TV in Translation: The Fault In Our Cultural Translation Part 2

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Translating Drama’s across countries has proved successful in terms of viewership and critical acclaim but can also be met with failure. Does the problem lie within how well it is received or how faithful it remains to the original? How much change is acceptable to accommodate to a new culture before it is entirely unrecognisable to its origin?

Drama television is perhaps much more easily translated than comedy. For one reason the structure of storylines in this genre tend to follow a universal, chronological and linear narrative model that is understandable. Take the detective genre. Whether it be the ‘English Country House’ or the ‘American Private Eye’, Law & Order SVU or House, they all typically follow the same pattern. The murder/crime is introduced, the investigation begins, a suspect is identified in the ‘closed circut’ society, a red herring, a complication, the real killer, and case solved. We are inherently drawn to this genre because of the puzzle solving nature and our desire to fit the pieces together. And drawn even more when we want to see this translated into our own view of the world. Who doesn’t want an Australian Sherlock Holmes solving who stole the vegemite?

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Or conversely, another reason could be that the need for knowledge of the context and geographical setting is not immediately needed for following these stories. With similar structure of stories and character, translating and adaptation a show to a new culture becomes much easier.  Therefore, a story or character can be transported from one country to another- and given the context and setting of its new home  the adaptation can be a success. This has been done on numerous shows. The ABC drama ‘The Straits’ has been exported and adapted to the US and set in Florida Keys.

However, there is no recipe for success for a drama adaptation, but what makes some succeed and others fail? Sherlock and Elementary are both modern re-makings of the Arthur Conan Doyle classic; both achieved critical praise and shaming in different ways. Sherlock is rewarded for its stickler to the literature stories and high production values creating a sensational 3 episode per season event. Elementary was well received and commended for updating the characters to be politically and sociably correct and equal, where many accuse Sherlock of falling short. Yet Sherlock is often criticised for its poor treatment of women, Elementary is accused to diverging from the canon storyline too far in order to accommodate Sherlock Holmes to a US audience. In order to appeal and attract to the new audience, do elements from the existing Drama market have to be applied?

Elementary’s alterations of the classical stories earned it quite the reputation and selling card. Holmes is a recovering addict in New York, his greatest nemesis Moriarty is a woman, John Watson is Dr Joan Watson played by Asian-American actress Lucy Liu, his sober companion to whom Holmes respects rather than belittles. They are played as equals, unlike Sherlock, as co-workers, partners and friends and never nothing more. As the creators have pointed out numerously, they wished to portray that men and woman can “work and live together” and not end up “romantically entangled”. A point they overlooked in the other prominent relationship in the show: Holmes and Irene Adler/Jamie Moriarty. Suppose they had to tick the box for unresolved sexual tension as well, a sure-crowd pleaser for a US-based audience.

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How much of this change is acceptable? How far can the canon deviate? As entertaining as it is to watch and easy-to-follow storyline, something has been lost in its translation, a crucial, almost 3rd character that Elementary can never have and Sherlock always will: London. When we think of the classic Sherlock Holmes, we immediately imagine him in a London setting, not New York, that brings a certain atmosphere and aura of mystery, sinister and dark to the stories. Obviously, for an American based reimaging, New York couldn’t become London. And while there is still the element of mystery and a dark underworld Holmes investigates, there is still the nagging feeling of a fish-out-of-water. The story and character can exist outside of Baker St, but combine all the changes already taken to it, is it one step too far? If the next TV Drama of Sherlock Holmes made the legendary detective a woman, would they still be Sherlock Holmes? Or just another crime-show detective?

Asher-Perrin, E (2014) ‘Battling Super Sleuths: The Awkward Case of Elementary, Sherlock, and Building the Better Adaptation’

Frew, C 2014 ‘Sherlock and Elementary- Representing Englishness in Television Drama, Lecture, International Communication BCM111, University of Wollongong, 17th September 2014

Idato, M April 2013 ‘ABC drama to be adapted for US audiences’ Sydney Morning Herald’
Roberts, S July 2012, ‘Comic-Con: Executive Producers Robert Doherty and Carl Beverly Talk New CBS Series ELEMENTARY, Comparisons to SHERLOCK, and More’. Collider.September 3, 2012.