Spangler’s From Sentence to Screen: Sherlock – The Hounds of Baskerville 

Sherlock is a BBC television series that ran from 2010 to 2017 and starred Benedict Cumberbatch as Sherlock Holmes and Martin Freeman as John Watson. In the series, the screenwriters often referenced the original stories by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, and sometimes they even adapted whole stories for a specific episode. This is the case for season two, episode two, “The Hounds of Baskerville” (2012), which is a modern retelling of the novel The Hound of the Baskervilles (1902). In the Sherlock episode, Holmes and Watson are contacted by a man named Henry Knight (Russell Tovey), who believes that he saw a “gigantic hound” kill his father when he was a young boy 20 years ago. The way Henry says “hound” instead of “dog” convinces Holmes to take the case and go to Dartmoor to uncover the truth. Once there, Sherlock and Watson find out about a top secret military research base, Baskerville, adjacent to the place where Henry’s father was killed, Dewer’s Hollow. Finding out that the hound is a local legend, the two detectives visit Baskerville using an I.D. card stolen from Sherlock’s brother, Mycroft, as it appears that the hound might have escaped from there. Eventually they are forced to leave because Mycroft finds out what they are doing and an alert is sent through the military base. Given the limited information acquitted from Baskerville, Sherlock decides there is only one real way of figuring out if the hound is real, and that is actually finding it. So that night, he has Henry take himself and Watson to the place where his father was killed. Watson gets separated from the two but soon hears growling, forcing him to run and find the others. When he does, they are frightened and in shock after believing they have seen the hound, and Sherlock is forced to consider a possibility his mind can not rationally believe. In this blog, I will be looking at how the tv series adapted the original story for a modern audience. 

In many ways, this adaptation is completely different from the original novel, only using things like the names of characters and the most basic plot point, finding out if the hound is real or not. In Conan Doyle’s story, the investigation revolved around the idea of a family curse on the Baskervilles, Henry’s family name in the novel. A man named Dr. James Mortimer comes to Sherlock Holmes after the death of his friend Charles Baskerville, wishing for the detective to investigate the mysterious circumstances that seemed to be linked to the Baskerville curse. Dr. Mortimer informs Holmes of his suspicion surrounding the death and how next to the body was the “footprint of a gigantic hound.” Also, the fact that he fears for the life of Sir Charles’s nephew Henry Baskerville. Showing the first few differences between the two versions of the story. In the episode, Henry is the one that seeks out Sherlock and not Dr. Mortimer, whose role is decreased quite a bit. It is also Henry Knight’s father that is murdered, which happened 20 years before, instead of Henry Baskerville’s uncle, who had just recently died of a heart attack caused by extreme fright. Another key difference is that Baskerville Hall was changed to a military base, a choice that I think works really well for the modern audience. In many ways, Conan Doyle’s novel is a gothic novel, pulling from that genre using the idea of the old and possibly “haunted” ancestral home of a family that is in some way cursed. It creates a sense of uneasiness within the characters living in the house and the reader. For modern viewers, a secret military base has the same effect as the old mansion had on Victorian readers. It creates an air of mystery and suspense because of the secrets it houses, which could have far reaching impacts on civilians. The audience of both versions are made to understand that there is something not right about these places. They represent something that a certain character wants and is willing to kill for, whether that be a family inheritance or a way of keeping an unauthorized experiment secret. Out of all the changes made when adapting The Hound of the Baskervilles for the Sherlock episode, this was my favorite. It really kept with an element that made the original story so compelling. 

As far as the use of the characters from the story, only the main characters, Sherlock, Watson and Henry, remain the same. The character of Henry is slightly different; the book version is more confident than the series one, and the last name is changed, but overall he functions in the same way in both versions. Looking at the novel, several characters inhabit the town of Dartmoor, and each either helps or hinders the investigation in some way. The first is Dr. Mortimer, who is changed from a man to a woman and from a regular doctor to a psychiatrist. I thought this change was quite interesting because it doesn’t seem to serve a purpose. The only time it kind of makes sense is when Sherlock tells Watson to talk to her and get more information about Henry, her patient. The scene shows Watson trying to flirt with her so she’ll talk more about Henry, which doesn’t end up working, so it seems to make the change pointless as it doesn’t further anything for the characters. A minor character utilized in Sherlock is that of Mr. Barrymore, who is responsible for the management of Baskerville Hall. He is adapted to the character of Major Barrymore, who is the one in charge of the Baskerville military base. Out of all the minor characters from the original book, Barrymore is the one that makes the most sense when it comes to how he was adapted for this modern interpretation. 

