16 January 2012


Last night saw the second series of BBC One's much-acclaimed Sherlock come to a close, after another three weeks of feature-length adventures. Unlike the first series, which aired in 2010, this series aired at the same time as the bombastic Hollywood version of Conan Doyle's detective was still playing in cinemas, in Guy Ritchie's sequel, Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows. Obviously, I have to compare them, and so from here on out, there will be spoilers for both the new film and the whole of Sherlock Series 2, but especially last night's finale.

I don't often cover TV reviews on this blog, simply because I've either not had time, or not been bothered to write down my thoughts because I felt they were being echoed elsewhere- hence no review of the superb Black Mirror, which had a similar feature-length format to Sherlock. However, the significance of The Final Problem to both A Game of Shadows and Sherlock's finale, The Reichenbach Fall has inspired me to articulate what I've been thinking for a few weeks, and compare the respective adaptations. The Final Problem is the short story in which Conan Doyle killed off Holmes by pitting him against Professor James Moriarty, in a battle of wits that eventually pitches the two rivals off of the Reichenbach falls in Switzerland, with each apparently meeting their demise.

It would be fair to say that, after The Hound of the Baskervilles, this is one of the more famous stories for those who don't have a huge knowledge of the canon, due to the ubiquity of the whole relationship between binary opposites, which is arguably based on the equally matched relationship between Holmes and Moriarty in the first place. Even Disney's Basil the Great Mouse Detective tips its deerstalker to the famous fall. But both of the adapted versions of Holmes have tackled this story relatively early, and also within a month of one another, hence my interest in comparing them, and sharing my opinions on each. Whatever I eventually decide will be as subjective as any judgement on this blog, but I feel bound to rationalise my most controversial of recent opinions- I much prefer the big screen version to its excellent small screen counterpart.

I thought Ritchie's first Sherlock Holmes was reasonable, if slightly fixated on franchise building, but the sequel really paid off on that, and I count it amongst my favourite films of last year. Conversely, I loved the first series of Sherlock, written by Doctor Who writers Steven Moffat, Mark Gatiss and Steve Thompson, precisely because it was much more clever than Ritchie's version, but found a certain amount of disappointment in the first outing of the second series, which we'll get to in a bit. I figure that the best way to do this is to break the different versions of the Final Problem into their constituent elements and directly measure them against one another. Like so--

The Great Detective- Robert Downey Jr. vs. Benedict Cumberbatch

Cumberbatch wins. I'll give Downey more quarter than to simply say that and move onto Moriarty, but come on, Benedict Cumberbatch seems born for this role. As I've said before, the big-screen Sherlock Holmes franchise is like any purist's nightmare version of Hollywood-ised Holmes, and the impressive thing is in how that doesn't get in the way of it being very, very good. And so, Downey's performance is bang-on, elevating what is basically a post-Jack Sparrow version of the detective. You barely need me to tell you why Cumberbatch is the better version, because you just have to look at him in action, all prickly and superior.

When it comes to the fall, A Game of Shadows uses another of its enjoyable spins on Holmes' fighting smarts, to show how his intellectual equal is no slacker in the art of strategic face-punching either, but his decision to sacrifice himself and Moriarty doesn't have much impact, past the film's typically cheeky resolution. In The Reichenbach Fall, it means so much more because of Cumberbatch's performance, coming after Sherlock's intellectual superiority has been utterly destroyed. However much he protests that he doesn't care what people think, his dilemma, atop of St. Bart's Hospital, is the culmination of his defeat at the hands of his greatest adversary- he doesn't have the bounce-back-ability of Downey's more impish smartarse.

The Napoleon of Crime- Jared Harris vs. Andrew Scott

The other major player in the final battle, Professor James Moriarty, is one of the most famous villains in literary history, reinterpreted almost as many times as the titular sleuth. Of A Game of Shadows, I heard some people remark that he was "Sherlock's Joker". The Joker is far from Batman's intellectual equal, so there's no way you could even tenuously call the Joker "Batman's Moriarty". It's understandable, because I'm sure that the franchise model at Warner Bros. is based in some way on Nolan's Batman movies, but I think it's Sherlock's Moriarty that bears more similarity to Heath Ledger's Joker, and others.

Certainly, it wouldn't be difficult to draw a line between the anarchistic leanings of the Joker, and the scene in which Harris' Moriarty turns Holmes' admonitions back onto human nature. He seems terribly bored of existence, and able to entertain himself by manipulating and profiteering from the opportunities he foresees. Unsurprisingly, coming from the writers of Doctor Who, Sherlock's Moriarty relates more closely to the Master, the villain who was originally conceived as an equal Time Lord opposite to the Doctor. The danger with that, as with other characters in Sherlock, is that it's a third-generation version of that character.

