How much can you deduct from Sherlock?

The launch of Elementary has the Sherlockian world talking. The programme has a virtual monopoly on the attention of Sherlockians due to the lack of any current competition. I have not seen it but I have noticed from Twitter that opinion is polarised.

This begs the question; exactly how much can you change of Sherlock’s world before your programme is nothing more than a crime drama that features someone by the name of Sherlock Holmes?

To my mind the core elements of the original stories are:

1. The lead characters are Sherlock Holmes and John Watson

2. Sherlock Holmes is a consulting detective with an amazing deductive faculty

3. John Watson is a former army doctor

4. The adventures are mostly set in London

5. The time period is Victorian

6. Holmes is an occasional user of cocaine and a heavy smoker

7. Sherlock Holmes lives at 221B Baker Street – where Watson occasionally also resides (between marriages)

There are probably some I’ve missed and you may not agree with all I’ve listed. However, if we take my list for the time being, how many of these items can you lose before a screen adaptation is no longer truly Holmes?

The ITV/Granada adaptation adheres to all seven.

The BBC’s Sherlock adheres to points 1,2,3,4 and 7 and is clearly still very much Sherlock Holmes.

The Warner Bros films adhere to 1, 2, 3, 4, 5 and 7 with alcohol largely taking the place of the cocaine in point 6.

To the best of my knowledge Elementary only adheres to point 2. I freely admit I haven’t seen it and am relying on what I’ve read about it and heard from those who have seen it. However entertaining it is, if its grip on the source material is as weak as it seems is it really a Sherlock Holmes adaptation or just an US based crime series featuring a character called Sherlock Holmes with an intelligent but relatively ordinary partner?

UPDATE - A link to this post was posted on Facebook and while the response was apparently positive there were some who thought I should not be commenting until I'd seen it. There may be some merit in that but I think it only fair to point out that I'm not commenting on whether or not it is an entertaining program just on the strength of its links to the source material. Rest assured that when I do see it (whenever that is) I shall revisit this post if my mind has been changed.

Follow up post - My Elementary pilot review can be found here.


  1. You know, this is a spiney question. I'm studying theory of adaptation, and the issue of fidelity is a hot one - do you, or don't you? Should a work be condamned for not being true to the 'heart of the artichoke' of the original, or should there be enough understanding of production values and the difficulty of translating an adapted text into other media? It's a hairy question but .... Gatiss and Moffat went for the Heart of the Artichoke approach, and they managed to transcribe Sherlock and John into the 21st Century seamlessly. There is no excuse now; if its been done that well, then it can be done again. Moffat and Gatiss have been acclaimed as being true heirs of Doyle, while leaving no story intact; they went for the 'heart of the artichoke' approach and nailed it to a wall.

  2. My views exactly, Alistair. Why oh why can't people not rip the stories apart so terribly? The BBC is my ultimate modern Sherlock.

  3. I’ve seen the “Elementary” pilot and definitely think it falls into the category of a man calling himself Holmes, but with little connective tissue to the original. Very little in the hour references the stories, characters (beyond a female Watson and a “Gregson”), or famous phrases of either the original or the most noted adaptations. CBS has gone one further and given Holmes a new “vice” that seems really out of character, and will be offensive to many. Making Watson a woman seems a wasted stretch since I felt no chemistry between JLM’s Holmes and Liu’s Watson. (Aren’t they hoping for a Moonlighting-style frisson to get us excited?) If the show succeeds, it’ll be on its stand-alone charms as a crime procedural and nothing to do leveraging the 100+ years of Holmes backstory

  4. There's a concept among fanfic writers and readers known as the "Alternate Universe" story. In an AU story, some major aspect of a well-known fictional universe is changed, and the author goes on to explore the ramifications. AU stories can be quite close to the original, or very far away indeed. (For example: what if Captain Kirk had been killed on one of his many away missions, and Spock had to step into the role of captain?)

    I think the question you're really asking is, "How far away can an AU get before it stops feeling related to the original story?" And that's a good question, and there's no easy answer; I suspect that the answer is different for any given person. Sherlock is an example of an AU that's still pretty close to the original; Elementary is clearly much further away. Too far? Only time will tell.