Elementary…EH? — should there be a Canadian Sherlock Holmes?

Should Canadians be making their own modern-dress Sherlock Holmes TV series?

Okay, as I’ve fully admitted before — I’m deliberately writing regular blog posts…for the sake of writing regular blog posts (’cause there’s nothing worse for encouraging return readers than a blog that rarely gets up-dated). As such a lot (no: a lot!) of my posts might seem a tad repetitive, hammering away at recurring themes. And others might seem a bit, well, out-of-the-blue. Like this one.

But as usual, I am trying to make a point, or at least toss some ideas out to be mulled over. So stick with me.

A couple of years ago, the British started airing Sherlock — a series of TV movies starring Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman as venerable Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson…but set in modern times. I don’t mean as a resurrected Holmes (as has been done), or as descendants (such as the radio series, Second Holmes, the kids’ series, The Adventures of Shirley Holmes, and others) nor as people inspired by the fictional Holmes (such as They Might Be Giants — a movie for which I’ve always had a lot of fondness). No, this was re-imagining Holmes and Watson in modern times, with no literary baggage behind them (no one recognizes the name or associates him with a famous fictional character). It proved enormously successful, critically and commercially. So then, apparently, the Americans came sniffing around, looking to acquire U.S. rights for a remake, and were told, “No”.

So they made one anyway.

It’s called Elementary and has just started airing with Jonny Lee Miller and Lucy Liu as Holmes & Watson in modern New York, again, with no literary history — it’s a world where a fictional, Victorian-era Holmes doesn’t exist.

The Americans can do this, can “rip-off”, the British version because, well, it’s not like you can exactly copyright the idea. After all, both are based on the Sir Arthur Conan Doyle inspiration, and it’s not like the American one is that similar to the British one other than both utilizing the idea of Holmes in modern dress (the approach to the characters and character dynamics is different). Indeed, the fact that the British refused to sell the rights to their version is probably a good thing, creatively: it forced the American version to do its own thing, rather than simply be a re-make of Sherlock.

Still, needless to say, when it was announced, it seemed to me the internet was a-buzz with outraged fans of Sherlock incensed over this flagrant rip-off.

The curious thing is, a modern dress Sherlock Holmes shouldn’t really seem like such a radical idea. In fact, for a number of years I had been mulling over the idea that we often tend to think of old stories as being part of their time and place — that to be true to the story, adaptations should remain in that time and place. And maybe they should.

BUT…the other side of the coin is that when the stories were written, they weren’t intended as “historical” stories, but were contemporary. When Conan Doyle wrote his Holmes stories, they were meant to reflect the “modern” world (hence why, if memory serves, some stories are set during the gaslight era, and some stories have electricity…because Doyle was incorporating the changing world around him into his tales*). My late brother wrote an interesting piece here about Dracula — how far from being a quaint Victorian gothic as it is perceived now, Bram Stoker really intended it as, essentially, a techno-thriller!

So, viewed that way, modernizing old stories can, in their way, be just as true to the spirit of old stories as faithfully recreating their historical milieu!

In truth, a few years before Sherlock, I had already been toying with the idea of a modernized Sherlock Holmes. I tend to do that a lot: imagine stories in my head, “cast” movies, or picture actors while I’m reading a novel. I assume many people do and that it’s not just me (and not a sign of a psychosis!) So, as I say, long before Sherlock, I had already toyed with the idea of a modernized Sherlock Holmes (though in my head I was skewing a bit older, picturing Tim Roth as Holmes and Colin Salmon as Watson). As such, when Sherlock came out and fans and critics were gushing about how original it was…it didn’t quite seem that original to me.

Indeed, modernizing Holmes had already been done. Back in the 1940s Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce starred in a series of Holmes & Watson movies set against the then contemporary backdrop of WW II — but people probably tend not to think about that because, of course, those now seem equally “historical”. (And in the 1931 Holmes movie, The Speckled Band, I seem to recall Holmes was depicted as the head of a “modern” detective agency, receiving communiqués on the then oh-so cutting edge teletype machine).

The funny thing about the Sherlock vs. Elementary debate is that though I liked the performances in Sherlock, particularly Cumberbatch’s brilliant Holmes (or, rather, his brilliant portrayal of the brilliant Holmes) I was a bit more mixed on the plotting. A lot of modern British detective series are not “series” (ie: hour long episodes) but batches of TV movies, which I didn’t realize when I started watching Sherlock. So partly through the first episode, I was enjoying it…but starting to flag, thinking, man, this seems to be dragging on. Then I looked at the clock and realized that was because it was movie-length. But even aside from that, Sherlock fell into the trap of a lot of Holmes pastiches…of capturing the character more than the storytelling, failing to evoke that same sense of puzzlement and mysterious goings on. One was about a serial killer and, honestly, to me a writer only writes about a serial killer when he’s run out of real ideas — a serial killer being basically the equivalent of old Batman comics where you have the convenient villain with the clearly defined MO who obligingly sends clues to the hero simply so he has puzzles to solve…without the writer actually having to worry about plot or motive or characterization or anything creatively taxing like that**. Another episode involved Asian gangs and, frankly, watching the Caucasian heroes run around duelling (metaphorically) with inscrutable Orientals (most of the actors, one assumes, as British as Cumberbatch but putting on faux Asian accents) kind of left me saying: um, I thought this was supposed to be a modern Sherlock Holmes, not something that looks like it’s mired in ethnic clichés out of the 1970s or earlier! The third movie involved Moriarty — yeah, only three movies in and they were already playing the Moriarty card! And it ended on a cliff hanger, to boot!

