I have been a fan of Sherlock Holmes the character for as long as I can remember. I’ve read all of the books multiple times and seen many of the TV/film adaptations of the character but two recently have become quite popular and now, having seen all of the episodes for both series I’d like to consider the differences between them and why different people will be attracted to each.
Firstly, unlike most other adaptations of the character, both Elementary and Sherlock pose the question: what would Sherlock Holmes look like in a modern setting? Rather than going back to the time the books were written 100 years ago, we are given two perspectives of a modern Sherlock. To make it more interesting, Sherlock is the British interpretation and spurred on by the success of the first season of Sherlock, Elementary became the American interpretation.
The actors: Benedict Cumberbatch plays Sherlock Holmes in the UK series. He is tall and commands a presence, speaks quickly yet very clearly and stops rarely to take a breath when he’s on a roll. Excited and energetic yet cold and calculating much of the time. Jonny Lee Miller plays the role in the US series. He is of average height, somewhat of a nail-biter and almost nervous, but his presence conveys more of a quiet condescension from the corner of the room rather than a confident impatience Cumberbatch portrays. Equally though he tackles the dialog very well and brings a decidedly different flavour to the role albeit further from the books depiction but nevertheless very entertaining.
The role: In Sherlock the lead role is for a man who is obsessed with mobile phones, who lacks even the most basic interpersonal skills (insulting pretty much everyone at some point), is fighting a nicotine addiction (somewhat of a faint nod to the ‘pipe’ from the books) but does use patches as a way to focus on difficult problems and who enjoys having Watson around to compliment him on his brilliance. He regularly plays his violin to help him think and there’s a funny twist on the infamous Sherlock Holmes hat that ends up being quite endearing. In Elementary the lead role is for a man who, whilst he lacks many interpersonal skills, is prepared to admit he made mistakes and even apologises to those he is closest to, is a recovering heroin drug-addict and enjoys training Watson on how to be a better detective. He isn’t seen playing his violin in the entirety of the first season and there are no nods to the imfamous hat or pipe. What’s interesting is that the opiate usage is closer to the novels but Sherlock was never in recovery (though perhaps it never existed in those days) whereas in the UK version the writers toned it down considerably and just stuck with cigarettes.
Watson and the rest: In the UK version Watson, LeStrade and Mrs Hudson were all very close to their character descriptions from the books, but in a more modern setting. In the US version it’s almost as though the writer/producers thought: “How can we make these characters different somehow?” Being in New York meant no Scotland Yard and hence no LeStrade and instead the character of Captain Gregson is far less openly reliant on Holmes and much less of a friend to Holmes than LeStrade ever was in the books or the UK series. Mrs Hudson is a tall blonde woman with an Adams apple and Watson is not man, it’s Joan Watson, a woman. Watson is played extremely well by Lucy Liu, no doubt about it, but her character could not be more different than Watson from the UK series or the books. Watson is fascinated by Holmes and can’t stop being amazed at what he does. The character depicted in the US Version sees Holmes as a broken man that needs fixing and there’s plenty of touchy-feely dialog about how much they respect each other. It feels quite off to listen to because it detracts from the story being told and worse it’s nothing like the characters interacted in the books.
The Final Nail: Moriarty Every hero needs a great villain, and Moriarty is considered by many to be the pop-culture pinnacle of villainy. The UK portrayal has Andrew Scott playing the part of a small but brilliant man that has violent mood swings but creepy to the extreme and cold as ice at the core. In the US version in somewhat of a ‘shock’ (spoiler alert skip to next paragraph if you haven’t seen the end of Season 1 of Elementary) turns out that Irene Adler is actually Moriarty - yes, not only is Watson a woman but so is Moriarty. Well why not? The character is played by Natalie Dormer and is confidently portrayed and the Moriarty character is cold, confident, and arrogant. Funny thing is, I’d say that was more inline with the books portrayal but the issue I have is the amalgamation of one brilliant character from the books (Irene Adler) with another brilliant character (Moriarty). It seems wasteful to say the least that we the audience get one for the price of two as it were and worse than that it’s wrapped up in one episode at the end. In the UK Version at least Moriarty shows up in multiple episodes before (spoiler alert if you haven’t seen the end of Season 2 of Sherlock) he eats his own bullet. In addition the UK Moriarty pushed Sherlocks buttons far more effectively and intensely than in the US version which was awesome to watch.
To summarise there is no doubt that the US Version is harder-hitting, more politically correct, more gender balanced and much easier to pick “whodunit” early in most of the episodes. It lacks the polish of the dialog from the UK version but then, the writers cranked out 22 episodes in 1 year as opposed to 6 episodes in 2 years. Clearly the US writers earned their paycheques.
Personally I find both Elementary and Sherlock to be entertaining however in making the US version more PC and bending too many of the accepted rules for portraying Sherlock Holmes and the associated characters, Elementary ceases to be a modern-day Sherlock but rather a Law and Order/CSI show with people that just happen to be called Sherlock and Watson. This gives the writers a certain creative freedom but at the same time that carries the risk of losing something of what made the original stories so enduring and popular. This show will appeal to those that like the CSIs and Law and Orders of the world but Sherlock Holmes aficionados be warned: it may taste strange.
On the other hand, the UK version soft-pedals the drug angle and over-plays the whole “we’re not a couple” bit between Sherlock and Watson that could have potentially made it sharper than it is. Coupled with the fact that the BBC don’t fund shows in the same quantities as the US (the writers have different motivators too) and hence a television hungry audience ends up annoyed that currently there are only 6 episodes of Sherlock to Elementary’s 22. That said Sherlock has more engrossing stories, is closer to the original and uses many clever modern twists effectively and is more entertaining overall than its US counterpart.
I see great things in both series and will continue to watch them both. If you haven’t watched them yet, you should.