Television Drama: Lost in Translation

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Since the late 19th century, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s detective fictional classic, Sherlock Holmes has remained alive and dynamic in the public domain. Everyone knows who Sherlock is; he is a universal figure or a myth who belongs to everyone. According to Neil McCaw, Sherlock Holmes is the ‘original pop culture icon’ (McCaw 2011, p.19) and is among the most adapted of all literary characters. Indeed, it is impossible not to recognise Sherlock considering the stories have evolved into a number of adaptions in a variety of mediums including: film, novel, television, radio, stage, music, video games and most recently, the internet. These appropriations have led to a limitless number of Holmesian texts in a ‘ceaseless circulation of images, characters, settings and plot lines’ (McCaw 2011, p.20).

However, while the story has been translated into various mediums across the globe, it is important to note that such adaptions must cater to the national and cultural contexts in which their audiences reside. This is particularly evident in the medium of television. In creating adaptions of television shows, producers and writers must also be conscious of the social norms, values, beliefs, behaviours and the overall national identity of their audiences. A good example is the recent adaption of the story of Sherlock Holmes into British and American television. Both adaptions have been highly successful as they have been fashioned around the specific social, cultural and national contexts.

The modern British version of Sherlock is a more conventional adaptation as it encapsulates and maintains most of the traditional features (such as characters and plot lines) that appear in Conan Doyle’s novel. Thus while this is a modern Sherlock Holmes, Steven Moffat ensured that this contemporary Sherlock remained closely linked to the roots of the classic detective fiction. As Lacy Baugher (2011) writes ‘the texting, the sherlock-titlenicotine patches, and the constant cabs are all just modern updates on the telegrams, the pipe and the hansoms’. However, while Britain’s Sherlock has successfully recontextualised the story to the 21st century, it has been criticised for maintaining certain sexist and heteronormative attitudes. As Laurie Penny (2014) claims ‘I’ve got a lot of problems with Steven Moffat’s narrative choices — starting with his ability to reduce even the most interesting female characters to bland archetypes’. Similarly, Emily Asher-Perrin criticises, writer of Sherlock, Steven Moffat as he ‘does not have a stellar track record when it comes to depicting characters who are not cisgendered straight white men’. Thus Moffat writes for his ideal fan base; stories about ‘clever men’ ‘in which women are dispensable love objects, figures of derision, or both’ (Penny 2014).

In contrast, the American adaption of Sherlock, Elementary, does not preserve the classic ‘Englishness’ trope as it has taken a more non-traditional ‘Americanised’ approach. The series has made drastic changes; the most significant one being the casting of Watson. A woman of colour, and beautifully talented, Lucy Liu plays Joan Watson. Unlike Britain’s elementary_367x208Sherlock, Elementary promotes gender equality as Joan Watson is utterly respected by her counterpart. They are played as equals according to the show’s premise. As Asher-Perrie (2014) writes, ‘rather than playfully belittling his partner the way that Cumberbatch’s version is frequently known for, Johnny Lee Miller’s Sherlock holds Watson in an esteem that is expressed outwardly to her, and to their colleagues; much more in line with Doyle’s original incarnation in that regard’. Thus Sherlock and Watson exhibit a true, deep friendship between a man and a woman with no other strings attached. Furthermore, unlike Sherlock, the show promotes multiculturalism and transgenderism as it consciously represents people of different races, sexualities and social classes. For example, Mrs Hudson’s character is portrayed by trans actress, Candis Cayne. All the characters have equal footing as Sherlock works with these people as a member of a team (Asher-Perrie 2014).

Overall, it is evident that the genre of Drama has been effectively adapted to the cultural, social and national contexts in which the relevant audiences reside. The British version of Sherlock has been recontextualised to appeal to the modern trope of ‘Englishness’ amongst the British audience. In contrast, the American adaption has taken a more modern approach whereby the issues of gender equality, multiculturalism and queerness are promoted.

Reference List

Asher-Perrin, E (2014) ‘Battling Super Sleuths: The Awkward Case of Elementary, Sherlock, and Building the Better Adaptation’ Tor.com, available online at <http://www.tor.com/blogs/2014/02/battling-super-sleuths-the-awkward-case-of-elementary-sherlock-and-building-the-better-adaptation>. 

Baugher, L 2011, ‘The Great Sherlock Debate: Holmes in the 21st Century, Tellyvisions, 10 November, viewed 17 September, < http://blogs.weta.org/tellyvisions/2011/11/10/great-sherlock-debate-holmes-21st-century>

GreysALIASAnatomy 2013, Sherlock BBC vs. Elementary (Sherlock/Watson), The Casebook of Sherlock Holmes, 22 November, video, YouTube, < https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Aozbi-Gexdk>

McCaw, N 2011, Adapting Detective Fiction: Crime, Englishness and the TV Detectives, A&C Black < http://books.google.com.au/books?id=JI5Qf-7urlkC&dq=ceaseless+circulation+of+images,+characters,+settings+and+plot+lines&source=gbs_navlinks_s>

Penny, L (2014) ‘Sherlock and the Adventure of the Overzealous Fanbase’ New Statesman, available online at http://www.newstatesman.com/culture/2014/01/sherlock-and-adventure-overzealous-fanbase.

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