The national excitement over Sherlock is finally dying down now. Were we all so thrilled because it's the best programme the BBC have put out since Being Human? Because Benedict Cumberbatch is curiously sexy? Or because its success was such a surprise after all the nay-saying that had been going on from the hardcore fans who did not want a single inflection changed from Arthur Conan Doyle's original, let alone a entire era? And why is it that these days people seem to rank an adaptation by how faithful it was to the source material? Any attempts to change original are met with outcry (in the case of The Golden Compass the complaints were justified, but others actually improved on the source material, as with Watchmen’s ending). But why the resistance to change, especially since in recent years modernised classics have actually been better than their stodgy, faithful counterparts?
People have been putting Shakespeare into the modern day on stage and screen for years without anyone complaining. Back in 2005 the BBC screened its Shakespeare Retold season, a series of modern day updates of his plays, which turned Macbeth into an angry chef (played by James McAvoy, no less) and Much Ado About nothing was transplanted into a news studio. These were inspired by the success of the BBC’s Canterbury Tales two years earlier, which put Chaucer’s 14th century stories into settings including a karaoke bar and touched upon such modern hot topics as illegal immigration. But perhaps Shakespeare and Chaucer are far enough in the past now for audiences to see them as fairy tales and parables, classic story structures ripe for updating.
More recent are Jane Austen’s novels. It feels like every year we get a new Austen adaptation and every one of them involves bonnets and breeches. It’s a shame since Clueless is possibly the best screen adaptation of Emma that I’ve ever seen and ITV’s Lost in Austen was an absolute joy, treading the fine line between honouring the subject matter but still having fun with it. And of course Pride and Prejudice is still the template for just about every modern romantic comedy made, with Bridget Jones and Bride and Prejudice being the two that most readily admit to it.
Steven Moffat, one of the writers behind Sherlock has priors in this field. Back in 2007 he brought us Jekyll, a modern day twist on the classic story. A sequel more than an adaptation perhaps, and one that had mixed results, but its innovation was never in question and the modern setting worked to its advantage. In the same year ITV brought out a modern day Frankenstein, written by Jed Mercurio and turning Dr Frankenstein into a female geneticist.
Why do people insist on revering these old stories to such an extent that we set them in stone? These novels and plays are classics for a reason, and a dodgy adaptation here and there, faithful or otherwise, will hardly dent their reputation. So why not have a little fun with them? I'd love to see a modern day Oliver Twist addressing the problem of homeless children. Or Dr Faustus as a politician selling his soul to the devil to become Prime Minister. Or maybe even Tess of the D’Urbervilles re-imagined as a Kill Bill-style bloody revenge thriller...