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Sherlock and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

on Wed, 05/30/2012 - 00:00

Sherlock on the BBC
The BBC drama Sherlock reinvents the Nineteenth Century detective Sherlock Holmes by placing him in modern day London. While the series is clearly contemporary in regards to its surroundings and technology—with taxi cabs replacing horse-drawn carriages, cell phones superseding telegrams and laptops substituting for newspapers and books—this Sherlock is not some fish-out-of-water derivative but a faithful adaptation of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s original narratives that contains enough innovative twists to make the storylines entertaining for a Twenty First Century audience as well.

Although the four novels and 56 short stories that form the canon of Holmes’ many adventures feature gripping plots that keep the reader engaged, the popularity of Arthur Conan Doyle’s literary achievement is ultimately based on the fascination with the deductive reasoning skills that form the basis for Sherlock’s miraculous conclusions. Recited with the “elementary” air of the obvious, the character spins long dissertations explaining how a simple pocket watch can speak volumes in regards to the item’s owner.

The Sherlock Holmes of Sherlock shares the same technique, and actor Benedict Cumberbatch not only recites his lines with the same casualness as the original but with an added flair that extends the mesmerizing effect of the original words. More significantly, the creators of Sherlock have found ways for the character to reach similar conclusions as those found in Doyle’s stories by using different, modern day items.

“When you observe the lower part of that watchcase, you notice that it is not only dinted in two places but it is cut and marked all over from the habit of keeping other hard objects, such as coins or keys, in the same pocket,” Holmes tells John Watson in the Sir Arthur Conan Doyle novel The Sign of the Four. “Surely it is no great feat to assume that a man who treats a fifty-guinea watch so cavalierly must be a careless man. Neither is it a very far-fetched inference that a man who inherits one article of such value is pretty well provided for in other respects. Finally, I ask you to look at the inner plate, which contains the keyhole. Look at the thousands of scratches all-round the hole—marks where the key has slipped. What sober man’s key could have scored those grooves? But you will never see a drunkard’s watch without them.”

Now compare the words to those spoken by the Sherlock Holmes of Sherlock in regards to a cell phone that is likewise in the possession of John Watson. “You’re phone—it’s expensive, e-mail enabled, MP3 player,” Holmes tells Watson. “You wouldn’t waste money on this, it’s a gift then. Scratches. Not one, many over time. It’s been in the same pocket as keys and coins. The man sitting next to me wouldn’t treat his one luxury item like this, so it’s had a previous owner. Not your father, this is a young man’s gadget. Unlikely you’ve got an extended family, certainly not one you’re close to, so brother it is. Power connection, tiny little scuff marks around the edge. Every night he goes to plug it in and charge but his hands are shaky. You never see those marks on a sober man’s phone, never see a drunk’s without them.”

In addition to their deductive capabilities, the two Sherlocks share other similarities. Both, for instance, have contracted nicotine addictions but while Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s character smoked a pipe, the newer version relies on nicotine patches. “Impossible to sustain a smoking habit in London these days,” he laments.

Still, the use of the chemical serves the same purpose for both men—it helps them think. “It is quite a three-pipe problem,” Holmes remarks during one of the original short stories of Doyle while his counterpart replies “It’s a three patch problem” when asked why he is using so many nicotine swatches.

The original Sherlock, meanwhile, had what he referred to as “the Baker Street division of the detective police force,” an army of street kids that relayed information to the infamous address of 221B. “There’s more work to be got out of one of those little beggars than out of a dozen of the force,” Holmes explains to Dr. Watson in A Study in Scarlet. “The mere sight of an official-looking person seals men’s lips. These youngsters, however, go everywhere and hear everything.”

For the more contemporary Holmes, the homeless population of London serves the same purpose. “Homeless network, really is indispensable,” he tells John Watson. “My eyes and ears all over the city.”

The twin detectives also exhibit the same abhorrence for trivial matters, believing that the mind is best to be filled with data of a more useful manner. “His ignorance was as remarkable as his knowledge,” Dr. Watson writes in A Study in Scarlet. “My surprise reached a climax, however, when I found incidentally that he was ignorant of the Copernican Theory and of the composition of the Solar System. That any civilized human being in this Nineteenth Century should not be aware that the earth travelled round the sun appeared to be to me such an extraordinary fact that I could hardly realize it.”

The same observation holds true for John Watson in the Twenty First Century, while the responses of both Sherlocks are practically the same. “What the deuce is it to me?” Sherlock the First replies. “You say that we go round the sun. If we went round the moon it would not make a pennyworth of difference to me or to my work.”

Sherlock the Second, meanwhile, is even more eloquent with his reply. “What does that matter?” he asks in frustration. “So we go around the sun, or if we went around the moon, or round-and-round the garden like a teddy bear—it wouldn’t make any difference. All that matters to me is the work. Without that, my brain rots.”

If there is one area that the two characters most strikingly differ, it would be in regards to their mental temperament during the down period in between cases. “My mind rebels at stagnation,” Sherlock Holmes remarks to Dr. Watson in The Sign of the Four. “Give me problems, give me work, give me the most abstruse cryptogram, or the most intricate analysis, and I am in my own proper atmosphere. I can dispense then with artificial stimulants. But I abhor the dull routine of existence.” To compensate, Holmes immerses himself in the slumber of a cocaine-induced stupor and lounges around the flat at 221B Baker Street in a state of perpetual laziness.

The Holmes of Sherlock, meanwhile, abhors the quieter times in his life and is prone to juvenile fits of throwing items around the apartment, lobbing verbal abuses at John Watson and using his deductive abilities to insult his landlady, Mrs. Hudson. During the episode “The Great Game,” meanwhile, he even takes to drawing a smiley face on the wall and shooting it with a handgun. “The wall had it coming,” he tells Watson afterwards.

Although loyal to their companions, both John Watsons suffer greatly at the hands of the arrogant, borderline sociopath known as Sherlock Holmes. “I confess that I was irritated by the egotism which seemed to demand that every line of my pamphlet should be devoted to his own special doings,” Dr. Watson writes in The Sign of the Four. “More than once during the years that I had lived with him in Baker Street I had observed that a small vanity underlay my companion’s quiet and didactic manner.”

While Dr. Watson appears good natured towards Holmes despite the psychological defects of the man, the John Watson of Sherlock is more reluctant to just look the other way. During the episode “The Hounds of Baskerville,” for instance, Holmes remarks that he has no friends, to which Watson replies, “I wonder why.”

In the end, however, both Sherlocks realize and understand the importance of John Watson to their daily existence. “What I said before—I meant it,” Holmes later tells Watson in the same installment of Sherlock. “I don’t have friends. I’ve just got one.” The original Sherlock Holmes, meanwhile, makes the same observation to his own Dr. Watson. “Except yourself I have none,” he remarks. “I do not encourage visitors.”

Fans of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and the BBC series Sherlock would no doubt agree that it is a friendship that not only adds to the respective narratives of each, but serves as the heart of the story as well—regardless of the medium or the century.

Anthony Letizia

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