Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Challenge to the viewer.

Back in 1938, Ellery Queen came up with a really cool idea.

He called it Challenge to the Reader, and within a single volume, gathered twenty-five of the greatest fictional detectives of the day, from Sherlock Holmes to Sam Spade, from Father Brown to Craig Kennedy. And then Ellery Queen (the two authors / mystery writer / fictional detective . . . however you view him) changed the names of all of the detectives in all of the stories. The challenge to the reader was to figure out which story featured which detective.

Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson were called "Pharoah Jones" and "Dover," and the fact that their story was still called "The Disappearance of Lady Frances Carfax" makes the ploy fairly obvious to any real fan of Holmes. Inspector Lestrade still appears with Jones and Dover, as do the other characters. But Ellery Queen's concept was still pretty solid.

Imagine what would happen if we were to take the three big Sherlock Holmeses of the modern day in their assorted formats, Robert Downey Jr.'s theatrical Holmes, Benedict Cumberbatch's mini-series Holmes, and Jonny Lee Miller's character in the weekly procedural Elementary, and changed all the names (and that peskily familiar "221B Baker Street" address).

What would we have left? Would we recognize the result as Sherlock Holmes?

Let's start with the Guy Ritchie movies. The Victorian era, consulting detective and the military man, the disguises, the pugilistic skills, the flair for the dramatic . . . if Robert Downey, Jr. didn't look like we think Holmes should look, we'd still know his character was heavily based on Sherlock Holmes. There would be accusations of Guy Ritchie stealing Doyle's lines, and the little homages to things like Rathbone films would start being written up online. As much as Ritchie liked to make Holmes an action movie star (and very successfully show) the main character was still recognizably Sherlock Holmes, and would have been no matter what you called him.

Gatiss and Moffat's BBC Sherlock is set in modern times, which would seem to move the characters a little farther from being recognize as Holmes and Watson if we were to change all the names. But the initial plot, so close to the barely-ever-filmed A Study in Scarlet, was very hard to miss. A long-time fan of Sherlock Holmes could not help but see the tribute to Conan Doyle in the criminal expert and the Afghanistan veteran, so lovingly laid out.

And then we come to Elementary on CBS. Change only the names "Sherlock Holmes" and "Watson," and suddenly you're in with a host of other CBS procedural shows. But were you to see Elementary with the main characters named something like "Esteban Cole" and "Joan Lawson," your first honest thought would very probably not be of Holmes but something like, "This is a really gritty version of Monk!" Without the branding of "Sherlock Holmes," Elementary would probably suffer next to CBS's The Mentalist, not to mention Monk, House, Psych, Perception, Person of Interest, C.S.I. and all those other Sherlock-ish shows that came before.

Using Ellery Queen's Challenge to the Reader as the basis for a little mental exercise with our modern video Holmes franchises, it quickly becomes apparent who was just using the name for a hook to draw viewers in, and who was actually interested in doing the work to try bringing a fully-realized modern version of Sherlock Holmes to a modern viewing public.

1 comment:

  1. Very true! This is something I've said from the beginning: take away their names and you have a totally generic US crime show with totally generic lead characters. There is nothing in the portrayal of the characters or their relationship that would remind you of SH and JW.

    Thus it was clearly a try by CBS to hop on the recent Holmes revival bandwagon and participate in the success. Whereas the Ritchie and Moffat/Gatiss releases are the work of artists, Elementary is just mercenary. And I don't want to support this "let's make some money from those idiots out there by doing a lazy adaptation"-attitude.