A Study in Adaptation

A Study in Scarlet by Arthur Conan Doyle

I should start by saying that I’ve read a bunch of the short stories in The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, and seen a decent number of film adaptations, but this is the first Sherlock Holmes novel I’ve read. I always saw him as much more of a static character, but he seems much different in this novel than I remember him being in the short stories. So I’m glad I’m reading these in order so I can see if there’s deliberate character development on Doyle’s part or if he just gradually learns how to write him, finds the formula as it were.

I feel like most depictions I’ve seen of Holmes have shown him as more of an… all-encompassing genius of sorts? Or maybe that was a misreading on my part. But I just distinctly remember having him slotted in that category of characters’ whose main personality trait was “smart,” like Spock or Beast or Doc Brown.

In any case, the idea that he would, as he does in this book, not know something as basic as the fact that the earth revolves around the sun is just stunning to me. And his entire argument about avoiding “useless facts elbowing out the useful ones” is just… not how brains work, my dude. Though I do find it hilarious that when he says, “Depend upon it there comes a time when for every addition of knowledge you forget something that you knew before,” he is basically asserting that the human brain works on the same principle as a Pokémon having to forget one of their four moves to learn another one. (“HOLMES wants to learn EARTH GO ROUND SUN… …However, HOLMES already knows four things…”)

I’m not going to dwell on it too much considering this was literally written in the 1800s, but it nevertheless bears mentioning that this text is riddled with racist language. What seems to get talked about a heck of a lot more is the controversy about the depictions of Mormons, but I mean… it’s sensationalized, to be sure, but it’s not totally ahistorical by any stretch of the imagination. And given the church’s continued persecution of racial minorities and queer people, I’m not exactly losing sleep over it.

This is also one of the first actual “communism is just a red herring” stories I’ve ever read, so that’s fun. It’s also apparently the originator of the trope of detectives using a magnifying glass, though I can’t say that really particularly jumped out at me while I was reading?

The story itself is pretty fun, though definitely not what I was expecting. The prolonged flashback in Utah was actually a lot more compelling than it had any right to be, and I was not expecting it to get as pulpy as it did. I especially loved the bits where the Mormons are literally painting the number of days Ferrier has left to agree to their demands somewhere he will see it.

So, yeah! I definitely enjoyed this one, and I’m gonna keep Holmes on my itinerary as I continue trying to get more into the mystery genre.

(A-Rank)

A Study in Scarlet (1933)

The title card says this film is “suggested” by the novel of the same name. I know that’s a pretty standard way of saying you’re basically completely ignoring the source material, but I’ve really never gotten that. Like, in what way is this movie in any way suggested by the novel? From what I understand basically what happened here is the studio bought the rights to the title but not to the story? Which is just wild to me, honestly?

Amusingly, while secret societies were a red herring in the novel, here the crime in question is a series of murders being committed against members of… a secret society. So, uh. That’s kinda awkward? Like, I think that might be the biggest thing the novel and movie have in common.

Although this is Reginald Owen’s first (and only) appearance as Holmes, the movie makes it pretty clear that he and Watson have been up to these sorts of adventures for a while. So while having this be the duo’s first case together could easily have been another thing the book and movie had in common, it deftly dodged that. Phew.

Owen’s Holmes is… fine? Understated is putting it nicely, unmemorable might be more accurate. He doesn’t really add to or detract from the proceedings. Unfortunately Warburton Gamble’s Watson… does noticeably detract from them. I’m not sure if it’s intentional or not, but his Watson just comes across as kinda annoying. I will join *checks notes* literally everyone in wishing Anna May Wong had been given more to do, as she is clearly the best actor involved in this production, but alas.

This movie does put quite a few more hats on the ground if you’re into that kind of thing, but the investigation just feels kind of… bland, and I feel like that’s usually more what you’re hoping will be the draw in a Holmes story.

As a whole, this is just kinda boring and perfunctory. If they weren’t willing to pay for the rights to the story in addition to the title, you really wish they’d at least have come up with an interesting one of their own.

(D-Rank)

Sherlock Holmes: “The Case of the Cunningham Heritage” (1954)

This was the premiere of the 1950s American TV series starring Ronald Howard as Sherlock Holmes and Howard Marion as Dr. Watson. Both are, in my estimation, a drastic step up from their respective counterparts from the 1933 film.

