Granada’s version of the Sherlock Holmes stories was broadcast on Britain’s ITV between 1984 and 1994; its 40-odd episodes make it one of the most comprehensive adaptations of Doyle’s narratives, with only 18 stories left untouched. (Interestingly, “A Study in Scarlet”, the first story in which Holmes and Watson meet, is not among the adaptations.) Granada’s versions are faithful renditions of Doyle’s narratives, rich in period detail, and interpreted with a somewhat pedestrian and measured pacing. The title sequence, above, signals this fidelity in its bustling nineteenth-century street scenes, in which the recognisable motifs of carriages, street urchins and the classical theme music encode periodicity while Jeremy Brett’s Holmes watches London knowingly from his window. Its camera follows a series of micro-narratives in relatively long takes, set formally apart from each other by the freeze-frames of the titles, and unambiguously promising narratively-focused adaptations which will be conventional in format and reverential in tone.
CBC’s Elementary premiered in 2012, and is not strictly an adaptation of Doyle’s stories; rather, its contemporary New York setting hosts a relatively standard detective procedural in which names and some elements of the characters’ identities and relationship are echoes of the Victorian texts. There is no attempt to replicate the plots of specific stories, and invocations of detail from Doyle’s narratives are minimal and fleeting; it’s interesting primarily for its genderbent Watson and for the centrality of the drug addict motif in its characterisation of Sherlock. The title sequence largely avoids the location- or character-specific feel of either Granada or the BBC’s Sherlock, with theme music which retains classical/orchestral elements while being recognisably updated to modern title music conventions. In the Rube Goldberg contraptions of the sequence we are invited to focus on the notion of detection itself as the interpretation of a chain of cause and effect, while motifs in the machine – pistols, blades, swinging weights, the destruction of a china head and the eventual cage which falls to enclose a plastic model of a man – evoke the notions of destruction and murder as well as the capture of the criminal. The rolling glass ball comes to embody the inexorable processes of Sherlock’s interpretations, linking elements in a chain while also participating inevitably in their unfolding effects. New York, unlike the centrality of London in the Granada or BBC versions, is a final and momentary freeze-frame, signalling the urban environment of the detective procedural while explicitly distancing its version of Sherlock from Doyle’s.
The primary effect of Sherlock‘s intro sequence is of fragmentation: we are presented with fleeting images, often in extreme close-up, with a recurring motif of London street-scenes from unlikely angles, and with speeded-up action. Like much of the cinematography in the series, this attempts to encode something of the information overload which apparently characterises Sherlock’s own experience of the world. London is clearly an essential element in the series, as are notions of observation and visuality – images include an eye, Sherlock looking through a magnifying glass, his face reflected multiple times, and a view through a microscope’s lens. The theme music is more modern in feel than that of either Granada’s series or Elementary; its drum beat is urgent and contemporary even while its orchestral framing operates as a marker of quality. The momentary images and use of both overlay and extreme close-up set the tone for the cinematic framing of the series as a whole, and we are warned to expect something very different in terms of pace and focus to Doyle’s stories, even while the emphasis on London, both a contemporary and a historical space, insists on the lineage of the series.