by wjw on February 1, 2013

I see that Moriarty has raised his hoary head in yet another Sherlock Holmes adaptation, and that therefore the series is almost certain to go to go off the rails.   A pity, because I was getting to like it.

It’s all very well to do Sherlock Holmes, even modern adaptations of Sherlock Holmes.  (My favorite is “House.”)  But sooner or later the writers feel obliged to introduce Professor Moriarty, and then everything collapses.

The problem is that Moriarty has to come up with a plot so complex, so outrageous, so baroque that only Sherlock Holmes could possibly solve it.  And that’s where it always fails.

Conan Doyle had better sense.  Moriarty appeared in only two stories, and his nefarious plots were never described.  He was the Napoleon of Crime, though perhaps the Tony Soprano of London might be more to the mark.  He behaved more or less as might a Mafia chieftain— a character who united the underworld under his leadership, and did not shy from violence.  This wasn’t totally impossible, as the careers of Jonathan Wild and Adam Worth would show.  (The underworld was smaller in those days.)

But that’s where modern screenwriters go on the rocks.  Having Holmes battle a mere crime lord would be boring.  It’s the sort of thing he does all the time.  Moriarty has to be what Inspector Clouseau would call a “mindermast.”  He has to be so brilliant, and his plot so dazzling and intricate, that it would shake the world.

The problem is that screenwriters aren’t criminal masterminds of the caliber of James Moriarty.  If anything, they’re more like Inspector Clouseau.  Their plots are so baroque and crazed that they would never work in real life, are completely implausible even in cinema, and they usually fail to make any sense at all.  Sherlock Holmes: Game of Shadows had plot that was completely off the hinges.

The British series “Sherlock” gave us Whiny Transatlantic  Moriarty, who did not improve on his predecessors.  His plot not only made no sense— “I’m going to pretend to have a universal hacking program, which doesn’t actually exist even though I’m shown using it!” — it conspicuously failed to make sense even when Sherlock tried to evade its consequences by throwing himself off a building in another scene that baffled comprehension.

Moriarty just drives screenwriters mad.  That’s the only explanation.

And now Moriarty Madness is set to infect “Elementary.”  Alas.  Because the series was growing on me even though Lucy Liu is so botoxed that it looks as if she’s wearing some kind of Chinese opera mask.

Note that I mentioned my favorite Holmes adaptation was “House.”  Possibly that’s because that while the writers afflicted House with all manner of enemies, arch and otherwise, they never gave put him up against the Napoleon of Infection Disease.

Good for them.

Erich Schneider February 1, 2013 at 5:27 pm

I have seen a similar problem in quite a few SF novels written by ambitious writers – they introduce a character who is supposed to have developed a philosophy, religion, work of art, or other intellectual achievement that makes them a Person of World-Historical Importance, and then the author tells us the details. That always falls flat for me – as you say above, screenwriters aren’t criminal masterminds, and I think SF writers are generally not modern-day Christs, Buddhas, Platos, or Einsteins. There’s a historical winnowing process that determines which ideas are of world-historical importance – they aren’t that way because an author says they are.

The work that always comes to mind for me in this respect is Dan Simmons’ Endymion and The Rise of Endymion. A character was supposed to have been a Great Teacher for the Ages, but when her ideas were revealed, I went “that’s it?” Authors take note: go ahead and say that your character is the greatest genius since Newton, but keep the details of their work vague, please!

TRX February 1, 2013 at 5:49 pm

You have the same problem with any arch-villain, from Ming the Merciless to Auric Goldfinger. If they have so much on the ball (and from the looks of things, being a villain of that category is hard work, minions or not…), it’s ridiculous for them to be involved in the kind of petty plots that lead Our Hero onto them.

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