This one is a curious case, if you’ll pardon the pun. As the episode title implies this is not an adaptation of A Study in Scarlet, but… it also kind of is? Specifically, it’s an extremely book-accurate version of Holmes and Watson’s first meeting. Watson has just come from Afghanistan and is looking for lodgings, he’s introduced to Holmes by a mutual acquaintance, Holmes is studying a variety of seemingly-unrelated subjects, doesn’t know the earth revolves around the sun, and is interrupted by a telegram from Lestrade. He also makes the same two deductions that first astounded Watson in the book–that Watson has just come from Afghanistan, and that the messenger that brings the telegram was formerly a sergeant in the marines. The ending is also pretty book-accurate, with Watson getting offended by the newspaper giving Lestrade credit for solving the case, while Holmes seems used to it.

The point of divergence is the case, which from what I can tell was a wholly original invention for the show. (This is apparently generally the case for this series!) It’s honestly a pretty underwhelming case, but it’s understandable in a television format that the majority of the first episode would be devoted to introducing the characters. Holmes also doesn’t look particularly brilliant in this one, as the thing he brilliantly deduces that Lestrade misses basically amounts to “nuh-uh!” and the rest of the case’s solution just kind of falls into his lap by chance.

(C-Rank)

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes: “A Study in Scarlet” (1968)

Okay, I freaking love this cast!! I knew I’d love Cushing as Holmes, but I also really like Nigel Stock as Watson as well as some of the side characters. There were some… rough performances from some of the suspects and victims, but it honestly just kinda added to the texture?

There is some adaptation weirdness here with this being in the middle of the show’s second season, and therefore not Holmes and Watson’s first case together. Which is fine! But in spite of that we do get that interaction where Watson reads Holmes’ article about deduction in the newspaper not knowing Holmes has written it and calls it ridiculous, and like… that’s his entire method my dude. Even if you don’t know he’s the one who wrote it, how are you remotely surprised that he wouldn’t agree that it’s nonsense? Just a truly strange choice.

I would have thought a more natural conversation from the first book to have left in would have been Holmes not knowing that the earth revolves around the sun? As that seems like the kind of thing that could come up at any point in the pair’s association together, whereas the one they did keep seems like it almost would have had to have come up fairly early in their relationship.

The case itself proceeds almost exactly the way it did in the novel, though admittedly I missed the Utah flashbacks a lot more than I thought I would! Having Jefferson Hope explain his motive was a fine substitute, although he (understandably) tells a more abridged version of it that robs it of many of its lurid details that were so compelling in the novel.

So yeah! Kind of an uneven one, but I’m definitely looking forward to returning to this series for its adaptations of future stories from the Holmes canon!

(C-Rank)

Sherlock Holmes and a Study in Scarlet (1983)

Burbank Films Australia is a defunct producer of low-budget, no-frills animated adaptations of works of literature. You might be more familiar with them in their resurrected form, Burbank Animation Studios, where they somewhat-infamously piggybacked on whatever work of literature or historical event Disney was dramatizing by releasing their own lower-rent, store-brand adaptations of the same source material. Disney’s 1991 live-action White Fang met Burbank’s 1991 animated White Fang, and as Burbank’s output ramped up both studios released animated films titled Pocahontas in 1995, The Hunchback of Notre Dame in 1996, Hercules in 1997, and Mulan in 1998. Probably just a coincidence, right? Burbank also reached into Disney’s back catalog to give us their own versions of Cindarella (1996), Beauty and the Beast (1996), and The Little Mermaid (1998).

Nor was Disney the only major animation studio whose coattails Burbank shamelessly rode, as they shadowed Fox Animation Studios with Anastasia in 1997, Dreamworks’ The Prince of Egypt with the extremely different probably Prince of the Nile: The Story of Moses in 1998, and in perhaps the weirdest pull they released Anna and the King in 1999 to coincide with the release of The King and I, which bombed in the box office and was savaged by critics.

Pre-revival, though, Burbank was just churning out book adaptations with no particular agenda that I can discern. I think the only films of theirs I had seen previously were two Jules Verne adaptations. There was a pretty good adaptation of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, as well as their adaptation of Around the World in 80 Days. In the latter, they inexplicably turned every major character into a furry, but that’s never really a terrible move imo. And on the whole it was honestly a drastically more faithful adaptation than the decades-later big-budget, live-action adaptation that turned a reserved French butler into Jackie Chan and a stuffy high society type into the sort of zany inventor you probably think populates Jules Verne books if you’ve never read a Jules Verne book.

