The Science of Adaptation. "A Study in Scarlet" and "A Study in Pink"

Term Paper, 2014

24 Pages, Grade: 1,0





1. Adaptations and BBC’s Sherlock

2. A Study in Scarlet || A Study in Pink
2.1 Watson and the War
2.2 Sherlock and Science
2.3 Detectives and Dynamics

3. Modernization and Americanization


Works cited


“ Holmes is dead, ” he said. “ I have done with him. ” (“Conan Doyle Dead From Heart Attack”)

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle must have felt, at times, like the sorcerer’s apprentice in Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s famous poem, unable to rid himself of the spirits he had con- jured up. The Scot’s literary oeuvre comprises up to 200 individual publications, ranging from historical novels like Micah Clarke (1889), the science fiction classic The Lost World (1912), poetry and a wide selection of short stories to non-fictional works on spiri- tualism, colonial Africa and memoirs. (Keulks) But the diversity of the Conan Doyle canon reflects not only the author’s eclectic intellectual interests and approaches to his profession, but also attempts to counteract the popularity of one specific brainchild: Sher- lock Holmes. (Keulks) It might not be quite how the author had hoped to be remembered, but the adventures involving the sleuth and Doctor Watson ensured that his literary leg- acy continues to thrive and inspire the works of others to the present day.

On the following pages one particular piece of proof for Holmes’ continued popularity, the immensely successful television format Sherlock, is examined by putting it into con- text with other, preceding types of Conan Doyle adaptations and comparing the 2010 film version of the detective’s first case, entitled A Study in Pink, to its source text. After focusing on the representation of the main characters and their defining traits in both me- dia forms, as well as the relationships they share with each other and supporting charac- ters that appear over the course of the story, the paper then adds final remarks on the process of modernization and cultural modification of not only Conan Doyle’s A Study in Scarlet and its protagonist, but also the contemporary movie series for an American audi- ence.

1. Adaptations and BBC’s Sherlock

Between Arthur Conan Doyle’s written words and Sidney Paget’s accompanying art, which introduced memorable details like the deer hunter cap and a meerschaum pipe (Keulks), no other fictional figure has come to shape the predominant image of the classic detective across all borders of time, language and culture as much as Sherlock Holmes. Adaptations of the characters, single narrative strands or entire stories for the stage and modern media keep introducing entire generations of crime fiction fans to the Holmes verse (Keulks) and now perhaps more than ever during the last 80 years the thirst for new material among the audience is undeniable. (Porter: “Introduction” 2, 5) In re- sponse to this Conan Doyle’s descendants entrusted the reputable English writer and Sherlock Holmes devotee (Kennedy) Anthony Horowitz with the canonical characters, assigning him to the task of putting forth the first official new detective story with them. (Porter: “Introduction” 3) The House of Silk was released in 2011 and has John Watson narrating what is described as the duo’s shocking last case. (Porter: “Introduction” 3) Because the novel was well-received by fans and critics alike Horowitz obtained the Sir Arthur Conan Doyle Estate’s blessing for a second book set firmly within the Sherlock Holmes universe: Moriarty is scheduled for publication in October 2014. (Flood)

However, since all stories serialized prior to 1923 are no longer protected by copyright authors do not need such formal approval to adapt these works or use them as a basis for their own Sherlock tales anymore. (Usborne; Porter: “Introduction” 4) In similar fashion new narratives have been written for other media as well. Dynamite Comics offers a se- lection of graphic novels like The Trial of Sherlock Holmes (Moore and Reppion 2009) and Sherlock Holmes: The Liverpool Demon (Moore and Reppion 2013) that unfold their story in a series of five books each. (Porter: “Introduction” 4) Frogwares has created a line of adventure video games for the personal computer and assorted entertainment sys- tems entitled The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes (Porter: “Introduction” 4), which cur- rently consists of nine instalments with a new case for the detective and his partner being prepared for release in September 2014. (Sherlock Holmes: Crimes & Punishments) An- other example for a cross media reworking of Conan Doyle’s characters and plots is Neil Gaiman’s short story A Study in Emerald (2003), which draws on the classic A Study in Scarlet (1887) to transport Holmes and Watson into a science fiction environment (Porter: “Introduction” 3) and then in turn inspired a board game of the same name, published in 2013. (“Treefrog Games: A Study in Emerald”)

