Thinkin’ About Adaptations
I remember being still in school, and going to see a movie called Clueless with all my friends. I sat there enjoying myself and then slowly, slowly it started to dawn on me that I KNEW THIS STORY.
SARAH: Guys guys guys! This is Emma! It’s Emma!
SARAH’S FRIENDS: What’s that? Blithering as usual…
(Emma! It’s Emma!)
I was the only Jane Austen fiend among my friends. But they certainly started to pay attention when I began whispering the plot twists.
They thought I was psychic.
I am a Jane Austen fiend, and I have watched almost all the adaptations I can think of of her books—but Clueless remains, I think, with some fierce competition from the BBC Pride and Prejudice, my favourite Jane Austen adaptation.
Because I am a writer, and because I am a ferocious reader who goes loopy and starts reading cereal packets without regular books, I think about story a lot—and a lot of stories are riffs off ideas, themes, tropes, and sometimes riffs off specific stories. I generally go to see movies adapted from books because I’m curious about what they’re going to do with them. It’s fun to see different imaginations shaping a story.
So I watched both Sherlock Holmes films, and I’ve watched a good bit of Sherlock, too.
I didn’t intend to watch ‘Elementary,’ an American modern version of Sherlock Holmes’s adventures, because I’d heard it described as the American version of Sherlock. No, thanks, said I to myself! I am not American, my books aren’t American, and I don’t see any reason that stories need to be changed just to be American and therefore relatable.
I’m currently at a writing retreat: last year I brought DVDs of a British dark fantasy show called Misfits, and all my Americans loved, loved, loved it. No need to American it up!
But… always a need for a good adaptation.
A rule of good adaptations for me… do something new, do something cool, do something different because you are working in a different space/time/medium/philosophy from the original. Make people have fun and make them think. (Those two goals really should be the goals of all good media, of course…) I mean, one of my long-cherished projects has been to write a modern Pride and Prejudice with a gay storyline.
My new favourite show is an adaptation of a classic story (the Count of Monte Cristo) modern’d up and with a lady lead.
So yesterday, looking up from my computer where people assumed I was Virtuously Working, I totally blew my cover by announcing ‘LUCY LIU JUST GOT CAST AS DR WATSON!’
The doctor’s in the house.
And instantly, Casa Writing Retreat to a woman and a man, all of whom are writers or artists (Holly and Theo Black, Paolo Bacigalupi, Cristi Jacques, Cassie Clare, Josh Lewis and me) was in.
Because hey, something new and cool! Something that indicated the people making it were thinking of ways to make it their own, and thus more entertaining. Because if we want the same thing over and over, well, nobody has to go to the bother of making a whole show/movie/writing a book. Amazing ‘rewinding’ and ‘re-reading’ technology has been available for ages.
So I happy-clapped and tweeted my joy, and received… mixed responses. And I was entirely freaking confused by said responses.
1) It will be TOO DIFFERENT from and against the spirit of the original.
Oh, okay. I guess that’s why everybody hates that show Sherlock, where they moved the story a hundred years in the future and solve so many crimes with modern technology…?
2) It will be just like every other show! Cynical grab for cash!
It will be just like every other show with a lady of colour front and centre? Because there are… so many more of those shows than white guys…? There are so many more ladies of colour who are huge box office draws as compared to those poor white guys?
It will be just like every other show with an interracial couple (platonic or otherwise) front and centre?
Is everyone watching TV in Opposites Land? Can someone give me a TV subscription in Opposites Land? I can think of a couple of shows that fit this description, but very, very few.
Besides which, speaking of being like every other show, it’s not like we’re short on bromances. Which brings me to my next point…
3) Le Bromance!
Hey, I am all in. I love a bromance. I wrote a whole trilogy devoted to a bromance! I generally like a bromance which also has a lot of time for the ladies, but… bromance. Sure. In. I love friends, I love family, I love people of whatever gender and in whatever relation to each other having loving complicated relationships!
(Aw, look. Those vampire bros love each other.)
But we have, like, out this very year just gone by, two different Sherlock Holmes franchises separately doing the shimmy and crooning along to ‘Guy Love.’
Nobody is tearing Starsky & Hutch, Supernatural, Sherlock, the Sherlock Holmes movies, House (which is in fact just another version of Sherlock Holmes, and also centers on the bromance of Two White Guys), need I go on, out of anybody’s arms. But a third version of Sherlock ‘I Love You Man’ Holmes in the space of two years sounds a bit like ‘For the Lord’s sake whatever you do, it’s gotta be all about dudes, all the time!’
And it’s not like bromances are doing badly commercially, either.
4) It’s… homophobic to cast Lucy Liu as Watson…
I would like media to be less sexist, less racist, and less homophobic.
Having an Asian lady instead of a white dude as a lead character gives me at least some of that.
Less homophobic, well, I don’t know yet about Elementary, but Holmes and Watson are not portrayed as openly gay in any adaptation I’ve seen. You cannot ‘straighten up’ something that does not contain a gay storyline to begin with! (We don’t even know whether or not they are going to put Lady Doctor Watson and Sherlock in a romantic pairing.)
I am all in for Lady Dr Watson/Sherlock True Love if they do it well, and I am in for just friendship. Romance is awesome. Friendships, also awesome.
I’ve also seen it suggested that Watson had to be cast as a woman because American audiences wouldn’t be comfortable with gay subtext. I think that anyone who has seen the Sherlock Holmes films with Robert Downey Jr. and watched more than an episode or two of House will agree that American audiences appear to be fine with gay subtext and Sherlock (in fact, see above point regarding bromances). Both the TV show and the movie are wildly popular successes. I think the creators of this show wanted to do a new thing — not had to, but wanted to. And that’s fine.
Gay subtext fine with audiences, who can enjoy it or not notice it… gay text happens less.
I would be all in for gay Sherlock/Watson (guys or girls) too! I haven’t at any point got it in a movie or a TV show, but I am all in. I own and have read A STUDY IN LAVENDER, a book of short stories where Arthur Conan Doyle’s characters are gay. (I recommend it highly.)
I would be all in for girl Sherlock and boy Watson. I would be all in for girl Sherlock and boy Watson.
All those things would be great things to do, but this thing they have done is a great thing to do, too. And I am all in for the girl Watson we have, and I think it’s especially cool she’s a lady of colour.
I actually saw pictures of the three Watsons, with a note saying ‘One of these things is not like the other.’
One of these things is not like the others? And a good thing too.
To summarise again my Rule For Adaptation: All things new again. Don’t do the same thing over and over, do something new with the material… and do it well.
A show with a girl Watson automatically being regarded as going to be worse than a show with a boy Watson… is very close to saying that girls are not as good as boys.
Is Elementary going to be good? I don’t know. Maybe not! But something I do know… I’m going to watch it.