I am not certain that it would be possible to produce an historically accurate adaptation of the Arthur Conan Doyle stories for film. I am quite sure that no one knows what such a thing would look like or whether it would be of any value. To pull it off one would have to know how much more about how Doyle himself imagined the character than the text can tell you, which is difficult. One would also have to present London as it looked to Doyle, which is probably impossible. That is because it would have to look like it really did and at the same time it would have to look fresh and impressively modern. History does impose some limitations on the viewer, and writing is abstract in ways that film is not.
I am a big fan of The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, starring Jeremy Brett, as readers fond of the Doyle stories tend to be. Someone with more knowledge of Victorian interiors than I will ever have can judge the historical accuracy of the sets. However, as I argued in my review of the Robert Downy Jr. big screen adaptation, Brett's Holmes was not Doyle's Holmes. The Granada Television series was highbrow film making, whereas the original stories were popular entertainment; likewise Brett's Holmes walked about in what were, to our eyes, museum settings, whereas Doyle's Holmes inhabited the same London as his readers. The Brett series was superb precisely because of its distance from the original text.
Tonight I watched the first episode of Masterpiece Mystery's new series, Sherlock. Benedict Cumberbatch's Holmes lives in 21st century London. He has a website. He manipulates the bad guy by sending cryptic text messages. That is enough, I am guessing, to turn a lot of traditional philoholmesians into seething Moriarties. It is defensible, I would argue, as the only alternative to the Museum exhibit approach.
I was completely unprepared for how good it was. I would go so far as to say that it was one of the most exciting things I have seen on TV since Deadwood. The action was perfectly composed, and nearly every bit of dialogue from beginning to end was delicious. Just as good was the story, which rivals, I think, the plots of the original stories. There is a reason for all of that. Sherlock is the creation of Mark Gatiss and Steven Moffat, who were writers for the incomparable Dr. Who series.
"A Study in Pink" begins with brief scene of battle. John Watson (Martin Freeman) has just returned from serving his country as an army doctor in Afghanistan, an element of the first Sherlock Holmes story that history has been kind enough to repeat. He is somewhat haunted by his experience there, though the nature of the haunting is something that Holmes understands better than Watson's therapist. Holmes and Watson meet in a scene lifted right out of "A Study in Scarlet".
Meanwhile, Inspector Lestrade holds a press conference. Three Londoners with no obvious connection have committed suicide, all of them consuming identical poison from identical small bottles. "Suicides can't be linked," exclaims one reporter. "Well, obviously they can!" Lestrade replies, while pulling his cell out of his pocket. The text message reads: "you know where to find me. SH."
What follows is the most delightful kind of mystery: you care about the characters but you also want to know what the hell going on. I will only tell you that the climactic moment is unusually satisfying, intellectually and emotionally.
Cumberbatch (there's a British name for you!) and Freeman certainly offer us novel interpretations of the original characters, but they are interpretations that build on Doyle's original genius. That is what passes for virtue among actors. When a forensic pathologist calls Holmes a psychopath, he replies:
I am not a psychopath, Anderson. I'm a high-functioning sociopath. Do your research.
Sherlock is brilliant. The second episode debuted tonight. If you like great TV, or Sherlock Holmes, or both, don't miss this one.