torsdag 23 februari 2012

Sherlock is Sherlock - but that ain't Professor Moriarty

It may seem unfair of me to gush over the TV series Sherlock when I complained so bitterly of Guy Ritchie's film Sherlock Holmes for taking liberties with the great detective. After all, Sherlock is one of those series that can be said to be "inspired on the characters created by" the author of the original. You can't really call it an adaptation of Arthur Conan Doyle's stories at all. The cases may contain many references to the original Conan Doyle stories, but they are essentially new. Also, the series is set in the modern day. This is a far cry from Conan Doyle, surely.

Well, it is and it isn't. Granted, I was predisposed to like Sherlock from the start. The title role is played by Benedict Cumberbatch, whose snooty swot I rooted for in Starter for Ten and vastly preferred to the lightweight hero. The series is created by Doctor Who screenwriter supremo Steven Moffat and by Mark Gatiss, for whom I will always have a soft spot as he wrote the wonderful Doctor Who episode "The Unquiet Dead" where Charles Dickens appeared. Gatiss is a good actor too and plays a fascinatingly chilly Mycroft Holmes in Sherlock. With all these points in its favour, Sherlock would have had to be very bad to disappoint me. But not only is it a well-written, well-acted, pacy crime caper, I do actually think it captures some of that elusive thing, the "spirit of the original". Cumberbatch's Sherlock is recognisably Holmesian, though he is weirder than Conan Doyle's Holmes. The original Sherlock Holmes may have been arrogant and over-fond of logic, but he was not such a social disaster as the Sherlock presented here. All the same, the self-confessed "sociopath" of the TV series, who lives for intellectual kicks and who in spite of his rudeness is essentially kind, bears a great deal more resemblance to the real thing than the scruffy Holmes of Guy Ritchie's film.

What the TV series captures best of all, in my view, is the relationship between Holmes and Watson. It is a deep friendship, largely unaknowledged by Holmes but just as important for him as for Watson. There are no sexual overtones - Watson is constantly annoyed by people getting the wrong idea about him and his friend, which plays havoc with his dating life - but in the end, his tie with Sherlock is stronger than any other and certainly means more to him than his string of girlfriends. This, I believe, is exactly what the Holmes-Watson-relationship was like in Conan Doyle's stories, right down to Watson's unswerving loyalty. The moving final scene in the last episode of the second series not only made me feel quite weepy - it also showed by stark contrast just how cheap Ritchie's ooh-bless-their-pink-little-socks-treatment of the bond between Holmes and Watson was in Sherlock Holmes (and judging by the reviews, the second film is even worse).

Moriarty, though, was a disappointment. Like the latest incarnation of The Master in Doctor Who, Moriarty was not the traditional Count-Dracula-meets-Bond-villain Evil Mastermind but a youngish psychopath. I don't care for psychopaths as villains, but at least John Simm had energy and charisma enough to reconcile me (almost) to The Master's doolalliness. Moriarty in Sherlock was stubbornly uncharismatic, though, and maybe this was the point: a warning to us villain-lovers to stop glamourising extreme wickedness. Fair enough. Nevertheless, there was no resemblance to the "Napoleon of crime" that Conan Doyle created. Most disappointing of all, this Moriarty wasn't a Professor of Mathematics.

I think this feature of Moriarty's is often undervalued. There are criminal masterminds aplenty, and there are villains who are distorted mirror images of the hero aplenty (admittedly, not a few of them are actually inspired by the Holmes-Moriarty setup). But what makes Professor Moriarty stand out is that he is, in fact, a Professor. In Moriarty's interest for Mathematics you have a plausible reason for his intellectual brilliance and for a mindset where abstract problem-solving feels more real than the human grief caused by his crimes. For readers like me, who find equations with more than one unknown entity heavy going, there is also something inherently sinister about someone who is good at Mathematics. Lastly, the dry world of Academe forms a nice contrast to the criminal underworld where Moriarty operates.

Sherlock is by no means the first time someone has disposed of the Maths factor: in John Gardner's Moriarty, the author's version of the character - an unlovely gangster boss - disposes of his blameless elder brother (the Mathematics Professor) and takes his place so as to create a useful alias for himself. This means that Moriarty's adventures can be carried on longer, as the "real" Moriarty is younger than Conan Doyle made out, but at what price? My advice is stop messing about with Moriarty: Conan Doyle knew what he was doing.