First up: The new BBC "Sherlock" series, set in today's world. Quick reaction: No. It's sometimes fun to watch fanboy wet dreams, but fails as a Sherlock Holmes update.
The Sign of the Three was both painful and hilarious. Incredibly bad fanfic, that gets the characters all wrong. Not merely outside canon, but just wrong. I don't mind expanded roles for Mary, Watson's wife, who has a medium part in the novel "The Sign of the Four" and is mentioned (sometimes by the wrong name) in several other stories. I'm not bothered by the greater shift toward Lestrade (one of several Scotland Yard detectives in the stories, and Sherlock's least respected) or Mycroft (who is very, very different physically) or an expanded role for Mrs. Hudson (who's more like Poirot's Miss. Lemon). But this British series is fanfic (which they admit in the commentaries on the DVD). I don't like fanfic. The nod to slash between Holmes and Watson is cringeworthy. Playing with the deerstalker cap is amusing, but you can't get away with such for much.
His Last Bow, the third episode of season three, was similarly awful. Completely at odds with the Conan Doyle canon and not particularly believable outside of it. they did to Mary what they had done to Irene Adler in the second season, and it just doesn't work except as fanfic. Not particularly good fanfic.
The original A. Conan Doyle Sherlock Holmes stories can be divided into two groups: The stories written until he got tired of writing them, and the later stories after he brought Sherlock back from the dead.
Here's my take: Anything after The Final Problem is not canon. I'll accept "The Hound of the Baskervilles", which was written during the interregnum and takes place before the events at Reichenbach Falls..
After resurrecting his characters from literary death, even A. Conan Doyle is inconsistent. He was tired of writing about Sherlock, and stopped for a decade, but bowed to demand. He was not pleased that "my more serious literary work" was not as popular (as he says in the preface to the last collection). In The Adventure of the Empty House, his return, Sherlock says that he has had to lay low to protect Watson from danger. The remnants of Moriarty's gang are still out there.
Let us turn away from a bored Conan Doyle and turn to a deliberate obfuscation. If you eliminate the impossible (or the inconvenient), whatever remains, however justified by a paycheck, is the truth. In the first two books, for example, Sherlock relies heavily on his magnifying glass AND his tape measure. The tape measure disappears after a while. Why would Watson hide Sherlock's methods except to make it harder for criminals to outwit him?
Most real crimes are boring to the reader. I don't mind following only interesting cases, but what they are tell you a lot about the writer and their times. In the case of A. Conan Doyle, a strong theme throughout is: People who aren't what they seem. In rigid class conscious Victorian England, reinventing yourself can lead to fatal consequences. Old feuds will catch up to you. People hide their real nature from their spouses with unintended consequences.
The Holmes stories are not precisely racist, but certainly of the times. They are full of little bits like "the Jew broker" and in The Adventure of Shoscombe Old Place "Jews" seem to be synonymous with "moneylender"; or having the "Gypsies" leave the area when a crime might be suspected of them. No Jews or Gypsies are ever shown, and no crimes or malfeasance is attributed to them. But the prevailing climate of the time is just assumed, and unquestioned. Indeed, Americans come off pretty badly. British class structure is rigid in expectations, potential advancement and intone.
Conan Doyle himself goes out of his way to be above many of the prejudices. He declares some lower class people to be fine and honest, and doesn't care a white for royalty. Much of the class structure is assumed in the post-death stories, another indication that he's playing to an audience rather than presenting cases from the Sherlock canon. Still, there are exceptions. Notably, in the story The Adventure of the Yellow Face, where Sherlock does almost nothing and doesn't advance the plot at all (his sole action is to agree with the main character). A heartfelt, anti-racist statement. On the other hand, in the last book a "masser" spouting "Negro" appears as a comic figure. In later stories, Conan Doyle gets lazier about stereotypes or brilliantly deceptive.
For all the emphasis on forensics and "new" technologies like blood typing, setting most of the stories in the 1890s keeps a certain level of atmosphere and expectation. People communicate by telegram and there are "boys" around to deliver messages. The telephone doesn't appear until the stories written in the 1920s. By this time, Holmes' cocaine addiction is replaced by tobacco in which Watson joins him.
Crime fiction, loosely speaking, falls into two often-overlapping qualities: Mysteries, where all the facts are presented to the reader, but only the hero figures out the clues. And Detective Stories, where the reader follows the action and can't be too far ahead of the characters.
Most Sherlock Holmes sties are a mix of the two. Even as a kid in Jr. High reading the collection, I felt it was cheating to use the Baker Street Irregulars or not reveal an important telegram until the end. Sure, it's fun to follow Holmes and Watson on their adventures. Holmes declares himself to be a "consulting detective" who's specialty is solving crimes from a vast database of knowledge and second-hand observation. But what makes the mysteries endue is the forensic deductions, and what makes the detective stories endure is the character of Holmes and the interplay with Watson.
