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A Study in Pink

This is the BBC, modern day adaptation of Sherlock Holmes, starring Benedict Cumberbatch as Holmes and Martin Freeman as Watson.

The plot sort of follows A Study in Scarlet but there are a lot of changes. A lot. So many changes that to say more would spoil it for those who haven’t seen it; but let me just say that if you were in STUD for the Mormon bashing, then you’re going to be very disappointed XD

So for this, I will just talk about the characters and themes and how well they have been adapted for a modern setting.

These are just some quick thoughts that I had jotted down then shaped into a vaguely coherent structure. There aren’t really any spoilers, especially if you're already familiar with the canon.

Apologies for babble.



Characters

Since it’s a very good place to start, let’s start at the beginning. We have the flashback scenes of the war in Afghanistan, reminiscent of the BBC radio adaptation, although, unlike that version, we are not shown Watson’s own injuries. Instead we see a man with what looks like PTSD, reliving those scenes in his dreams. A few shots of Watson sat alone on a bed in a depressingly gloomy and basic room shows us the bored, aimless Watson from the book, who describes himself as “leading a comfortless, meaningless existence...” He’s been told by his therapist that he needs to keep a blog (get it?), which remains empty. Watson needs excitement; that much is evident.

His meeting with Stamford is just as awkward as I always imagined it, with Stamford (ever the civilian) not having one clue how fighting in a war might affect a person. I think even fewer people in this day and age really know anything about war, as you’re less likely to know dozens of people who have served in the armed forces than in Doyle’s day. And maybe it has changed him, for this Watson is a rather dark character, perhaps darker than anyone else has chosen to play him (although compared to Holmes he still comes across as the friendly, sociable one). We find out through the course of the episode that Watson misses the war, misses the excitement. Long term fans of the stories won’t be surprised by this, but I’ve never seen it so explicitly portrayed.

And we are introduced to Holmes when he is...yes, beating a cadaver. I’m sure fans of the book were/would be as overjoyed to see that scene as I was. To those new to the stories they are introduced to the dark Holmes very early and not just in the short, corpse beating scene. In this first episode we see his selfish side (as he abandons Watson at a crime scene once he gets a lead), the fact that he not only thinks of other people as being idiots, but actually calls them idiots to their faces and also the suggestion that Holmes is merely a killer in the making. It’s something that is mentioned in the books; even by Holmes himself on occasion (although they say he would make a good criminal rather than suggest he is a psychopath who will eventually escalate to being a murderer). In this episode, Holmes describes himself as a “high functioning sociopath” (although I’m sure he wasn’t being serious). It plants the idea in the audiences’ mind; just how far will Sherlock Holmes go to feed his addiction for excitement, making Holmes an 'unknown quantity'. This addiction replaces his original addictions from the books, but more on that later.

The Holmes/Watson relationship develops along similar lines to the book; wariness leading to interest leading to admiration and then onto friendship. The key to the success of their relationship is their shared addiction to excitement, the idea that neither one would really fit in anywhere else, but somehow they work well together. We have a wonderful scene in the beginning that suggests that Watson is the first person who is not only willing to put up with Holmes, but the first person who is not put off by Holmes’ talents. It appears that previously he may have annoyed/disturbed people with his deductive reasoning. Again, it was nice to see it so explicitly referenced.

Watson: Amazing!
Holmes: That’s not what most people say.
Watson: What do they say?
Holmes: ‘Piss off’, mainly.

They have cleverly got round the fact that Holmes and Watson could really not afford to live in Baker Street in the 21st Century. Holmes did Mrs Hudson (Una Stubbs) a favour (I won’t spoil it for you, guys), and therefore she gives him a discount. It also establishes, not only Holmes’ career so far, but also that Mrs Hudson, although merely his landlady, is probably prepared to go that extra mile for him (albeit reluctantly). After all, a modern landlady would not do all the things the Mrs Hudson of the books did. I liked this Mrs Hudson, she was funny, with her constant “I’m not your housekeeper” and them ignoring her and asking for stuff anyway.