Want to know why I wasn't a big fan of the series opener, A Scandal in Belgravia? Because as soon as I heard Moffat was doing Irene Adler, I expected a version of River Song. If the Master is the Doctor's Moriarty, River is his version of "The Woman" and, by extension, Moffat's version. Coming after River, it feels like Irene is based on a character that was based on her anyway. Not that I prefer the film's version of Irene, who, despite Rachel McAdams' charms, is really barely there, but hopefully you see what I mean. I don't remember Moriarty ever wanting to actively destroy Holmes, except to solve that final problem of being an unstoppable force, meeting his immovable object- I think this Moriarty owes that more to the Master.

Still, I'm always up for reinterpretation, and both versions are pretty spectacular. I had determinedly reserved judgement on what little we'd seen of Scott, up until last night's episode, and he won me over completely, once he became the centre of attention. The highlight of each fall is in the conversation that precedes it, between Downey and Harris; Cumberbatch and Scott. Ultimately, although both are great, I prefer Jared Harris in these scenes. The villain's narcissism and high-faluting "respect" for Holmes makes him much more interesting to me than Jim's suicidal determination to confound Sherlock. Frankly, I don't see that he's meant to be Sherlock's Joker.

The Good Doctor- Jude Law vs. Martin Freeman

Even though I don't particularly like Law, he's never better, in my view, than when he's starring alongside Downey's Holmes. The difficulty with this showdown is that Freeman is also a superb John Watson. The difference is that Law's interplay and chemistry with Downey is often the most enjoyable part of the movies, while Freeman probably gets on better when he's not sharing the screen with Cumberbatch. At times, I feel like the movie Watson gives as good as he gets, but the TV Watson is a little more like an exasperated everyman.

However, to compare the character's roles in the two falls, I think it's the TV version wins out again. Sherlock still has the structural advantage, but it also does a better job of making the consequences feel far-reaching, and not like they'll be forgotten within a few minutes of the next adventure. Freeman gives his best performance to date, so subdued and sad, as a military man who's always kept his vulnerability quiet, suddenly left with a gaping hole in his life where his best friend should be. It would take a stony heart, to not be moved by this Watson's graveside plea- "Don't be dead."

"The best and the wisest man whom I have ever known"- The Writing

Both scripts use Watson's final line, from Conan Doyle's story, and as I've suggested, I think that each script manages to make the story fit within their own interpretations of the character, without necessarily using it to close the book. Michele and Kieran Mulroney's adaptation is particularly impressive, for being very faithful to the specifics while still being breezy, and for the superb writing of the chess scene that precedes the final tussle. There's no crappy "is he or isn't he?" cliffhanger either, and the film remains tonally intact by resolving the fall before the credits roll.

Steve Thompson's script for The Reichenbach Fall easily exceeds his previous effort, on Series 1's The Blind Banker. The Moffat protege even exceeded his mentor's effort for this season, with a compulsively forward narrative that tied up most of its loose ends and kept going for the full 90 minutes, rather than changing tack and meandering in the middle. Moffat wrote the romance, Gatiss wrote the horror, in last week's The Hounds of Baskerville, and now Thompson has shown an aptitude for the intimate epic.

The thing about The Reichenbach Fall is the way in which it seems like they were building to this all along. In a modern context, they're never going to actually plunge from a bloody great waterfall, and so the fall becomes more figurative. But the pieces have been there since the first episode, with Sherlock's dismissive treatment of the supporting cast, particularly the police, contributing to his eventual downfall. In terms of writing, Sherlock wins for making the fall something intimate and personal to the sleuth, rather than a practical solution to Moriarty's villainy, and so on points, The Reichenbach Fall surpasses A Game of Shadows.

You could have told me this all along, I imagine, but didn't I say that this would be subjective? Compared to the second series as a whole, I'll take A Game of Shadows, any day. It's inventive within its own sphere, and funnily enough, feature filmmakers don't have as much difficulty filling a feature-length as Sherlock occasionally does. The series has the best Holmes and the best Watson, but not the best Holmes and Watson pairing, and their interplay and chemistry tends to enhance the characters on the big screen in a way that another Hollywood version might not.

Each has their own distinctive house-style (on-screen texts and deductions in Sherlock, slow-motion tactical smart-arsery in Sherlock Holmes) and their own qualities, and it would be tempting to declare the versions as equally matched, as is the theme of the Holmes-Moriarty rivalry. Certainly, their reinterpretations draw from other fictional heroes- Ritchie from Batman, Moffat and Gatiss from the Doctor. All in all, I enjoy the movie version more, partially because I think that Sherlock is occupying enough of Moffat's time that it's interfering with Doctor Who. Both series ended with the hero faking his death to put an end to his own myth, and Sherlock clearly did it better than Doctor Who. And frankly, that's just not allowed.

