Monday, May 21, 2012

Adapting

These guys will both be in next year's theatrical
version of The Hobbit.
Last night was the last episode of the second set of the BBC's very popular Sherlock series. I'd heard of it sometime before last year's debut on PBS and I thought it was a damn entertaining re-imagining of Arthur Conan Doyle's singular detective. A lot of other people found it entertaining to - so much so that CBS courted 'creator' Steven Moffat to bring his update to American TV, an offer that he declined. CBS has gone ahead any way and is developing a show called Elementary that I can pretty much guarantee I won't be watching.

Why?

Simple, adapting an adaptation is almost always an unsatisfying thing. Especially in this case. I can't see any way that American creators  can take such a distinctly British character, transport him to New York and approach the classic stories in any more inventive ways than Moffat and 'co-creator' Mark Gatiss. (Gatiss writes for the show and also plays Mycroft Holmes.) It simply isn't encoded in American storytelling DNA to be that clever. And besides, all they're going to do is trade on the name Sherlock Holmes and hope for a hit. CBS already has a show that does all this AND stars a guy with a non-American accent. The 'creator' of that show has also acknowledged that The Mentalist harks back to Holmes.

Sherlock, the BBC series, is clever and pays homage to not just Doyle's version, but also to the previous BBC iteration that starred the inimitable Jeremy Brett. There are little nods like camera shots that let the informed viewer know that Moffat and Gatiss loved that television series, too. Stars Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman both inhabit their roles as Holmes and Watson respectively, with all the elements that make the characters interesting and deep but it's Andrew Scott's portrayal of the supervillain Moriarty that makes the series fun.

With his introduction in the third episode of the first series, Scott made Moriarty every bit the perfect opposite of Cumberbatch's Holmes. Except they're not really opposites, they just play on different sides of the street. (This is made exceptionally clear in the final moments of the third episode of the second series, but there's no spoilers here.) Scott seems to have pulled in not just Eric Porter's brilliant performance but also a bit of Orson Welles' radio version, too, while adding inflections that make the character his. I love watching him on screen and immediately recognized him from his very brief appearance on HBO's Band of Brothers.

Only the British can make this kind of clever update and adaptation work so well and be so entertaining at the same time. Well, and Joss Whedon, but he's not anywhere near this project. Americans don't know how to do this, which is why we watch BBC programming on PBS (Monty Python or Downton Abbey, anyone?) and why there's a British cable channel here. We recognize great storytelling, we just don't know how to do it as well as our cousins across the Atlantic. The British seem to have a sense of history in their storytelling that Americans don't often match.

Taking the time to adapt an adaptation is just silly especially since it already exists. The time is better spent in either supporting the adaptation by bringing it whole to America (which PBS does, though apparently there were a couple of edits for the American version of series 2) or in creating something NEW. It's also one thing to adapt an original property, such as Life On Mars, and another completely to adapt an adaptation. Sherlock is not new, it's updated. That's why I put the word 'creator' in quotes. The characters are the same, the setting is new and the stories are 'based on' Doyle's original work.

I'll probably give Elementary a chance but not much of one. I'll just wait for series 3 of Sherlock. And while I'm waiting, I'll read Doyle's stories again and probably watch the entirety of the Brett series, too.