Elementary (CBS 2012-). Arrow (CW 2012-). Game of Thrones (HBO 2011-). These recent American television programmes are all based (to varying degrees) on texts rooted in cult appeal, around particular fan communities, and with different claims to authenticity and fidelity with their core texts. Where Game of Thrones makes a direct claim to adapting a specific book series in its title sequences, Arrow and Elementary are best described as interpretations of an existing character and / or a fictional universe rather than a strict ‘adaptation’ of a single text. What all three share, however, is an (occasionally playful) awareness of how television adaptation must depart from its source material for budgetary, creative and performative reasons.
Elementary is the New York-set interpretation of Sir Arthur Conan-Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes’ universe and stories. Almost a year in, it is clear this is not the lawsuit-inducing carbon copy of the BBC’s acclaimed Sherlock (2010-) that was feared, but is instead a formulaic police procedural that follows in the footsteps of CSI: Crime Scene Investigation (CBS 2000-) and House, MD (Fox 2004-12), two shows that featured Sherlock Holmes-esque lead characters and strong female partners / foils for that central figure.
Unlike Sherlock, Elementary has (as yet) offered no direct retelling of a Conan-Doyle story, operating instead as a modern-day narrative extension, where Holmes’ (Jonny Lee Miller) previous experience as a consulting detective for Scotland Yard is used to fuel a narrative back-story around the supposedly dead Irene Adler (Natalie Dormer), British assassin Colonel Moran (Vinnie Jones), and the mysterious mastermind Moriarty who Holmes, in this iteration, has yet to meet. For Elementary, then, knowledge of Holmes’ Victorian source material is reduced to the protagonist’s colourful baggage, allowing the show’s procedural format to foreground more regular American cases, locations, concerns, and actors. Adler, Moran and Moriarty (and thus Holmes’ past) only become central in sporadic sweeps-led episodes, rather than the bulk of the series.
Although this case-of-the-week structure conforms nicely to Conan-Doyle’s original serial publishing schedule, Elementary has lacked the strict deductive approach seen in the original stories and relies instead on the traditional approach of detective stories from the past half-century. Logic, deduction and aloofness have given way to random guesswork, luck and petulance, and the switch to a female Watson (Lucy Liu) does little to increase that character’s agency, particularly as it downplays the established professional military-medical man background with an ex-medical past and less well-defined ‘sober companion’ role. The casual misogyny of the show’s opening episodes worked to reduce the friend / sounding board role that Watson traditionally displays and, while that has evened out as the show progressed, the writers and performers have yet to find a way to adapt (or interpret) the close working relationship of the stories. As that balance is central to Conan-Doyle (and the better adaptations thereof), the show’s imbalance favours Holmes (and Miller’s theatrical performance) but reduces the impact of the series as a whole.
Arrow has fewer problems with its central character, if only because the original comic book hero has, unlike Holmes, shifted and changed over the years. In Arrow, D.C. Comics’ character Green Arrow is playboy millionaire Oliver Queen (Stephen Amell): shipwrecked on an island, he grows up, ‘finds himself’, learns how to survive (including fantastic bow-and-arrow skills) then returns to his home to fight crime as a hooded vigilante (the show is as diligent at avoiding the title ‘Green Arrow’ as Smallville’s (CW 2001-11) was at avoiding the name ‘Superboy’). Despite those similarities to Smallville, Arrow’s interpretation of the character takes most of its inspiration from Batman Begins (Nolan, 2004) and Lost (ABC 2004-10): from the former, the brooding central figure who learned from martial arts/pseudo-terrorist figures, at the start of his superhero career; and a narrative that attempts to root itself in some form of realistic setting, where heroes and villains have psychological or scientific roots rather than supernatural, superhuman or alien causes. From Lost, it takes a structure and setting: weekly flashbacks to Queen’s life on the island, posing more mysteries and offering partial answers.
Aside from basic adaptation techniques – the same character names, settings, themes, and weapons – Arrow interprets the comic book characters and events in different ways. In this iteration, Oliver Queen’s mother Moira (Susannah Thompson) is alive and involved in a season-long conspiracy; he has a sister Thea (Willa Holland), and an ex-girlfriend Laurel Lance (Katie Cassidy). Through nicknames (Thea is known as ‘Speedy’) and unused middle names (Laurel Dinah Lance) the show also playfully links its characters to recognisable names / characters in the D.C. universe, albeit in new interpretations that have yet to follow the same narrative arc as the comics. It thus balances fan service with new audience-friendly approaches, and – borrowing a term from D.C.’s own comic business – is best understood as part of a multiverse of interpretations of the central character and key events, not beholden to a strict narrative universe with one authorial voice that can be easily adapted.
By contrast, Game of Thrones offers authorial status for its adaptive status by virtue of having the original writer (George R.R. Martin) as executive producer and a scriptwriter. The show offers a more traditional adaptation of a core, singular text – unlike the multiple texts available for the Green Arrow character, or the different ways Holmes has been interpreted over the years. Yet it also departs from, and rewrites, its core texts, often for reasons of budget, narrative coherence and performance.
This approach necessarily reduces the number of families from the novel series to a manageable amount, meaning fewer actors and main characters, but allowing audiences to become more familiar with them. Equally, the Season 2 appearance of a character like Tywin Lannister (Charles Dance) is expanded beyond his slim book appearance to get maximum use of the actor, and to link him to Arya Stark (Maisie Williams), a further exploration of the Lannister-Stark narrative that has become even more central to the television series. Characters are less likely to suffer the same level of maiming or dismemberment as they do in Martin’s novels, so the series can spend its make-up and special effects budgets in other places, and ensure the visibility of expensive star performances / popular characters like Tyrion Lannister (Peter Linklage). Equally, the ageing of younger actors will necessitate subtle changes to the arcs of Arya or Bran Stark (Isaac Hempstead Wright), and new interpretations of the source material’s timeframes. However, given its scope, and the multiple narratives involved, the first two seasons have hewn remarkably close to their source texts in theme and approach:
These three examples suggest a range of options to current television adaptations, albeit all are shaped to some extent by budget and production considerations such as recurring sets, costumes, highlighting the main cast, limited special effects and location filming. Elementary and Arrow respond to corporate or dominant cultural texts: Elementary shaped around simple Holmesian tropes (aloof detective, normal partner, deduction, Moriarty); Arrow drawing on decades of character history for an interpretation that must still work alongside other interpretations of those characters across D.C. comics, films, video game and merchandise. Game of Thrones features higher per-episode budgets (and less stringent censorship) than those network shows, yet it is likely Thrones that has (to date) played safest with its canonical source text. Yet whether exploring the history of Holmes, the cross-media needs of Arrow, or the world-building of Thrones, adaptation appears to be a thriving concern in current American TV production.
Keith M. Johnston is Senior Lecturer in Film & Television at the University of East Anglia. His research on the interplay of technology, aesthetics and media industries includes recent work on film trailers, digital and online marketing, science fiction film, the colour films of Ealing Studios and the past and present of 3D media. He is the author of Coming Soon: Film Trailers and the Selling of Hollywood Technology (McFarland 2009) and Science Fiction Film: A Critical Introduction (Berg 2011), and the co-author of Ealing Revisited (Palgrave 2012).