Adapting literature into films and TV shows is apparently a trend again. The Twilight series was a great success, The Avengers has been an absolute blockbuster (comic books are at least as literary as Twilight, if not more so), and even the art-house crowd is on the bandwagon. Reports indicate that the Palme d’Or at this year’s Cannes Film Festival is likely to go to an adaptation for just the third time this millennium. The hottest property of the moment, though, is probably the BBC series Sherlock.
In case you’re not already familiar with it, Sherlock updates the classic Arthur Conan Doyle detective stories and brings them into the present day. Benedict Cumberbatch’s Sherlock Holmes is as uncannily capable as the original character, but his performance accentuates Holmes’s prickly arrogance and the strain of dealing with the lesser intellects around him—which is to say, everyone else in the world. Contemporary diagnosticians would call his manner pathological, perhaps assigning him a spot on the autism spectrum, and the show is not afraid to mention that issue. Similarly, modern sensibilities find the intense connection between Sherlock and his sidekick John Watson (played by Martin Freeman) difficult to digest, and the duo becomes the subject of jokes and the object of sidelong glances. Hearing about these updates before the series aired, I was afraid that the result would be a descent into gimmickry, with an essentially Victorian figure who would try to juggle a meerschaum pipe and a cell phone for laughs, but that’s not at all the case. Sherlock’s Sherlock pays tribute to his predecessors, but he’s his own man, which is as it should be. Why remake something if you’re going to slavishly copy it or tear it completely apart in the process?
There’s something special about the character that makes him endlessly renewable. The Guinness Book of World Records lists him as the most frequently portrayed figure in film, with over 75 actors taking on the role in 211 movies. Writers, too, have felt free to try on the deerstalker cap and solve the crimes that they commit to paper. There are versions of the great detective who must not only cope with the unusual, but also the fantastical, as in the stories collected in The Improbable Adventures of Sherlock Holmes. Stephen King, Neil Gaiman, Michael Moorcock, and others pit their hero against ghosts, extinct dinosaurs, and even malicious deities—successfully, natch. The Mammoth Book of New Sherlock Holmes Adventures is an anthology that plays things a little straighter, if you prefer that your investigations remain on more realistic ground. Maybe the most notable incarnation of Holmes in recent years is Pulitzer Prize-winner Michael Chabon’s The Final Solution, in which an aged and misanthropic beekeeper picks up his magnifying glass one last time to unravel the secrets of a young escapee from Nazi Germany, and in so doing, confront the greatest crime of the 20th century.
Of course, the original tales are the place to start, whether you’re newly introducing yourself to the character or paying him a repeat visit. Almost all of them are in the public domain, so there are dozens, if not hundreds of different options available. The most pleasing might be these beautiful, fully annotated versions of the short stories and the novels. When you think you’re ready to match wits with the master, you can pick up Pierre Bayard’s Sherlock Holmes Was Wrong, which attempts to show how Arthur Conan Doyle himself couldn’t keep up with his creation. None of us can, really, not even the evil genius Professor Moriarty. Sherlock’s been going strong for 125 years now, since long before any of us were born, and he’ll undoubtedly be connecting clues long after we’re gone.