Hello! I hope you’re well. I’ve been to Grimsby. And Sheffield. I know how to live. I break my silence to deal with the five million or so posts that have been brewing over the summer. Naturally, the first is a rant about telly.
NOTE: given the spike in traffic, I think I should point out that this was written before seeing the preview, i.e. about my concerns re: the casting, rather than as a review of Elementary. I hope that clears things up!
I welcome adaptations of books that take the canon as a point of departure, rather than a blueprint. I may disagree that Elizabeth Bennett would ever have neglected her fringe, or played with pigs, but I will duly defend to the rights of writers and film-makers to jazz up, bastardise, queer, chop, and mess about with well-known literary works. This is probably why I enjoy studying Shakespeare in performance.
My views on adaptation particularly apply to radical re-imaginings of Sherlock Holmes: after all, if you don’t enjoy one version, there’ll be another along in a minute. There are three Sherlock franchises current in live media: BBC Sherbatch, the US Elementary, and the Robert Downey Jr. films. The original works by Conan Doyle are readily available, as are the ITV Granada adaptations with Jeremy Brett (the nearest thing to the books-in-motion).
Of these five incarnations of Holmes and Watson, the most recent, CBS’s Elementary has caused the greatest ructions by making the Watson of their New York-based adaptation a woman. Specifically, the Watson we’ll meet on 27 September is played by the Asian American actor Lucy Liu.
I am very happy for Watson to be a woman; it’s part of my broader policy of thinking we’re a good thing. Woman-as-sidekick is not exactly new or progressive (hat-tip to a British show where the profession of doctor-as-in-Doctor remains exclusively male), but, nevertheless, as a proud proponent of the feminist agenda, I’m excited by the story that could be told here. Conan Doyle’s John Watson is invalided out of the war in Afghanistan as a hero. Lucy Liu’s Watson is then, surely, the following: a woman of colour serving her country as an army doctor, thus succeeding at the apex of two historically racist and sexist institutions. Subsequently, she’s a veteran (presumably with physical and/or emotional challenges) adjusting to civilian life. A slightly less familiar trope than deerstalkers and seven per cent solutions.
Except Liu’s Watson isn’t going to be a hero. She’s been struck off. So instead of the Asian, female professional and military hero returning to metropolitan, post-injury life, we’ve got a woman of colour who failed at her own profession (most probably via malpractice, gross misconduct, or a bigoted conspiracy) who – don’t despair! – finds new meaning as the helpmeet, conscience, caregiver and chronicler of a stroppy, white male genius without emotional IQ or social graces, but who does have a privileged background and an addictive personality. Great.
I don’t need another incarnation of the female helpmeet who’s privileged to chronicle and mediate the unacceptable behaviours of a difficult male, and whose own achievements get forgotten as a result. Watson should be Holmes’s Boswell, not his Henrietta Bowdler, Dorothy Wordsworth, or Mary Shelley.
I’ll end by saying that I would be completely delighted to be proved wrong, and would rejoice in a new series that queers sex and race while triumphantly evading the depression of having Liu fall victim to the dynamic of male genius vs. female acolyte. Jonny Lee Miller played an absolutely splendid Byron – let’s hope Watson isn’t lost in the myth of the Byronic male.
Dr Sophie Duncan is Fellow in English at Christ Church, University of Oxford. She works regularly as a historical advisor and as a dramaturg for theatre, TV, radio and film. She likes theatre, detective fiction and cocktails.