The history of Sherlock adaptations for cinema began in 1905 with the American produc- tion The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes and covered ten other movies until the 1930s. (Porter: “Introduction” 8) The end of this decade marked the beginning of Basil Rathbone’s run as the famous detective in a line of 14 films that debuted with an adapta- tion of The Hound of the Baskervilles (1939) and came to a close with Dressed to Kill in 1946. (Porter: “Introduction” 8) Many of the scripts were adaptations of at least one ca- nonical Holmes story per film, others were written as original quests with a contempo- rary touch. (Macnab) Even though Rathbone eventually left the production because he was unsatisfied with the quality of the material he remains one of the best-known classic Sherlock actors. (Macnab) In the following years acting legends like Christopher Lee, Roger Moore and John Cleese often helped to create novel interest in the detective and Jeremy Brett became the first widely known Sherlock Holmes performer in a line of movies produced for television in the 1980s and 1990s. (Porter: “Introduction” 6, 8-9) But these translations of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s stories into the language of moving pictures did not generate an audience and media reaction as significant as the response to the most recent additions to the onscreen Sherlock verse: Guy Ritchie’s Hollywood pro- ductions Sherlock Holmes (2010) and Sherlock Holmes 2: A Game of Shadows (2011) and the television format Sherlock (2010-). (Porter: “Introduction” 10)

While the American films retained the traditional timeline, the British Broadcasting Cor- poration (BBC) series made a point of establishing the dynamic detective and doctor team in the 21st century while still remaining as faithful as possible to the adapted novels and short stories. Created by Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss, Sherlock stars Benedict Cumberbatch as Holmes and Martin Freeman as Watson. (Thorpe) The project was ini- tially conceptualized and bought by the network as a one hour drama series setup, ar- ranged to premiere with a Pilot episode in 2009. (Daily Telegraph Reporter) Yet after a first glimpse at A Study in Pink had been introduced to the officers in power at the BBC, Gatiss and Moffat were asked to revise their plans and aim for 90 minutes movies instead. (Lawson) This format proved to be a major success and thus far a total of 3 seasons with 3 episodes each have been produced and shown in over 200 countries (Porter: “Process” 124), with Sherlock ’s recent adventures even topping a list of the most watched drama programs in the United Kingdom since 2001. (Jones) But the television series not only serves the BBC well in terms of ratings. It also has an effect on the book market. Since A Study in Pink premiered in England and paved the path for subsequent episodes of the show, the amount of classic Conan Doyle novels star- ring the Watson and Holmes duo sold in Great Britain increased by almost 200 percent. (Stone and Allen) This figure does not, of course, include the equally impressive sales numbers of the so called tie-in novels produced in direct response to the Sherlock enthu- siasm. Reprints of works like The Sign of Four (Conan Doyle: Sign) and His Last Bow (Conan Doyle: Bow) were updated with introductions written by the series’ creators or actors and feature the popular acting pair Cumberbatch and Freeman on their covers.

Further merchandise articles that speak of the hype surrounding this particular Holmes adaptation include a companion book (Jones: “Sherlock The Casebook”) and a mobile application entitled Sherlock: The Network. (Jeffery) And an end to the Sherlock phe- nomenon is not in sight since the BBC has already renewed the series for a fourth season (Brown) and the writers claim to have plans for at least three more episodes beyond that. (Jones: “Sherlock”)

2. A Study in Scarlet || A Study in Pink

2.1 Watson and the War

Like many screenwriters before him, Steven Moffat had to decide if and how Sherlock would address the source text’s specific narrative situation. The decidedly personal per- spective Sir Arthur Conan Doyle had relayed on, employing the character Doctor John Watson as a homodiegetic, I-as-witness first person narrator, has no exact counterpart in cinematic modes of storytelling. Because the camera assumes the position of the focal- izer Sherlock adaptations for the big or small screen must work with filmic tricks to pay respect to Conan Doyle’s novels and their literary means of presentation. The voice-over is a common technique which takes the audience into a character’s head by allowing for thoughts and feelings to be expressed verbally, in addition to or as a comment on the events caught in moving pictures. Watson’s introduction to the reader in A Study in Scar- let could easily serve as such a narrated initiation in a film adaptation, but the Sherlock masterminds chose to take a different approach.

A Study in Pink opens, perhaps unexpectedly for a Sherlock Holmes movie, with scenes of war. The first 13 seconds are dominated by sounds of explosions, gunfire and footage of soldiers in combat, intermitted by quick shots of a sleeping John Watson. When the character in question jerks awake and sits up in bed, the viewer is able to make sense of the context and realizes that he has been privy to the innermost workings of John’s mind, which took shape in a nightmare. (“A Study in Pink” 00:01-00:33) As a point of entry into the world of Sherlock Holmes this, too, proves to be a very personal form of narra- tion and for a brief moment it even showcases the action through Watson’s eyes in a fig- ural sense. But it is more than homage to the character’s task of relating the story of A Study in Scarlet to the reader. Additionally, it also introduces his military background, covered extensively in the first three paragraphs of the novel (Conan Doyle: Scarlet 5-6), and suggests that the participation in a war has scarred John on more than one level. Not only is he emotionally so affected by the dream that it leaves him crying and incapable of going back to sleep (“A Study in Pink” 00:30-00:45), but his glance towards a cane lean- ing against the furniture at the other side of the room hints at physical injury as well. (ibid. 00:48-00:56) Another zooming shot reveals the emblem of the Royal Army Medi- cal Corps on a cup Watson carries to the table with him in the morning (“A Study in Pink” 01:12-01:16) before he sits down and opens a website entitled The Personal Blog Of Dr. John H. Watson on his laptop. (ibid. 01:17-01:28) In less than two minutes and through entirely nonverbal means the film therefore succeeds in incorporating all key facts that Arthur Conan Doyle wrapped up in more than one page worth of writing. Wat- son is a medical doctor and veteran who was wounded during his time of service in the British armed forces and is now struggling to adapt to life after the war again. (Conan Doyle: Scarlet 5-6) Coincidentally, given the development of recent political and military history, Steven Moffat could even refer to Afghanistan as the source of John’s traumati- zation just like Conan Doyle had already done in 1887. (Scarlet 5) One of Sherlock ’s accomplishments is thus the portrayal of John Watson as “a sympathetic modern charac- ter who might be a returned veteran like someone viewers know in real life” (Porter: “Process” 114-115) while still remaining faithful to the over one century old literary foundation.

