After seeing far too many reactionary posts, mostly about Sherlock or Elementary, though recently too about Sleepy Hollow, saying “it’s this way [white, straight, etc] in the book so get over it,” I decided it was time to write a quick post with my opinion on the point of modern adaptations of older works. This is a subject that’s close to my heart; I’m actually a little bit obsessed with the process of adaptation. But just to reiterate: this is my (very strongly held) opinion, YMMV.
When deciding to adapt an older work and set it in the modern era, it has to be about more than just seeing beloved historical-fictional characters use cell phones and wear jeans. Setting a work from another historical era in our time means the whole work—the characters, the plot, the relationships—have to undergo a process of translation, not just transportation. For me, the translation has to operate on two levels: narrative and ideology.
If I translate a work written in a foreign language, I can’t just literally translate every word (= google translate), but have to rearrange words, and sometimes depart from literal meaning, to make it understandable to a contemporary English speaker. The same is true for adaptation of narrative. Let me use a quick example of what, for me, constitutes a translation success and a translation failure.
1. Translation Success: Sherlock’s drug use in Elementary. In the 19th century, cocaine and morphine were legal, and people could be casual users, even if medical professionals knew about the effects of, and frowned upon, excessive use. To make modern-day Sherlock a casual user of cocaine and an opiate like morphine (heroin? oxycodone?) looks very different from 19th century Holmes doing the same. Elementary chose a likely ‘translation’ of Holmes’ drug use into the 21st century: the path of addiction and recovery, that is a common one in our era (less so in the 19th century). Sherlock’s relationship with drugs has thus been “translated” into a discourse we’re familiar with, which to me = translation success. (The same can be said for BBC Sherlock’s decision to have Sherlock use nicotine patches—a stimulant—instead of cocaine.)
2. Translation Failure: In the Charles Augustus Milverton story, Holmes gets engaged to one of Milverton’s employees to learn about and gain access to his home. In Sherlock, the exact same thing happens. Why isn’t this a translation success? I think it’s a mistranslation because it is too equivalent. “Engagement,” here, is a ‘false friend.’ It would be like translating the French word blessé as “blessed” (instead of wounded). Why? Because engagements in the 19th century were basically the practice of courtship between men and women at the time. You don’t have dating, fooling around, moving in together, etc. like you do today. If you want to be intimate / get close to someone of the opposite sex, you’d better get engaged. Obviously, this is not true today. And so it made no sense that Sherlock was “popping the question” after about 1 month of casual dating (…which is also why so many viewers assume that Janine was in on it / had a secret plan of her own). 19th century engagement ≠ 21st century engagement.
A bigger and more important issue is how ideology—overt or ‘subtextual’—is handled in the modern adaptation. One big example of this is ACD Holmes’ casual misogyny. I say ‘casual’ because he treated women well, but he nonetheless thought of them as entirely ‘other’—almost a different species, and he didn’t really care to get to know them any better. He claimed to not know how their brains work, etc. To make Holmes that type of misogynist today is, I think, another “false friend.” It would turn him from a very typical upper-class English man of his time to part of a bigoted minority, even among most moneyed, white cis het men today. And so Elementary chooses to do away with this trait of Sherlock’s altogether—a wise choice. And BBC Sherlock goes the opposite direction, making Sherlock, arguably, an equal-opportunity hater, more of a misanthrope than a misogynist.
But ideological translation is really the point I want to dwell on in this post, because it speaks directly to the “it’s not in the book!” type of complaint. If you aren’t interested in questioning, reconfiguring, or modernizing the ideologies of the source text, I would ask: what the point is of adapting it in the modern era altogether? If you’re not doing this kind of ideological translation, your modern adaptation is nothing but a gimmick.
Let me use a (fandomly controversial) example: the relationship between Holmes and Watson in the stories. Whatever may have been possible or impossible during ACD’s time, the fact of the matter is that today, two men living together as close companions for over a decade is not ideologically neutral. It invokes all kinds of queer politics. I think modern adapters, therefore, have to make a choice, rather than play it as amorphously and ambiguously as ACD did. If you’re adapting in the modern era, it forces you to speak now what was previously unspoken or unspeakable.
Along slightly different lines, there were all kinds of assumptions and ideologies about empire, nationality, and race, especially in Victorian era Britain. To keep those ideologies in place in a modern adaptation is to actively make a conservative statement, even if it was “like that in the book.” To make of point of being inclusive of racial diversity, or to reconfigure who is supposed to be at the top of a political hierarchy, is to make a progressive point with your adaptation, to suggest that we are doing or can do better on these fronts than they did back then. There is no “neutral” choice: you are making a statement either way.
And this is where we can bring Sleepy Hollow in as well, even though it’s a much, much looser adaptation than any of the Sherlock Holmes ones. Because if “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” was a silly story about white people, courtship, and money/inheritance during American Revolutionary times, then the tv show in season 1 was about exploding not only those myths, but American myths about the Revolutionary time period in general. (to greater and lesser extents—it’s still problematic.) And, as the show has moved closer to the original story in centering all the action on Ichabod and Katrina, it was moved farther away from what many of us (including myself) believe was the point of the adaptation in the first place: to re-explore a foundational moment in the American past through the lens of a contemporary, more inclusive, ideology.
In sum: I do realize that these modern adaptations are meant to be, above all, entertaining. But to me there has to be more to it than that, otherwise, why change the setting? Why mix it up? New Victorian Holmes adventures would also be entertaining! If you set a beloved story from the past in the present, I believe you do it in order to say something about—and to—the modern era. The question is: what are you trying to say?
“What’s the Point of Modern Adaptation,” ©violethuntress, originally posted on December 11, 2014