February 13, 2014
“Elementarno, my dear Watson”
by Wah-Ming Chang
Supplementing my fascination with the canine, hotel, and bobsledding shenanigans in Sochi and of Pussy Riot‘s Brooklyn appearance, I’ve been dipping into two Russian Sherlock Holmes small-screen adaptations, as well as finally reading the stories in order of publication.
Recently the first three episodes of last year’s Russian Sherlock Holmes, set in Victorian London, have become available in English—“Baker Street 221B,” “Rock, Paper, Scissors,” and “Clowns“—with the rest of the thirteen to be translated soon.
In the first episode, the two heroes meet for the first time: the twitchy, nerdy twenty-seven-year-old Holmes (Igor Petrenko) immediately recognizes the value of the army veteran John Watson (the late Andrei Panin), here at age forty-two the better boxer and determined to make his living as a doctor and a writer in his new home. In the second episode, the flatmates have solved enough cases for Watson, himself by now attached to the routine of deduction and crime-solving, to label their adventures “enthralling”—and his publisher, unimpressed with his sentimental poems, encourages him to write about the eccentric detective instead.
In these two episodes, the key bits of the Sherlock Holmes canon are established and, as is the rule, slightly tweaked: Holmes is brilliant, though his violin and boxing skills are atrocious, and he has yet to be introduced to a pipe. And this older Watson shows his toughness and loyalty poignantly, yet always seems to be distracted by or processing something other than the case at hand. So far, so good for a new series about the most-portrayed literary human character in film and television.
It’s in the third episode where the Russianness begins to feel absolute and a little startling. Along with the requisite afternoon teas, Big Ben gonging in the background to cue to a new scene, and sniggering jibes at all things French, the characters insist on using such English honorifics as “Mister,” “Miss,” and “Doctor”– and to hear the full-throated Russian actor cry out “Mee-stair Sherrrrr-luck Holm-zuh” is both jarring and delightful. Meanwhile, in a small scene, a ruined genteel young woman pouts with the posture of a jagged tree as she receives crap news about her lover. And we have Holmes and his ex-fiancée, the wily Irene Adler, pouring their very Russian hearts into several scenes of passionate dialogue, expressions, and rescue scenarios, altogether abandoning any sense of English—or, rather, Holmesian—reserve and control. In this Sherlock Holmes, pride is embodied not through a stiff upper lip but through impulsive gesture and emotion.
Compare this version to the earlier Soviet one produced by Lenfilm Sudio from 1979 to 1986, Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson, a series of five films broken into eleven episodes. Holmes is played by the great Vasily Livanov, who became an Honorary Member of the Order of the British Empire for his portrayal of the detective, and Watson the chronicler is played by the handsome Vitaly Solomin.
This adaptation, also set in Victorian London—and whose look reminds me of Andrei Tarkovsky‘s gauzy Polaroids — adheres more closely to the original stories than Petrenko and Panin’s adaptation. (We can say the same of Granada Television‘s The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes [1984–1985] being truer than the BBC‘s frenetic Sherlock [2010–present], or of Sherlock being truer than CBS‘s New York City–based Elementary [2012–present]).
Some argue that Livanov is the best Sherlock: his Holmes is laconic in his deductions, his reserve and boredom expressed with modesty and a faint irony. And Solomin’s Watson, similar in height and build to Livanov except for the distinguished mustache, is a study in independence. You may never see Watson having a life outside of 221B Baker Street—after an initial skepticism, like most variations of Watson, this one soon unquestioningly sides with and attaches himself to Holmes—but inside the house, especially in the first episode, when he is acclimating himself to Holmes’s eccentricities, his life is self-contained. Seated at the dining table in an early scene, Watson is framed by the breakfast before him and by the staircase behind him, and as he picks apart his deviled egg, he tries to ignore the curiosity aroused by Holmes’s ragtag collection of visitors. The scene is shot with such patience, and a pleasure in this patience, that all subsequent framings of Solomin hint at an intriguing complexity within Watson: he is brave and shrewd, his eyes constantly surveying Holmes’s clients and the landscape for danger; yet even when he has misjudged a situation during a particularly dangerous adventure, his interiority is complete.
Do the Russians do it better? Well, Sherlock Holmes can and should be adapted anywhere and by any accent, for the characters and mysteries are all familiar.
The Chinese film The Bullet Vanishes, starring Lau Ching-wan as a Sherlock-type detective and Nicholas Tse as his kinda-sorta Watson, was modeled after Guy Ritchie‘s action-adventure adaptation: a mystery appears, and the pair, forced to work together, get to show off their respective special talents—the unconventional deductive skills of one and the shoot-first-ask-questions-later brawn of the other. (I’d be glad for a sequel or a series starring these two, even though the film ends not-so-positively for Tse’s trigger-happy detective.)
And Elementary, at first resisted by Sherlock Holmes fans but which has steadily gained a loyal following, shines in its own way: once you take Holmes out of London, and force him to solve crimes within the format of a forty-five-minute police procedural, the characters are free to become variations of Sherlock tropes rather than the representations themselves. So here, Holmes is a recovering drug addict and flees London for New York City, and Watson—first name Joan—is a disgraced Asian American doctor hired by Holmes’s father to act as the detective’s sober companion. Oh, and at some point she sleeps with Mycroft. Oh, and the characters of Irene Adler and Moriarity are combined to serve as both love interest and archenemy. Did I mention that Joan sleeps with Mycroft?
This is all fine in the end. Arthur Conan Doyle‘s most famous character will always be adapted on the screen (House M.D., Psych, and Monk as prime examples), for Sherlock Holmes belongs to all and should be interpreted by all. So long as the game is you-know-what.
Wah-Ming Chang is the managing editor of Melville House.