The first two films in their catalog are Charles Dickens adaptations (Oliver Twist and A Christmas Carol), followed by four Sherlock Holmes adaptations (of which this was actually the third, and likely for this reason we get yet another adaptation of this story that doesn’t include Holmes and Watson’s first meeting), followed by six more Dickens adaptations. So, they kind of had a whole Victorian English literature thing going on. Probably reused a bunch of backgrounds and stock characters and whatnot.

As for this one, it’s… kind of adorable? Like, there’s just a lot of charm to this no-frills approach. And, yeah, there are definitely times where we’re not laughing with the movie but rather baffled by some of the choices being made, but that hardly detracts from the experience?

My biggest real complaint is that this is the first adaptation that actually seemed like it was gonna include the flashback, which is just such a vital part of the story that’s missing from every other adaptation… but it’s a bait-and-switch! The broad strokes are maintained (minus the Mormons), but it’s just missing all the pulpy elements, as well as making Lucy just a drastically less compelling character than she was in the book.

For what it’s worth, this is about on even footing with the Peter Cushing BBC version as the most faithful adaptation of the book (though I haven’t seen the Soviet version yet because it’s combined with The Speckled Band for whatever reason), and it wasn’t a chore to watch or anything. I’m still a bit disappointed we haven’t ever really gotten a more faithful adaptation of this story’s surprisingly compelling second half, though.

(C-Rank)

Sherlock: “A Study in Pink” (2010)

The show that launched a thousand tumblrs. (Just the one ship, though.)

There’s not much point in talking about A Study in Pink as an adaptation as it has only the most superficial details in common with the novel. Though, those are still more than the 1933 feature “suggested by” the novel. I’ve… been rather prepared to hate Sherlock for a while. I mean, it’s Steven Moffat with even less oversight. But… I kind of super didn’t hate this? I would go so far as to say I liked it.

The “get it, everyone thinks they’re gay!” jokes would wear quite thin if I were taking this seriously. I know enough about Moffat to know that he’s not laughing with us here, but whatever. I’m choosing to read Sherlock and Watson as actually gay for each other and he can’t stop me. So I viewed this episode essentially as an extended meet cute.

I enjoyed the snappy dialogue more than I entirely care to admit, and Holmes does largely come across as being exactly as smart as he thinks he is except for the hilarious exception where he finally puts together that the cabbie is the killer and it’s just painfully drawn out with like several distinct moments where he really should have figured it out if he were as smart as he thinks he is. I’m not sure if this is a symptom of a 60-minute pilot being stretched into a 90-minute episode or if Moffat is really that blissfully unaware of how dumb he’s making his famous smart person look, but either way it’s pretty unintentionally hilarious.

I super, super hate Holmes literally torturing the killer to wring Moriarty’s name out of him with his dying breath. But, y’know. It’s the 00s, gotta jump on that torture apologism while we’re peppering in neutral-to-positive references of the imperialist invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan.

Nevertheless, I… actually really liked this more than I expected to. Maybe that’s because I’ve been bracing to hate it for so long, maybe because–as I’ve been assured repeatedly–it gets much, much worse over time… but, yeah! And I actually super love Cumberbatch as Holmes and Freeman as Watson, which I always knew might very well be the case from seeing them elsewhere, but it feels like that’s a pretty important factor to having any kind of buy-in whatsoever to this series.

(B-Rank)

Elementary: “A Study in Charlotte” (2016)

We watched the pilot to give me a feel for the world/characters/etc before proceeding to its extremely loose A Study in Scarlet analog. I do have a weird nostalgic soft spot for procedurals considering they’re usually pretty blatant copaganda. It is nice to at least have some degree of separation with something like Elementary featuring a private detective working with the police rather than an actual cop protagonist. It’s still copaganda, though, don’t get me wrong.

I gotta say, I love Lucy Liu as the gender-swapped Joan Watson, and apparently Moriarty is also gender-swapped in this one… so why not go all the way and gender-swap Holmes as well? It would make it much more fun to ship Holmes and Watson, which I think you’ll agree is a pretty necessary feature of any interpretation of the crime-solving duo.

Like Sherlock’s “A Study in Pink,” “A Study in Charlotte” has only some superficial details in common with the similarly-named novel, and in this case lacks even the commonality of Holmes and Watson’s first meeting as this is a late season 4 episode, so they’ve been at this for a while.

Taken in isolation, though, I quite liked it! I really like the format of this show, and I’m really looking forward to watching more of it!

(B-Rank)

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