And then we have Lestrade (Rupert Graves) who, despite the fact that they pronounce his name wrong as ‘Lestrahd’, I was very impressed with. Lestrade is exactly what he’s meant to be...conventional (shockingly so), and he has the fraught relationship with Holmes that we have come to expect.

Holmes: Shut up.
Lestrade: I didn’t say anything.
Holmes: You were thinking. It’s annoying.

He is clearly someone who suffers Holmes’ presence because he has to, because he needs his skill, but there is a hint that he sees something in Holmes, something that has taken him five years to see maybe.

Watson: Why do you put up with him?
Lestrade: Because I’m desperate, that’s why... He’s a great man and, one day, if we’re very, very lucky, he might even be a good one.

(In case you’re interested, yes, I still ship it).

There are also some interesting characters within the police, who are suspicious (and more than a little put out) by Holmes’ involvement in these cases. Although I have always felt a little bit sorry for the police in the stories (basically having some autistic savant calling them morons and making fun of them in the press), I didn’t feel sorry for these characters. There was something petty about them, which makes them all the more interesting, of course. Look out for the press statement scene with the mobile phones, it’s very funny.

Also, Mycroft has been made slightly more awesome. To say more would spoil the story, but he’s awesome.

21st Century-isms

Firstly, there were simple little adaptations; a pocket watch = a mobile phone, maps etc are now all online and on mobile phones, that sort of stuff. Those little things do make a difference though, and it's sort of fun to spot what those items were replacing in canon. The pocket watch/mobile phone replacement is something to watch out for, if you're a fan of the books.

Of course the biggest changes came in regards to people’s attitudes (and changes in society and law). With drug use and smoking being so frowned upon these days, a hard smoking, drug addicted modern day hero is not necessarily an easy thing to get past the TV regulators. Holmes actually mentions how difficult it is to be a smoker in London these days, which is quite true.

So Holmes focuses by wearing three nicotine patches at once (which would make you pretty spacey, to be fair, but then so would three pipe-fulls of strong tobacco). It’s a bit silly, really; although it does make for a nice scene where he and Lestrade compare nicotine patches. But there is still a hint that he takes drugs. When the police are doing a drug search (you really have to see this show), Watson is protesting that Holmes couldn’t possibly be a drug user, and Holmes basically tells him that he’s making a fool of himself. It makes a good point though. A lot of people take drugs. Good people, bad people, clever people, well functioning people. Holmes' relationship with drugs (in the books) is very unhealthy though.

Anyway, the danger of life as a consulting detective is his drug of choice in this adaptation, and really, I suppose it was in canon, too. Cocaine was always just a poor substitute.

The thing I liked the most (and not just for shallow, shippy reasons) is the fact that everyone assumes that Holmes and Watson are a couple when they first meet them; Mrs Hudson asking if they need the second bedroom, the man at the restaurant thinking that Watson is Holmes’ date. And why wouldn’t they make that assumption? Two men living together, two men going to a restaurant together? I’m not saying you can’t do this as just friends, but in an age of open homosexuality, why wouldn’t they assume that? After all, they would assume they were a couple if one of them was a woman.

They also establish straight away that Holmes’ sexuality is a mystery (perhaps even to himself). I saw an interview with Steven Moffat, who said that no one really knows where Holmes’ interests lie, if they even lie anywhere at all. It was a good to hear, especially from the man who has famously sexualised the Doctor throughout the new Doctor Who series. I actually rather like it being mysterious in canon. Also, why shouldn’t asexuality be represented on screen?

The conversation between Holmes and Watson in the restaurant is reason enough to watch this show.


Verdict

Really, really good. Cerebral, but fast paced; this is the jumpy, overexcited Holmes from A Study in Scarlet, but neater and more austere the recent Robert Downey Jr. Holmes. It says a lot about the universality of Holmes that he so easily slots into modern day society, as do all the characters.

It’s enjoyable and, although I can only speak for my own interpretation of canon, in-keeping with the original tone, even though it is faster and slightly darker. The changes to the story didn’t bother me at all (mostly because I don’t find STUD to be a terribly good story and would be impossible to retell in a modern setting). The characters are pretty near the mark for me, which will always be my reason for watching.

You really do have to see it.

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