In the past few years, we have been given two reinterpretations of Arthur Conan Doyle’s most famous character. The first, by Guy Ritchie, was a modern retelling of Sherlock Holmes in the Victorian Era. The second, by Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss, was a sort of classic BBC detective series set in modern times. Each of these versions approached the problem of introducing a Victorian hero to a modern audience, but they approached the issue in completely different ways.
Guy Ritchie’s Sherlock Holmes, or, as many people know it, Robert Downey, Jr.’s Sherlock Holmes, is a product of our time in the late 1800s. There are many nods to modern times, including anachronistic technology and the general tone of the movie. There is a lot of the Guy Ritchie flashy, stylistic filmmaking. The flash is most pronounced in the Holmes-O-Vision, when Sherlock Holmes accurately (it’s always accurate) analyzes a situation and predicts the outcome. In fact, the action that follows one of these predictions seems like an afterthought. The H-O-V is incredibly cool and a nicely efficient method of communicating with the audience.
The performances are largely great, with only one exception. I loved R.D., Jr., thought Jude Law was great, and was impressed, as always, by Mark Strong. Rachael McAdams wasn’t so much bad as miscast and playing a poorly written character. Yes, I love a strong female character, but not every strong female character has to be Buffy; sometimes they can just be smart.
This brings me to the only real problem I have with Sherlock Holmes. The writers were trying so hard to make Sherlock Holmes fit into modern times, that they accidentally made a modern, big-budget, Hollywood screenplay, with all the silly contrivances, thin characters, and forced romance we have come to expect. Now, at this point, it sounds like I didn’t like the movie that much. Nothing could be further.
I loved the tone. I thought that this film brought 1891 to life in a really fun way. The music was perfect, adding to the energy and fun, but never distracting too much. As I mentioned earlier, most of the acting was perfectly entertaining, and so was that H-O-V. I was thoroughly entertained by this movie.
Now, on to the BBC.
What Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss have done is not so much re-imagine Sherlock Holmes, as reinvent him. They have shoved the character into current London with incredible effectiveness. Instead of Watson being an army doctor, who was injured in Afghanistan, he is now an army doctor, who was injured in Afghanistan. Actually, every little detail about the characters has been shifted, pulled, and twisted to fit the new modern setting.
I cannot stress enough how clever the shout-outs to the original stories are. In almost every instance, there is enough of a wink that serious Holmes scholars will recognize huge portions of the story, but each one is shifted around or inverted. It is impossible to jump to the end, just because you’ve read the story being referenced. For example, in the original Sherlock Holmes story, “A Study in Scarlet,” the word “rache” is spelled at a crime-scene. The detectives assume the killer was named Rachel, and the victim didn’t finish the accusation. Holmes correctly supposes that the note was finished but written by the killer, as rache is German for revenge. In the retelling, “A Study in Pink,” this logic is almost perfectly reversed. I could spend hours on little details like this one, but instead I will just say that there was an incredible amount of love and care that went into this version of the character.
One of the best things about this show is Benedict Cumberbatch as Holmes. He hits all the right points, getting the incredible insight and unbelievable oddness of the character. As a result, his Holmes is hilarious, awe inspiring, and somewhat tragic. Martin Freeman brings a strong dynamism to the audience’s stand-in, Watson. He explores the interesting psychological issues that face Watson as he attempts to rejoin civilian life, while being pulled into this odd little world of mysteries and villains.
In short (Ed. Too late.), both versions of Sherlock Holmes are worth a second look. While it is true that I prefer the BBC’s rendition and cannot wait for the second season to come out, I will happily return to see the sequel to the movie. There are few problems better than being asked to choose between two pleasures.