Friday, April 12, 2013

It's Elementary- Watson Doesn't Need to Be a Man

I'm a bit obsessed with Sherlock Holmes.  I haven't read any Sir Arthur Conan Doyle in awhile so my memory is sketchy when it comes to any pure recollection of the Holmes canon. But given the tweaking the stories have seen thanks to so many recent adaptations I don't feel too ashamed to admit that I cannot currently approach the most popular versions of Sherlock Holmes being broadcast today from a purist's point of view. And truthfully, I don't think I have to.

The recent resurgence of all things Sherlock Holmes probably started with the 2009 movie starring Robert Downey Jr. It wasn't the best example of all things Holmes thanks to a fairly confusing script and overly long run time, but Downey reminded us that Sherlock is fascinating and that when it comes to the buddy-film genre there aren't many pairings as good as Holmes and Watson.

In 2010 the BBC released an updated version of the story with Sherlock, starring Benedict Cumberbatch as Holmes and Martin Freeman as Watson. Set in modern-day London this version of Sherlock Holmes is exceptionally entertaining. Cuberbatch portrays Holmes in an icy, sometimes superior manner. His personality has been characterized as "Aspergerish" and he is possibly the most socially inept Holmes of the current incarnations-- though that's open to debate. The tweaks to the classic Holmes story are varied. Obviously the modern day setting is going to necessitate changes in everything from technology to language. When Watson writes of Holmes' exploits he posts them on a blog rather than any print publication. The basic nature of the relationship between Holmes and Watson doesn't really change. Holmes, the eccentric loner who finds an unlikely friend in Watson, is trying at the best of times but his intellect overshadows his flaws and Watson is his steady, able foil.

The success of the BBC's "Sherlock" set the stage for a U.S. version of the iconic character but the producers of the U.S. incarnation had a bit of dilemma when developing the show-- the producers of the BBC version were very frank about the fact that they would be closely scrutinizing the U.S. version for copyright infringement.
~ From The Independent
Sue Vertue, Sherlock Executive Producer at Hartswood Films, said: "We understand that CBS are doing their own version of an updated Sherlock Holmes. It's interesting, as they approached us a while back about remaking our show. At the time, they made great assurances about their integrity, so we have to assume that their modernised Sherlock Holmes doesn't resemble ours in any way, as that would be extremely worrying." She added: "We are very proud of our show and like any proud parent, will protect the interest and wellbeing of our offspring."
That's interesting to me on so many levels. On the one hand I can understand the desire to protect one's property. But Sherlock isn't exactly a new creation and the character has been depicted many times over the years. That said- the BBC version of "Sherlock," as far as I know, was the first to put Holmes in the 21st Century.

CBS decided to answer the BBC's concerns by making a critical change to their adaptation- they made Watson a woman and cast Lucy Liu in the part.

I didn't know about potential copyright issues when I first heard that the U.S. version was going air under the title of Elementary and was a little skeptical when I heard that Watson was going to be a woman. I was also unfamiliar with Jonny Lee Miller, who was cast as Holmes, but I had loved every version of Sherlock I have come across and knew I was going to have to check it out. And I'm so glad I did.

There will likely be people who disagree with me, but I feel as if casting a woman in the role of Watson has brought new depth to the iconic story. First- it must be mentioned that CBS has been adamant in insisting that Watson and Holmes will never, ever be romantically linked. If there has been any one thing that inhibits people from checking out this new show it's the thought that the Holmes and Watson dynamic will change because of the gender opposite pairing. Though I must admit to some confusion over the misgivings as so many people seem very forgiving of the frequent misunderstanding (on the show) that Holmes and Watson are a homosexual couple on "Sherlock." But that's another topic of discussion.

Watson's entry into Holmes' life is also different than previous incarnations-- again most likely due to fears of copyright infringement. She is hired as Holmes' sober companion by Sherlock's father. Her job is initially to keep Holmes sober after his release from rehab but she soon becomes intrigued by his job as a detective consultant to the NYPD.  This particular device works surprisingly well (I was very dubious about it at first) because it gives Watson permission to dig into Sherlock's personal life and, to the degree that anyone would be able, to manage his behavior.

Liu's Watson, like all the others, is a doctor. She's no longer a practicing doctor but her knowledge, insight and intelligence are appealing to Sherlock and he quickly realizes that her presence makes him better at his job. Liu is a stoic Watson who is frequently befuddled by Sherlock's eccentricities. Miller's Sherlock initially comes off as difficult and anti-social, as we'd expect, but there's something in his portrayal that conveys a certain vulnerability- and I have absolutely fallen in love with this Holmes and Watson pairing because of the way they relate to each other. Liu has to walk a fine line to be seen as a partner and not someone who is mothering Holmes and she does it well. But if there's one thing I like about this Watson is that she doesn't come off as worshipful of Holmes-- as I feel is sometimes the case with Freeman's portrayal of the character in the BBC version. There's a solid respect for Holmes' intellect, but also a frank acknowledgment of his weaknesses. And when Holmes does display his characteristic misogyny, she's the first one to call him out on it.

There's a lot more I could add to this post about Liu's Watson and comparisons between the BBC version, but I fear I could go on all day. Suffice it to say that I would recommend "Elementary" to those of you who haven't yet watched the show. CBS is taking a slow approach to introducing some critical characters; we haven't yet met Moriarty or Irene Adler- though Miss Husdon did recently show up in the form of a gorgeous transgender woman (how's that for a tweak?) It should also be mentioned that Inspector Gregson is now Captain Gregson of the NYPD and is portrayed by the excellent Aidan Quinn.

I expect I'll be revisiting this topic after the arrival of Irene Adler (who, it has recently been revealed, will be played by Natalie Dormer from "Game of Thrones") so I can compare the portrayal of the character in this show and the BBC version. Adler is a very sexualized character in "Sherlock"-- but her particular episode is also my favorite to date. I expect the CBS version to be very different, by necessity, and I can't wait to see how it plays out.

To be continued...


Spaz said...

Love the show! Seeing as you weren't previously familiar with Jonny Lee Miller, I highly recommend you watch Eli Stone if you can find it. Lasted a couple seasons. It was on Netflix last I checked, if that's an option for you.

SQT said...

I will! I'm so infatuated with him now.

Charles Gramlich said...

I've actually only read a few of th eoriginal Holmes stories. I have the entire collected set and should read some more.

Dragana Mitrovic said...

I have a soft spot for quirky and a little bit crazy genius characters and Sherlock Holmes definitely fits the descriptions. I think I watched all of the older movies and of course new ones with Robert Downey Jr. Although I like the old ones better. I didn't watch BBC's Sherlock from 2010 but I may give Elementary a chance. Especially because Watson is a girl (and Jonny Lee Miller is good actor too). I like when they twist story a little bit. :)
That reminds me of a funny movie I saw "Without a Clue" where Watson is genius who solves all crimes and Holmes is just a hired actor (and very stupid). LOL

SQT said...

I'm fascinated by the story of Sherlock Holmes. I recently realized that "House" is also a homage of sorts to Holmes. No wonder I like it so much.