It is nevertheless hardly surprising that novel and movie differ with regards to the repre- sentation of Watson’s symptoms and the treatment he receives for them. After all medi- cal-scientific knowledge has gone through leaps of progress between the late 19th and the early 21st century. While Sherlock notes that his companion’s shoulder wound remains a handicap that affects the doctor’s posture (Conan Doyle: Scarlet 18), the major cause of discomfort or worry throughout the course of the novel is the state of his “nerves” (ibid. 10). Early on John describes how he used to consider his life pointless and had trouble keeping it organized on a financial level because this feeling made him spend his money too freely. (Conan Doyle: Scarlet 6) Apart from such signs of what would nowadays be described as a depression he is sensitive towards all types of noises and other distur- bances (Conan Doyle: Scarlet 7), struggles to stay motivated (ibid. 10) and finds his re- sources of mental and bodily strength to be in a state of lacking. (ibid. 35) Since psychol- ogy and psychoanalysis did not become established separate branches of medicine until the 20th century and the traumatization of combatants gravitated towards broader public consciousness only after the end of the First World War, A Study in Scarlet cannot be expected to apply the now familiar health terms to Watson’s illness. But it is noticeable that the veteran also receives no forms of treatment beyond the past, immediate care for his gunshot wound and the fever that plagued him to ensure his survival. (Conan Doyle: Scarlet 5-6) Afterwards his only attempts at self-therapy are limited to copious amounts of rest (Conan Doyle: Scarlet 35), conversations with Sherlock (ibid. 36) and attempts to sleep through the night. (ibid. 40)

The premiere episode of BBC’s Sherlock came into existence during an era that was very familiar with the concept of post-traumatic stress disorder and therefore connects John Watson and this condition, based on his exposure to military conflict. He is still troubled by his experiences and reacts with a sudden outburst of anger when the landlady of 221B Baker Street, Mrs. Hudson, makes a reference to his leg and how it explains Watson’s relatively low level of activity compared to the ever moving Sherlock. (“A Study in Pink” 16:15-16:35) Besides his limp, he suffers from an “intermittend tremor” (“A Study in Pink” 39:45-39:50) in his left hand, which his therapist considers a psychosomatic side-effect of his traumatization. (ibid. 39:45-39:55) Sherlock claims that the same is true for John’s problems with his leg as well and the doctor is in fact not at all physically handicapped. (“A Study in Pink” 11:30-11:34) And at the very end of the film a conver- sation between the new dynamic duo reveals that while Watson was indeed shot during his time Afghanistan the bullet actually hit his shoulder and not one of his lower limbs. (“A Study in Pink” 1:26:30-1:26:43)

The more surprising twist in A Study in Pink is, however, the apparent cure for most of John Watson’s issues. Although he receives professional help the veteran places very little trust in its success and blames the lack of entries on the blog that is meant to help him ease back into life away from the army on the fact that nothing ever happens to him. (“A Study in Pink” 01:30-02:04) His time in London is shaped by loneliness until a chance encounter with an old friend leads to his acquaintance with Sherlock Holmes (“A Study in Pink” 07:12-11:55) and the involvement in detective work. But while Conan Doyle’s Watson has a hard time stomaching the new exposure to crime and murder after what he remembers of the war (Conan Doyle: Scarlet 36), the protagonist in BBC’s Sher- lock assumes correctly that the promise of dead bodies and human tragedy is in fact ap- pealing to his housemate and convinces him to join the detective at the crime scene.


Excerpt out of 24 pages


The Science of Adaptation. "A Study in Scarlet" and "A Study in Pink"
University of Frankfurt (Main)  (Institut für England- und Amerikastudien)
Crime Fiction
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ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
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Sherlock Holmes, Sherlock, Arthur Conan Doyle, A Study in Pink, A Study in Scarlet
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Anonymous, 2014, The Science of Adaptation. "A Study in Scarlet" and "A Study in Pink", Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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