradual decline after a sensational first outing.
Consider the first book of Sherlock Holmes short stories, The of Sherlock Holmes. Almost every story in that first collection is an instant Holmes classic, from its beginning with, “A Scandal in Bohemia,” to “The Man with the Twisted Lip” and “The Adventure of the Beryl Coronet.” By contrast, consider the later collections, The Case-Book of Sherlock Holmes and His Last Bow: Some Reminiscences of Sherlock Holmes. While both contain some great moments for Holmes as a character, the stories themselves seldom reach the heights of the earlier stories.
Obviously, this is not a hard and fast rule. There were some weaker stories even in the earlier collections (“The Five Orange Pips” springs instantaneously to mind), but it’s hard not to feel as though there was a gradual decline in the quality of Holmes stories over the life of the character.
I will admit that I was hesitant to commit the above opinion to paper, because I don’t for a moment doubt that there will be those who immediately disagree (and perhaps rightly so). That said, I was mollified to find that the general impression seems to be borne out by a survey carried out by the Best of Sherlock, which assembled a list of the 12 best-regarded Sherlock Holmes stories.
While their original list does not include publication dates, adding them reveals a trend that consistently places earlier stories closer to the top of the list, with those later Holmes stories that make the grade falling conspicuously closer towards the end (and none of the stories from His Last Bow or The Case-Book of Sherlock Holmes appearing at all). If it is not fair to say that Holmes stories declined over the years that Conan Doyle was writing, it at least seems evident that the series’ highlights came earlier more often than later.
- 1. 1892 "The Speckled Band"
- 2. 1891 "The Red-Headed League"
- 3. 1891 "A Scandal in Bohemia"
- 4. 1892 "Silver Blaze"
- 5. 1892 "The Blue Carbuncle"
- 6. 1893 "The Musgrave Ritual"
- 7. 1893 "The Final Problem"
- 8. 1903 "The Empty House"
- 9. 1903 "The Dancing Men"
- 10. 1904 "The Six Napoleons"
- 11. 1908 "The Bruce-Partington Plans"
- 12. 1891 "The Man with the Twisted Lip"
Let’s not forget that the last collection of Sherlock Holmes short stories, The Case-Book of Sherlock Holmes contains, such improbable highlights as “The Problem of Thor Bridge,” in which a woman commits suicide-by-Rube-Goldberg-machine in an effort to frame her governess for her own murder.
There's also “The Adventure of the Lion’s Mane,” in which the killer turns out to be an innocent jellyfish. This is also one of the darkest Sherlock Holmes short stories, as Holmes murders the innocent jellyfish in cold blood, signalling the villainous turn of our once noble detective.
Of course, the other highlight of The Case-Book of Sherlock Holmes is “The Adventure of Shoscombe Old Place,” which readers could be forgiven for confusing with the other Holmes story about a well-to-do family that raises horses and whose hopes of winning an upcoming race could be dashed, “Silver Blaze.” The resolution of both mysteries hinges on the activities of a dog.
With these in mind, the spectacular collapse of the more recent Sherlock episodes into borderline nonsense tracks quite well with the general trend of Sherlock Holmes stories in the canon.
If the above aren't ridiculous enough, consider The Adventure of the Mazarin Stone, in which Holmes' disguise skills take on practically superhuman dimensions. After having appeared convincingly as a woman, Holmes comments,
“I’ve been at his very elbow all the morning. You’ve seen me as an old lady, Watson. I was never more convincing. He actually picked up my parasol for me once. ‘By your leave, madame,’ said he—half-Italian, you know..."
All of which is to say that the BBC's Sherlock is not treading new ground with its slow descent into chaos. Benedict Cumberbatch's Sherlock Holmes is no more ridiculous when he takes on a trained killer (and associate of Doctor Watson's one-time mercenary wife) in hand to hand combat than when he uses "baritsu" to defeat Moriarty under a waterfall.
Rather, with each added competency (remember, the "mind palace" was introduced halfway through season two) and action-movie sequence, Sherlock grows more and more like the stories on which it is based. That this should come as a surprise to those of us watching speaks only to the quality of those Sherlock Holmes stories that we hold on to over those later ones that we hope to forget.