Thursday, June 2, 2011

TV Reviews: "Sherlock" and "The 39 Steps"

Few writers have been more successful at entertaining their readers than Arthur Conan Doyle, creator of Sherlock Holmes, and John Buchan, who wrote The 39 Steps. These are books that can still be read and re-read with great pleasure a century or so after they were written. It is hardly surprising, therefore, that in recent years the BBC has remade them. For Christmas 2008, the BBC released a movie-length version of The 39 Steps. Last summer, the BBC issued three 90-minute episodes of a TV series entitled Sherlock. Both The 39 Steps and Sherlock are widely available on DVD or Netflix. One of them is terrible; the other is a masterpiece. The very different results of these two efforts tell us a great deal about how to work with source material.

Let's start with The 39 Steps, which is not as well known in the United States as it should be. John Buchan's book, written in 1916, tells the story of Richard Hannay. In the summer of 1914, Hannay is bored with life in London until he meets a real oddball who tells him a bunch of conspiracy theories involving threats to the life of the Greek Prime Minister. Hannay finds all of this amusing until his conspiracy-minded friend winds up murdered -- and Hannay is the chief suspect. From there Buchan takes us on the trail made familiar by countless later movies -- the innocent man on the run from both the police and the bad guys. In the end, of course, it all links back to a devilish German plan to devastate the British navy (the action all takes place about two months before the beginning of World War I). We're familiar with this sort of story now -- Hitchcock stole a lot of it for North by Northwest -- but Buchan largely invented it, and The 39 Steps remains as fresh and inventive today as it was when printed.

Unfortunately, whoever did the adaptation for the BBC must have not liked the book very much, because while they stuck with the 1914 period, they were constantly fiddling with the plot in silly and unnecessary ways. Let me give a few examples. In the book, Hannay is chased by a biplane; the movie gives the biplane machine guns (even though no one figured out how to shoot machine guns from an airplane until well after World War I began). The book contains no car chases for the simple reason that cars in 1914 didn't go very fast; the movie puts Hannay and the evil Germans in cars built some ten years after the setting of the story and has them chase each other around Scotland. The book relies on the fact that Germans can and often do look just like Englishmen to make Hannay's mission more difficult; the movie puts all of the Germans in foreign-looking clothes so that you can immediately tell who they are. Most importantly, the book forces Hannay to run his race alone -- a big part of the drama comes from whether Hannay can keep believing in himself when everyone is against him. The movie forces a tiresome suffragette on Hannay and some excruciating love scenes on the audience.

None of this works. Instead of making the story more palatable to modern viewers, the changes smother the plot under soggy blankets of political correctness. Even if you don't know anything about the original book, you can't lose yourself in the story -- every scene is either completely implausible or completely predictable. By the end, I was rooting for the Germans.

The creators of Sherlock, on the other hand, took a much more intelligent approach. Instead of assuming that Conan Doyle didn't know much about storytelling, they decided to use his basic ideas -- but set them in our own time. The premise of Sherlock is that Holmes and Watson are living in London in 2010. Watson remains an army doctor wounded in Afghanistan -- only now he keeps a blog. Holmes remains an obsessive consulting detective at war with Scotland Yard -- only now he uses cell phones, computers, and other tech gadgets. Mycroft Holmes still has a shady role in the British government. Holmes and Watson still live at 221B Baker Street, still have adventures, and in the end they still come face-to-face with the evil Moriarty. But the creators thought carefully about how these folks would live in modern times. What happens to a stiff-upper-lip guy like Watson when everyone tries to get him to share his feelings? How does someone with no interest in women -- like Holmes -- get along in world where casual sex is so common? How does a modern policeman like Inspector Lestrade justify seeking advice from someone who most of the people on his staff regard as a lunatic?

The answers to these questions are quite fascinating. In fact, the scripts for Sherlock are some of the best I've ever seen; they would be brilliant even if you had never heard of Sherlock Holmes. Most importantly, the creators didn't simply parrot Doyle's old plots; they develop their own mysteries that are just as tricky as the originals.

But what is truly remarkable in an adaptation of such a beloved series is that the more you know about the books, the more you can enjoy the series -- because the creators have thought much more deeply about Holmes and Watson than you have. I've read the original stories over and over since I was about 10 years old, and I learned something new about the characters in every episode. For example, I learned that Sherlock Holmes actually has very little interest in fighting crime, at least at first -- he's mainly trying to stop being bored. (By contrast, Watson puts up with Holmes in part because he realizes that Holmes is a genius, and because Watson cares so much about Duty and Honour.) Also, the folks at Scotland Yard are right to dislike Sherlock Holmes -- given how horribly he treats them, only their commitment to the job persuades them to tolerate him at all. Also, beneath Moriarty's genteel exterior and rotund sentences, he is a truly dangerous maniac -- more like the Joker than like the well-dressed doctor we normally imagine. Concepts like these would have been much more immediately obvious to Doyle's Victorian readers, who were used to his high-flown language. But for me they were brought home much more forcibly in the new adaptation -- which is exactly what a modernization should accomplish.

In fact, because the creators of Sherlock trusted and believed in the source material so strongly, they were able to move their characters seamlessly into our world. After watching all three episodes, I know longer thought of the series as a "modernization" at all; this version of Holmes and Watson were, for me, just as much "Holmes" and "Watson" as the folks in the books.

The bottom line is this: remember, when you are adapting an old classic, that the person who wrote the original knew what they were doing -- otherwise, you wouldn't be trying to adapt their work. Trust your source material, let it teach you, and you can succeed.

I would give Sherlock 5 stars out of 5.

I would give The 39 Steps 1 star out of 5, only because I thought the guy who played Richard Hannay did the best he could with lousy material.


  1. Since they added Sherlock to Netflix streaming I had been thinking of watching it, now I'll give it a try for sure.

  2. I think you'll really like it.