Another interesting change I found in the characters is that in the episode, it seemed that the characters of Mr. Stapleton and his wife are turned into one character, maybe to condense the needed cast. Sherlock’s Dr. Stapleton is a woman who does genetic experiments on rabbits, which for a modern adaption is an interesting twist because Mr. Stapleton in the book was a lepidopterist (someone who studies butterflies). Mr. Stapleton is responsible for Charles Baskerville’s death after covering a large dog in black coal dust and phosphorus, making it glow in a ghostly way. Though Dr. Stapleton is not responsible for killing Henry Knight’s father in the series, a fascinating reference to a glowing animal is included through the experimentation of rabbits which glow in the dark through genetic splicing. This is why when Sherlock “sees the hound,” which is not real and caused by a hallucination from drugs, it is shown as having an unreal glow around it. Instead, Dr. Frankland is the one that murdered Henry’s father, the character being completely different from Conan Doyle’s original version, who was a noisy lawyer that didn’t get along well with the rest of the town. Personally, I would have considered switching the names of the two characters from the series, as the character Dr. Frankland is much more similar to that of Mr. Stapleton in temperament and overall role in the story. Stapleton is meant to have a connection to the Baskerville family, a detail given to Dr. Frankland, and because of that connection, he wants to kill the remaining family members. With Dr. Stapleton and Mr. Frankland, they aren’t that similar besides the fact that they both have daughters, but the switch in names would have made more sense if they wanted to make the adaptation reflect the original story more.      

I found that watching the episode after reading the novel to be very interesting, as I was able to pick up on certain details that either seemed unimportant or out of place. One of these is at the beginning of the episode when Sherlock says that he can’t go to Dartmoor because he has another case and will send Watson to report back to him, but then he decides to go. This may have seemed a bit odd to the viewer because it happened so quickly. Having read the book, it becomes a clear allusion to the fact in Conan Doyle’s story Watson went by himself to investigate the case, believing that Sherlock was still in London. Another moment from the episode that I found really funny was when Watson gets separated from Henry and Sherlock when they are searching for the Hound at night, and he sees a flashing light in the distance. Unsure if this is related to the case, he goes out by himself to see what it means and finds out it was the flashing headlights of doggers (which is a British slang term for a group of people engaging in semi-public/public sex). Coming from one of the cars, he hears a woman say the name Selden, which refers to a character from the novel that used a lantern light at night to communicate with his sister, Mrs. Barrymore. It was a super weird way of referencing a subplot of the book, but it definitely helped create some comic relief in an otherwise very serious plot. The last point I would like to touch upon is how the series repurposed the name of Conan Doyle’s novel to fit the new meaning in the episode. In the novel, the Hound is attached to the Baskerville family, so the phrasing The Hound of the Baskervilles makes sense. Whereas in the episode “The Hounds of Baskerville,” Baskerville is a place, and there is a possibility that the scientists there made the Hound, and there might be more. These allusions, along with other smaller ones, give so much more substance to the idea of the tv show being an adaptation. It also makes me want to read more Sherlock Holmes stories in order to get a deeper understanding of each episode.

— Jo Spangler, Film blogger.

Jo’s bio:

Jo Spangler
Jo Spangler

Jo Spangler is a junior at Lewis University, majoring in English Literature and Language with a minor in Creative Writing. She is a writing tutor in the Lewis Writing Center and a Youth Enrichment Aide for the YMCA. In her free time, Jo enjoys reading, writing, listening to music, and watching movies. She has been to 10 countries outside the United States, including England, Italy, Turkey, and Austria. One of Jo’s favorite book series is The All Souls Trilogy, by Deborah Harkness, because of how she mixes the supernatural with history and the focus on character development. In the future, she hopes to go into the publishing industry to help find new and exciting books for people to read.

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