Literary characters being transposed on TV or the big screen are being redefined by legions of followers

By Vir Sanghvi

Published: Fri 14 Mar 2014, 2:52 PM

Last updated: Tue 7 Apr 2015, 10:57 PM

Imagine that even if you have not seen the third season of Sherlock, you have read about the first episode. The show is a homage to the Arthur Conan Doyle stories, but it takes the titular character and places him in today’s London and turns Watson into a veteran of the British army’s latest adventure in Afghanistan. In this version, Watson does not write up Holmes’ adventures, but blogs about them.

The show is a global hit, I suspect, because of the star quality and charisma that Benedict Cumberbatch brings to the title role; though one or two ladies of my acquaintance claim that it is Martin Freeman (the little guy from The Hobbit) who plays Watson, that they find most attractive. I’ve written about Sherlock before, so I won’t bore you with more details of the plots or the episodes themselves. My concern is with the Sherlock phenomenon rather than the show. At the end of Season Two, Sherlock Holmes seemingly plunged to his death after a final confrontation with Professor Moriarty.

It was a take-off on an original story in which Holmes and Moriarty both fell to their deaths in the Reichenbach Falls. Conan Doyle had tired of Holmes and fully intended to kill him off. But such was the public outcry that he was forced to bring him back. Holmes duly turned up in London and explained to a baffled Watson that, at the last moment, he had executed a judo-like move and thrown Moriarty into the water instead.

Nobody was convinced by the explanation. But, what the hell? It was good to have Holmes back. The problem facing the writers of the modern Sherlock was that everyone knew about the original Conan Doyle ploy to bring Holmes back from the dead. So the challenge was not to “kill off” Holmes (we expected that), but to do it a manner that seemed entirely convincing before explaining, at the start of Season Three, how Sherlock had faked his own death.

Because there was quite a large gap between the airing of Seasons Two and Three, a whole Internet industry grew up around the how-did-Holmes-fake-it conundrum. Followers of Sherlock are now media-savvy (Twitter explodes each time a new episode is telecast) so the obsession with Holmes’ fake death became a web phenomenon.

I won’t tell you how Sherlock fooled us all (no spoilers here!) but the fascinating thing for me was how the opening episode of Season Three gave the Internet speculators a role in the script. The episode contained many theories about how Holmes could have done it, borrowing from the Internet speculation, before finally telling us the real story.

What the TV show writers were doing was accepting that fans have an important role to play in the shaping of popular fiction in today’s age of new media. It is an interesting acknowledgement. But the phenomenon of fan-fiction has been around for some years now.

When Conan Doyle wrote the original Sherlock Holmes stories, Holmes was his creation and his property and he could do what he wanted with him. But in the years since Doyle’s death, the character has become the property of hundreds of scriptwriters who have used him in stories of their own invention that have little in common with Conan Doyle’s vision. Nicholas Meyer took Holmes to Vienna to meet Sigmund Freud in the Seven Per Cent Solution; Guy Ritchie’s movies have turned Holmes into Tony Stark, as Robert Downey Jr now seems able to only play Iron Man; and so on.

Till about a decade ago, the assumption was that if you took a much-loved character (Superman, James Bond etc) and put him in the hands of an accomplished writer, either a hack or a literary figure, only then would justice be done to the character’s persona. So the first script for the 70s Superman movies was written by Mario Puzo. The first non-Ian Fleming James Bond novel was written by Kingsley Amis before a spy story-hack called John Gardner was drafted to write some entirely forgettable novels.

But now, TV, books and the movies are all following the lead of the comic book industry. Almost all the writers who work on the Superman and Batman books these days grew up as fans of the original comics. Because they understand the characters’ DNA, they create new updated versions. In TV, the process began with the reboot of Dr Who by Russell T Davies who brought a fan’s approach to the iconic children’s TV character. Dr Who is now in the hands of the same writer as Sherlock (Mark Gatiss) and he brings a fan-boy approach to both characters. The Twilight series has fan sites where anyone can post their own stories featuring the characters (which is how Fifty Shades of Grey started out before becoming an entirely distinct publishing phenomenon). Every fan who believes that he or she understands a fictional character has the means to get thier version out to a wider audience.

The phenomenon is already in existence. The significant feature of the first episode of Season Three of Sherlock is that, as befits a show written by a fan in which Dr Watson is recast as a blogger, the contributions of Internet fans is tacitly acknowledged in the script.

So, where will all this end? My guess is that as self-publishing takes off and as copyright becomes harder to enforce in the digital age, everybody is going to be an author. Rather than trusting Batman, James Bond or Tarzan to the owners of the copyrights, the digital world is going to hand such iconic characters over to the people who understand them best — their fans.

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