So, while both versions are good enough to serve different audiences and still have a crossover audience, co-existing with one another rather than competing, I generally prefer the movie versions. The BBC version has gotten a lot of mileage out of its format, and given us some truly great telly moments, but I can stand to wait for the announced third series, because now that Moriarty is definitely done with, I'm not sure that there's much further it can go. I'm still chomping at the bit for a third Sherlock Holmes movie, with or without Jared Harris.

Either way, isn't it great to compare two versions that are this good? Next week- Sherlock Holmes in the 22nd Century vs. that Asylum film with dinosaurs, dragons and robots....


NerdyRachelMay said...

I’m massively disappointed that they’ve both tackled Reichenbach so early in their respective series.
I know it’s not the final story in the Conan-Doyle canon, but it’s a hugely important one, especially because *SPOILER ALERT* in the books, ‘The Final Solution’ is Moriarty’s last appearance and I’ve not seen nearly enough of Jared Harris yet (although the films aren’t staying particularly faithful to the source material, so hopefully we’ll be seeing the Prof again).
It’s like comparing a fine wine to a bottle of WKD. One has been made for a short, sharp, shock of entertainment and the other has been a more considered, drawn out, affair of the heart. It depends what you’re looking for.
Personally... I’m a bit of a wineo :-)

Jay said...

Thank you for saying the TV version dealt better with character!!!

Craig D. said...

I can't tell you how happy I am to have found this blog entry. So much hyperbolic praise is heaped upon the BBC series while the Ritchie films are so often dismissed as "big dumb action movies," which gets tiring for me to read since I consider them roughly equal in quality. I enjoy them both quite a bit, so I can't help but consider the former overrated and the latter underrated. I'll agree with anyone who calls the BBC series superior to the first Ritchie film, but A Game of Shadows is a big improvement and far smarter than it'll ever get credit for. Take, for example, the way that Holmes outsmarts his pursuers on the train. If that had happened on the BBC series, critics wouldn't be able to shut up about how brilliant it was. But it's Guy Ritchie, and he puts big action scenes in his Holmes films, so it must be dumb, right? Maybe the critics get tired of praising the BBC series so much and want to feel superior to another Holmes incarnation.

It's funny, when I saw The Dark Knight, I thought the confrontation between Batman and the Joker in the interrogation room was inspired by the meeting between Holmes and Moriarty in The Final Problem, and now the inspiration seems to have come full circle. I noticed similarities between the Joker and the BBC's Moriarty in the last episode of Season 1, both in the writing (the way that he caused all that chaos just to get Sherlock's attention) and in Andrew Scott's performance (his flamboyance in general, his way of going from cheerful to chilling within the same sentence in particular). In the last episode of Season 2, they seem to have gone even further in the Joker direction. Doyle's Moriarty considered Holmes an annoyance and wanted him out of the way, but the BBC's Moriarty is clearly obsessed with Holmes. He seeks Holmes out, enjoys toying with him, and feels bored when he's not around. I was reminded of Heath Ledger's line in The Dark Knight: "I don't want to kill you. What would I do without you?"

I don't know whether I prefer Harris or Scott, but I'm glad that they both exist. That also goes for both of their respective series in general. So many people apparently feel a need to pick sides, like biased fanboys on message boards who pledge allegiance to PlayStation or Xbox and endlessly attack the other side, but while I feel that Ritchie does some things better and the BBC do some things better, I love both interpretations and feel incredibly lucky that we have both of them at the same time.

buddy2blogger said...

Nice comparison of the movie and the BBC series. I prefer the Downey Jr's portrayal over BBC Sherlock.

Check out my review of 'The Reichenbach Fall'.


Ganieda said...

I enjoy both, but I love the Ritchie films far more than the BBC series. Why? Two words: Sherlock Holmes. Physically, yes, Cumberbatch is "more Holmesian," although he's far prettier than I'm sure Conan Doyle ever intended. But he's (so far in the series, at least) a mean, cold fish. Fangirls distracted by his looks don't seem to get this, but it's true. Downey's Holmes, while not the physical type at all, is far closer to the canonical Holmes in his actions, demeanor and motivations. He doesn't just act because he's bored. He isn't mean and rude and an ass. (Well, he's a bit of an ass.) His prime motivation all the way through is to solve the case for the sake of justice. His primary through-line in "Game of Shadows" was to save Watson and Mary and the world from death and disaster, and he sacrificed himself to do it. I don't get that from the BBC Sherlock - he's a rather shallow and annoying character and to many of us he is not "really" Sherlock Holmes. If they didn't call him Sherlock Holmes and he was just another modern BBC detective, then maybe.

Milana Paulson said...

What's two similarities with a game of shadows and the final problem?