Making the Old New, Again

Since I’m working on a contemporary adaptation of an historical work, I’ve  developed a supernatural interest in how other artists update creations, from the past, especially literary ones. The main object of my obsession right now is a show called Sherlock that debuted earlier this year. If you haven’t seen it yet, it’s brilliant – all the stuff you expect from BBC original productions, that is to say stellar acting, editing, music, and all-around poshness. They also nail the melancholic treated-glass blue of Prince Charles’s postmodern London.

Sherlock title still

Sherlock title still from the BBC

(Because of what I assume is some silly trans-Atlantic licensing issue, if your IP address is U.S.-based you can’t watch episodes on the BBC’s site, so check it out here instead. And anyone who’s found a better place to get it please let me know in the comments!)

BBC One's Sherlock Holmes and John Watson

Anyway given my selfish motives the thing I’m most fascinated by about the show is how the creators have taken Arthur Conan Doyles’s classic texts and transported them to  a 21st-century urban setting. Sherlock just feels cool and glossy and sexy in a way that speaks to our hyper-connected culture without being precious or annoying.

Of this effort Steven Moffat, one of its co-creators and writers says,

Conan Doyle’s stories were never about frock coats and gas light; they’re about brilliant detection, dreadful villains and blood-curdling crimes – and frankly, to hell with the crinoline. Other detectives have cases, Sherlock Holmes has adventures, and that’s what matters.

I think that’s the key question to keep asking myself as I’m working:  what is Gogol’s novel about? That’s the cynosure, to use a word from before even Sherlock Holmes’s time, to keep one eye on. My other eye can then stay on the scenes as I write them, and be thinking about the essential element common to all good fiction. Which is, as Anne Lamott wrote in Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life, that “[t]he material has got to work on its own, and the dream must be vivid and continuous.” I’ll do my best to describe this translated dream, and hopefully you guys will tell me when I go cross-eyed.

p.s. I draw the line at Darren Aranofsky’s Black Swan. There’s no way you could pay me enough to go see that totally tweaked Swan Lake takeoff.

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