This review contains spoilers.
A Study in Scarlet is one of the least adapted stories in the Sherlock Holmes canon. Like most of Conan Doyle’s novel-length adventures, its bipartite structure resists dramatization. The first half of the story depicts Holmes’ investigation; the second half, the murderer’s confession, the tale of a past wrong avenged. Consequently, there are very few screen portrayals of Holmes and Watson meeting for the first time.
A Study in Scarlet, 1887
So I was surprised that Steven Moffat’s script for last night’s Sherlock followed its Doylean source material so closely. We got John’s meeting with Stamford, Sherlock’s beating of corpses, his deductions around Afghanistan, John’s gradual comprehension of his room-mate’s profession, the murder in Lauriston Gardens, the fruitless chase after a cab, the identification of the cabbie as the murderer, and his terrifying choice of poison pills. Also, I failed to notice a particularly skilful pun on the word ‘ring’, noted by Tom Sutcliffe in today’s Independent here.
For the obsessive aficionado (that’s me), there were a wealth of Holmesian in-jokes, often playing with Conan Doyle’s notorious inconsistency. So we found out that Mrs. Turner lived down the road from Mrs. Hudson, that Sherlock knew a waiter called Billy, and that John’s wandering war wound was a symptom of his PTSD. There were more straightforward quotations as well, like naming one victim James Phillimore and using the wonderful telegram from The Creeping Man : “Come at once if convenient – if inconvenient come all the same S.H.” Sadly, these quotations were sometimes diluted by the updating. Slice it where you like, “The game is on” just isn’t as dramatic as “The game is afoot”!
Like the Universal Rathbone-Bruce films which inspired this series, A Study in Pink boldly stole and reframed detail from the original adventures. However, it also demonstrated its awareness of previous adaptations. In interview, Moffat and Gatiss have mentioned their love for The Spider Woman (1944) and The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes (1970). From the former comes the idea of serial suicides, from the latter Mycroft’s recasting as a sinister representative of the government.
The Spider Woman, Roy William Neill, 1944
I was especially impressed by the two central performances, and am excited to see how they will develop over the coming weeks. Freeman was intelligent and empathetic as John Watson. By structuring his entry into Sherlock’s world as a move from ennui to action (wonderfully realized in the transference from crutch to service revolver), the script gave us a compelling reason for his becoming part of this partnership.
Cumberbatch is potentially one of the great Sherlocks. Physically perfect for the role, the planes of his face convey the detective’s strangeness and inscrutability. Importantly, though, Cumberbatch isn’t a cold fish. We frequently see Sherlock excited and amused, allowing us to understand his passion for the grotesque. Also, I covet his coat enormously.
Unsurprisingly, Moffat chose to leave the second part of A Study in Scarlet alone. However, this left the motivation of the murderer weak. While Conan Doyle’s cabbie was full of pathos, Moffat’s is an arrogant psychopath bordering on cliche. It was difficult to believe the connection to Moriarty, which came off seeming like a tenuous attempt at arc-building.
While I liked the use of Mycroft, I had a major problem with the casting of Mark Gatiss. Maybe it’s just that I can’t separate him from The League of Gentlemen in my head, but I felt that his performance was horribly arch. It was as though he was playing ‘sinister’ in a comedy skit. And giving Gatiss the final line of the episode smacked of self-indulgence, which certainly wouldn’t have been the case if they’d just used another actor.
Some of the hyperactive editing and emphatic ‘whooshing’ on the soundtrack during action sequences (I’m thinking of the chase after the cab) was annoying, and I think this might have been better as a 60-minute episode. Nevertheless, I don’t want to end on a negative note. The next two episodes take The Dancing Men and The Bruce-Partington Plans as their starting points, both of which are much better stories than A Study in Scarlet. I’m looking forward to seeing how the series progresses!
I’ve chosen to avoid talking about the updating of the character in this review as I’ll be writing a guest blog on the subject for the indispensable Sherlocking later this week. Please do let me know what you thought about A Study in Pink by leaving a comment below!