I loved Cumberbatch (and contrast his performance with his completely different but equally great turn in the hilarious radio comedy, Cabin Pressure) and I like Freeman in the movies…but I’m a far cry from quite celebrating the series itself as being as “smart” as its fans regard it (scoring something like 9 out of 10 at the IMDB). Enjoyable, yes — but smart?

Which is maybe why I actually looked on Elementary with a little more kindness, rip-off or not. Funnily, I think I liked Lucy Liu more than Jonny Lee Miller (despite having read one review accusing her of phoning it in). It’s not that I disliked Miller, and it’s such an eccentric role it probably will take an episode or two for him to settle on where he wants to take it. I actually enjoyed the plot/mystery of the pilot episode of Elementary more than I did the three Sherlock movies I saw.

The point is: neither version is perfect, but each has strengths and weaknesses.

Which then brings us to my opening point: should Canadians get in on this little mini-genre?

As regular readers know, I’ve chosen as my particular piece of the blog-o-sphere harping on Canadian film & TV and Canadian identity in pop culture.

And seeing the British do Sherlock, and the Americans do Elementary…I kind of wonder if Canadians should throw their own hat into the ring of modern-dress Holmes, this time set in a Canadian city (maybe mix it up with a female Holmes and a male Watson or something).


Well…just to say we can.

Often in Canadian film & TV there is this “branch plant” mentality, that we only do things either in conjunction with a “bigger” partner (ie: American or British) or we do something on our own simply because they want no part of it. But never would we have the temerity to actually, y’know, compete with them. To leap into the ring, knock gloves together, and say: “Bring it on, baby!”

Maybe, just for fun…we should.

(The irony is, in Canada, the filmmakers with the audacity to try such things, usually have little money, and perhaps marginal skill and talent, and those with the budgets and the skill, usually don’t have the audacity to stick their necks out).

The way market borders are set up, often Canadians don’t even have a shot at doing remakes of successful, say, British productions…because the Americans get there first, writing bigger checks, and tend to seal up the “North American” rights. Yeah, they don’t buy the “American” rights, and Canadians buy the “Canadian” rights, but rather the Americans essentially buy up the Canadian rights, too. But in the case of Holmes, as Elementary proved…the rights for a modern-dress Holmes are pretty much up for grabs. In truth, I’m not even sure if you even need to get permission from the Doyle Estate itself (people usually do, but given the plethora of Holmes productions out there, I’m guessing they aren’t asking an arm and a leg).

Maybe it would be fun to do a modern dress Canadian Holmes simply to say: “Hey, if you guys can do it…then so can we, ’cause we’re a sovereign nation and we don’t just have to pick over your dinner scraps.” (And yes, I’m well aware of the irony of suggesting doing a version of a British character would in anyway be seen as a statement of Canadian self-confidence). Sure, it would probably be pilloried by critics and reviled by fans of Sherlock and Elementary both (sight unseen, no doubt) but maybe it would be fun to go head-to-head, toe-to-toe just to see how many rounds it could go. As I say, in my opinion, though both are fine, neither Sherlock nor Elementary are unimpeachable successes, so it’s not like there isn’t room to do a distinctive version at least as legitimate.

In truth, I suspect Elementary may not survive. Not because it’s bad…simply in a market glutted with quirky and eccentric detectives (from Castle to The Mentalist and more) it may not have enough to stand out.

A “Canadian” Sherlock Holmes has more precedence than you might realize. Over the years more than a few Canadians have played Holmes on the screen — Raymond Massey in the aforementioned The Speckled Band, while Christopher Plummer starred in Murder by Decree (and earlier in a TV drama based on Silver Blaze) and even the late Anglo-Canadian actor John Neville took the role in A Study in Terror (albeit before Neville emigrated to Canada). While on TV, Matt Frewer and Kenneth Welsh starred in a quartet of Canadian-made TV movies that were surprisingly enjoyable (Frewer was definitely over-the-top, but in a fun way, and nicely anchored by Welsh’s down-to-earth Watson). I came upon some comments on the internet where people of a certain age referred to Frewer & Watson as “their” Holmes & Watson…essentially the team that defined the characters for them in their formative years (as much as Rathbone or Jeremy Brett did for earlier ages…which is maybe unsurprising since, with four movies featuring Frewer & Welsh, that actually means they enter an exclusive circle of actors who have played the roles in multiple movies).

I’ve often thought it would be fun for someone to do a Canadian Sherlock Holmes feature film. I mean, true to the Victorian era, but with Holmes & Watson visiting Canada and getting embroiled in mystery and skulduggery, maybe with a Canadian “theme” to justify the excursion away from ol’ blighty (maybe a plot involving some First Nations characters). I mean who can look at Colm Feore’s profile and not say: “Give this man a deerstalker cap already!”

So there you go: a big screen Sherlock Holmes in Victorian-era Canada or a small screen modern-dress version about a Canadian Holmes in Canada.

Let the referee ring the bell and — Bring it on, baby!

*Addendum (Oct. 2): Actually, maybe it wasn’t gas switching to electricity, but candle light switching to gas. Whatever. The point is: some of the original Holmes stories by Doyle were meant to seem “contemporary”.

**Addendum 2 (Oct. 3): Though I stick by my general  lack of enthusiasm for “serial killer” plots (and not that I really need to add caveats to all my points) but — obviously — some work, some don’t. In fact, shortly after writing this I watched an episode of Jericho (of Scotland Yard) — a slightly earlier example of the British-series-of-TV-movie-mysteries — one episode of which involved a serial killer. But I liked it more both because it was still a “mystery” (the viewer could infer the killer would be one of the characters introduced) and, perhaps more to the point, because the serial killer was, in a sense, only part of the story, almost more the back drop for the other aspects of the plot.


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