In "A Study Scarlet", Holmes lays out his profession:
"Well, I have a trade of my own. I suppose I am the only one in the world. I'm a consulting detective, if you can understand what that is. Here in London we have lots of government detectives and lots of private ones. When these fellows are at fault, they come to me, and I manage to put them on the right scent. They lay all the evidence before me, and I am generally able, by the help of my knowledge of the history of crime, to set them straight . I listen to their story, they listen to my comments, and then I pocket my fee."
For a guy brags that he solves crimes by listening to people in his chair, he goes out a lot. Very few of the stories, as related, fall into the "consulting detective" mien, at least as described in the first Holmes story. Perhaps they weren't as interesting, so Watson didn't chronicle the cases of lesser instruction.
Further, for a medical doctor, Watson seems to have a lot of free time, and has someone who can cover for him at the drop of a hat. Precisely what the good doctor does is rarely mentioned more than in passing.
Many of the Holmes stories have the culprit nabbed, who then tells a tale. Too many stories, and three of the novels, are largely narrations of other people, featuring neither the London crime nor Holmes and Watson.
"The Hound of the Baskervilles" remains the quintessential Sherlock Holmes story, even though he's offstage for much of it. Certainly, the most adapted into other media. My theory: Of the novels, "HotB" is the only book that's actually a mystery all the way through. The other three novels have Holmes solve the crime, and the rest of the story is told as a confession by the culprit. It's got atmosphere and moors and a big dog, and plenty of clues that Holmes AND the reader know. Partially, I think, it's popular because it came out after Holmes was officially killed off and the public was clambering for more. And partially because, in my theory, it serves as coda to the Holmes canon. Anything after "HotB" is part of the deliberate obfuscation that keeps Watson safe and Holmes methods harder for criminals to circumvent.
In rereading "The Hound of the Baskerville" more than forty years after the first time in elementary school, I was struck by one curious aspect: One of the key clues is Holmes' ability to recognize the fonts used by London newspapers, in particular he recognizes Times Roman. I wonder how much that had to do with my interest in Desktop Publishing, and why Times Roman remains one of my favorite serif fonts to use.
While I haven't seen all the adaptations of the Sherlock Holmes canon and beyond, I've seen a lot of them. The best interpreter: Jeremy Brett, by a lot. Many other actors have done very well, but Brett seems to have captured the intelligence, intensity, humor and distance of the canon stories. Holmes has to be physically striking yet malleable enough to assume many disguises well enough to fool even Watson. He has to be driven, not by money but by boredom. He has to be respectful of accomplishment but dismissive of pretense.
Meanwhile, as Watson I like Bilbo, er Martin Freeman. The whole point to the sidekick being a doctor (A. Conan Doyle was a doctor, and based Holmes on his mentor) was to put Holmes on a plane above a well-trained intelligent man. The Freeman Watson is an army doctor, wounded in Afghanistan, who appreciates Holmes as only an intelligent man could. Therein lies the friendship between Sherlock and John. I didn't like the Basil Rathbone adaptations for that reason; Nigel Bruce is a fine actor but Watson isn't a bumbler. Lucy Liu as Joan Watson in "Elementary" is closer in spirit: Feisty, loyal, intelligent and wants in on the action.
Honorable mention: They Might Be Giants; touching and brilliant. Some of the other movie variants were okay too, but they are all either satire or unabashedly homage. They are reinterpretations of the canon stories. Such a deliberate twist is features in Without A Clue where Watson is the brilliant crime solver who hires someone to play his fictional detective (an idea adapted later for "Remington Steele").
The updated Holmes stories, set in present times, always have one odd anomaly: No one seems to have read A. Conan Doyle. It's one thing to 'reboot' the series, it's another to pretend that the annals of crime do not contain century-old cases. In many of these shows, I would prefer that they aren't reimaging Sherlock Holmes but do something similar, with a nod to the originals, and just keep going from there.
Still, credit where credit is due: "Elementary" gets a lot wrong, but gets a lot right. Sherlock Holmes sounds more like Sherlock Holmes than usual. The nods to the canon stories are fun but fleeting. Joan Watson is intelligent and adds to the investigations. To be sure, the misses are striking. Jonny Lee Miller is physically wrong for the part. The attempt to introduce Mycroft failed. But for the most part, "Elementary" doesn't try to graft the 1890's onto the 2010's, and the show is closer to "The Mentalist" or "CSI" than any fog-enshrouded Victorian recreation.
So I'll keep watching "Elementary" and even the BBC series if it gets to a fourth year, but my disbelief suspenders are stretched. But I wish modern adaptations would pay closer attention to the canon stories than to the wet dreams of fanboys. There is a reason that people still read Sherlock Holmes and not the "more serious" works of A. Conan Doyle. Please don't throw that away.