Saturday, May 18, 2013

Sherlock Holmes, King Arthur, and the nature of adaptations


Okay, so a season's time has pretty firmly cemented my adoration for Elementary. I have therefore spent the last few days scouring the internet for other people who love it (tumblr is good for that), and in the process, I've discovered a whole bunch of people critiquing it--as well as Sherlock and the Guy Ritchie movies--for deviations from canon. The most recent target of this kind of critique is the revelation that--SERIOUSLY, YOU GUYS, SPOILER--Elementary's Irene Adler, the love of Sherlock's life, is in fact Moriarty. Lots of people have loved this, but there's a subset who hate it. There's a subset of people who hate Sherlock and a subset of people who hate the Guy Ritchie movies, and they hate them because they don't seem to align with Arthur Conan Doyle's canon. Irene Adler isn't a villain, people say. Sherlock isn't emotional, people say. Watson is competent, or isn't competent, or is more of a doctor, or is more of a veteran, or likes Sherlock more, or likes Sherlock less, people say. (People are kind of unsure about Watson.)

I find this both interesting and incredibly irritating. Let me explain.

For the past several months, I've been teaching a class on the Arthurian legend. The basic question of the class was this: What makes a story Arthurian? We looked at sources from Geoffrey of Monmouth in the 12th century straight on up to BBC's Merlin. We examined the tradition of each major character, and we examined the ways those traditions have changed over time.

So let's take Morgan le Fay. I think it's fair to say that the average person, in as much as they know anything about Morgan le Fay, knows that she's a witch and knows vaguely that she's a bad guy, or at least in opposition to Arthur. In BBC Merlin, she's a troubled but basically good young woman turned evil witch; in Starz Camelot, she is Arthur's scheming half-sister; in both the Marvel and DC comics, she's a seductive supervillainess. There are other modern adaptations--usually feminist ones--that make her a hero or at least an ambiguous character, but her default state in the cultural consciousness is "villain."

There's a long tradition of Morgan as villain, dating back to French romances of the middle ages. But the tradition of Morgan herself is older still; the character appears, in one form or another, in works as early as Geoffrey of Monmouth's Vita Merlini, circa 1150. But in Morgan's earliest appearances, she is not a villain. She's a healer and a priestess. Though she retains these qualities to some extent in later versions, Morgan's villainy was fundamentally a distortion of her character.

Of course, Arthurian legend is riddled with examples like this. The story of King Arthur has been told approximately ten million and five times, and no two adaptations present the characters and the story in exactly the same way. Over the course of a thousand years, every element, from cast and theme straight on down to plot, has shifted drastically.

I think that when some people hear about a Sherlock Holmes adaptation, they think of it the way they think of a film adapted from a book. They think about it like Harry Potter--if the films had made Hermione into a cunning villain, there would have been a revolt.

They should be thinking about it like King Arthur. Yes, unlike Arthurian legend, there is a single canonical source for all Sherlock Holmes adaptations. But the stories have been told thousands of times in endless contexts. The characters occupy a different space in the cultural consciousness than they do in the original stories. They're more legend than fiction, now. New adaptations do not merely draw from the stories; they draw from the legend. New adaptations do not merely retell the stories; they expand, explain, and adapt them.

Perhaps, after all these years, it's time we let them.

Monday, May 13, 2013

I'm actually a big fan of Clara's style.

Okay, so I sometimes mention that I'm not a huge fan of Steven Moffat. It's possible that there's a huge long post about that coming one of these days, but for now I have a brief example that I think is hard to argue with. Even if it's also unbelievably trivial.

The most recent episode of Doctor Who, which I was mostly very fond of, ends with a little monologue from the Doctor to himself about Clara.

In the Doctor's monologue, he says this of Clara:
A mystery wrapped in an enigma squeezed into a skirt that's just a bit too... tight.
Now. You may think I'm about to go on a feminist rant, and while that would be a valid direction, that's not my real problem here.  Here are Clara Oswald's outfits from "The Bells of St. John" to "Nightmare in Silver," excluding the Victorian dress from "The Crimson Horror."

"The Bells of Saint John"

"The Rings of Akhaten"

"Cold War"


"Journey to the Centre of the TARDIS"

"Nightmare in Silver"

Now, as you can clearly see, Clara doesn't wear tight skirts. She wears floaty skirts. Steven Moffat (or maybe Neil Gaiman, the episode's writer--either way, Moffat signed off on it, but please let this have been Moffat's addition to the script) just wanted to make his little mildly sexist joke, and contradicted established characterization to do it.

Mildly sexist jokes aren't worth contradicting established characterization. If you absolutely must make one, why not say Clara's skirt is just a little bit too short? That at least aligns with some recognizable version of reality, even if it's still, you know, sexist. And wrong.

(P.S. Clara Oswald is super awesome and would definitely agree with this post.)