Transformation, Adaptation, Derivation? Moffat’s Sherlock and the Art of AUs

If there’s one thing my fan friends agree on more than the fact that they love Steven Moffat’s new show Sherlock, it is the fact that it constitutes a contemporary Alternate Universe (AU) fan fiction of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s novels. Certainly, all adaptations are interpretive versions of the source text: whether you look at Michael Almereyda’s Hamlet (2000) or Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet (1996), at 10 Things I Hate About You (1999) or Clueless (1996)—all rely heavily on the source texts while nevertheless moving the characters into contemporary settings. But whereas the former quite clearly retain plot and language even as they change setting, the latter mark their liberal changes by altering the title, by clearly signifying that Patrick and Kat are not Petruchio and Kate, that Cher Horowitz is not Emma, even as the relationships and central plot show strong enough similarities to call them adaptations.

And yet I would be very careful not to call any of these films fan fiction (an argument I discuss in more detail here). But even if Sherlock is not fan fiction, it still can be read and analyzed usefully within the AU conversations we repeatedly hold within the fan community. AUs are immensely popular in many fandoms and their respective qualities are often the subject of debate. The principal danger of writing AUs is writers relying too heavily on clichés so that their characters often retain little more than their names and looks. Since the aspects that make the character recognizable to the reader are often the very elements that the media uses to create an easy shorthand, these same characterizations also tend to become overused and clichéd when they are the only thing connecting the AU character to his original counterpart. In Sherlock Holmes fiction, such easy shorthands include Holmes’ hat, coat, and pipe, all three of which appear, for example, at the end of Young Sherlock Holmes (1985), thus both signaling an obvious—if simplistic—connection to adult Holmes and giving background for his owning these objects.

Moving a story in time (in the case of Sherlock from the 1880s to 2010) requires certain adjustments and complicates the easily recognizable shorthands. The show has interestingly chosen to keep certain aspects while updating others. And in general, it is the updated elements that make Sherlock the successful AU that it is, whereas those points that mimic the original too closely and those that strike the viewer as anachronistic are the weakest elements. Translating Holmes’ brilliant deductions about John Watson from the pocket watch in The Sign of Four to his smart phone works beautifully. Having Holmes whip dead bodies to understand bruising patterns doesn’t. In a review of the first episode, Thingswithwings imagines a Holmes who is a fully translated and contemporary version: “I want him playing Queen on the violin, I want him making the obvious Princess Bride reference when offered a choice between two pills” (source).

In the end, while individual plot points, objects, and places are important for fans to recognize, the most successful approach seems to come about when the writer extrapolates the character’s underlying identity, exploring those aspects that remain the same in the new setting, and how they will manifest. It might seem important to have Holmes look somewhat similar to the way we’ve always seen him, but given his disinterest in cultural expectations, his brilliant idiosyncrasy might just as easily (and more evocatively) have been translated into subcultural hobbies or interests. But I continue to hope that Sherlock can walk that line successfully between making empty alluding gestures and getting to the heart of who Sherlock and Watson are—by themselves and to one another.