Sherlock: ACD’s “A Study in Scarlet” vs. BBC’s “A Study in Pink”

As a fan of the BBC Sherlock show, I recently decided to read Aruthur Conan Doyle’s original mystery stories.  I’ve never read any of them before except for “The Hounds of Baskerville” in a high school English class.  I’m going to tackle them in chronological order of publication, so I started with A Study in Scarlet.  Having finished this first book I can definitely see a lot of exact parallels between it and the first episode of the modernized BBC show, “A Study in Pink,” but also some obvious omissions or alterations.

Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman as Sherlock Holmes and John Watson

Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman as Sherlock Holmes and John Watson

The first episode starts off very similar to the beginning of the first book; John Watson is a recently returned military doctor, wounded in a war in Afghanistan.  I’m not really familiar with the particular war that would have been going on at the time, but I think it’s too sad (that the region is still/again plagued by military unrest over 100 years later) for it to be cool that this factoid lines up perfectly with modern times.   Anyway, everything about the way Watson and Sherlock meet and become roommates happens pretty much exactly the same way in the book as in the show, and one of the first things Watson learns about his soon-to-be companion comes up in this conversation  between a mutual acquaintance and John Watson, about Sherlock Holmes:

“…He appears to have a passion for definite and exact knowledge.”

“Very right too.”

“Yes, but it may be pushed to excess.  When it comes to beating the subjects in the dissecting-room with a stick, it is certainly taking rather a bizarre shape.”

“Beating the subjects!”

“Yes, to verify how far bruises may be produced after death.  I saw him at it with my own eyes.”

A Study in Scarlet, chapter 1, by Arthur Conan Doyle.

sherlock whipNow doesn’t that sound like one of the first images we’re given of the character of Sherlock in “A Study in Pink,” where he’s whipping a corpse and instructs the morgue worker, “I need to know what bruises form in the next twenty minutes; a man’s alibi depends on it.”?

Sherlock’s method of “the science of deduction,” his superior intelligence, his fascination with specificity, and his arrogance towards the work of the detectives he consults for is exactly the same in the book and the show.  In the book, a Scotland Yard detective (Tobias Gregson, who does not appear in the show, although his colleague Lestrade does) is excitedly recounting how he thinks he has cracked the case, and Sherlock yawns in the middle and says sarcastically that it is “quite exciting.”

sherlock plucks violin

In both the show and book, Sherlock plays violin, often absent-mindedly while deep in thought, although he is capable of playing elaborate pieces perfectly.   His drug use is alluded to in the show and the book, but in the book Watson can’t believe his new friend actually uses drugs because he doesn’t fit the stereotype:

“Nothing could exceed his energy when the working fit was upon him, and for days on end he would lie upon the sofa in the sitting-room, hardly uttering a word or moving a muscle from morning to night.  On these occasions I have noticed such a dreamy, vacant expression in his eyes, that I might have suspected him of being addicted to the use of some narcotic, had not the temperance and cleanliness of his whole life forbidden such a notion.”

Many elements of the central mystery in the show and book were the same, such as the murder being done by poison pill, which the victim was forced to choose from a set with identical placebo and poison options, the letters “RACHE” being written at the crime scene, the murderer turning out to be a cabbie with an aneurism, and Sherlock’s use of the homeless network to help track down information, (although in the book he gives them the much-less p.c. title “my Street Arab detective corps”).   However, in the show, Sherlock mocks detective Anderson for thinking “RACHE” is meant to signify the German word for revenge, and it turns out that the victim was writing “Rachel,” her smartphone password; but in the book, “RACHE” is written in blood at the crime scene by the murderer to mislead the police into thinking it is a political killing related to a recent crime in New York.

Also, the killer in the book is actually motivated by revenge, targeting the ex-Mormon man who forced the killer’s fiance to become one of his wives twenty or so years earlier in Utah, whereas the killer in the show is being paid to carry out murders in a specific way by an unseen mastermind.  The book has a huge side-track into the storyline of this sensationalized Mormon subplot, literally five chapters set in Utah before the narrative returns to Watson and Sherlock in London.  It’s a very strange section and I’m glad they left that part out of the show, because aside from its very questionable historical accuracy, it detracts from the storyline of Sherlock and Watson getting to know each other and solve crime together.  Of course, the show focuses much more on their relationship than the book does, at least so far, but I’m not complaining about getting added scenes like the one below from the end of the episode:

Sherlock covers for John by telling Lestrade to ignore Sherlock's previous deductions about who shot the murderer.

Sherlock, realizing who saved him, covers for John by telling Lestrade to ignore Sherlock’s previous deductions about who shot the murderer.

A couple of things that I noticed in A Study of Scarlet are not mentioned in “A Study in Pink” but do show up in later episodes, including Sherlock’s extensive knowledge of types of cigar ashes–in season two, episode 1, “A Scandal in Belgravia”, it is mentioned that Sherlock has blogged about 243 types of tobacco ash, while in the book, Sherlock deduces the type of cigar that their suspect smokes from some ash he finds on the floor of the crime scene and remarks:

“I have made a special study of cigar ashes–in fact, I have written a monograph upon the subject.  I flatter myself that I can distinguish at a glance the ash of any known brand, either of cigar or of tobacco.”

Additionally, Sherlock’s ignorance of the workings of the solar system is made much of in season 1, episode 3, “The Great Game,” and it is one of the first areas that Watson remarks on in his account of Sherlock’s knowledge and skills.

That any civilized human being in this nineteenth centruy should not be aware that the earth travelled round the sun appeared to be to me such an extraordinary fact that I could hardly realize it.

“You appear to be astonished,” he said, smiling at my expression of surprise.  “Now that I do know it I shall do my best to forget it.”

“To forget it!”

“You see,” he explained, “I consider that a man’s brain originally is like a little empty attic, and you have to stock it with such furniture as you choose.  A fool takes in all the lumber of every sort that he comes across, so that the knowledge which might be useful to him gets crowded out, or at best is jumbled up with a lot of other things so that he has difficulty in laying his hands upon it.  Now the skillful workman is very careful indeed as to what he takes into his brain-attic.  He will have nothing but the tools which may help him in doing his work, but of these he has a large assortment, and all in the most perfect order.

(The brain-attic sounds a bit reminiscent of the mind-palace mentioned in several episodes of the show, but I wonder if there will be a more explicit reference to something like the mind-palace in one of the later books that I haven’t read yet.)

Characters that appear or are mentioned in the episode “A Study in Pink” that I did not see in the book A Study in Scarlet include Sherlock’s brother Mycroft, (but I assume he’ll show up in one of the later stories), Moriarty, (same), Molly Hooper, (what a shame, she’s one of my favorites!) and Mrs. Hudson, (although a landlady is mentioned, she is not named.)

Although the title of the television episode is an obvious nod to the source material, the meaning behind it is quite different; Watson titles his blog write-up of the case “A Study in Pink” because the first victim they investigated was dressed in a pink outfit and had a matching pink suitcase.  However, the title of the book comes from Sherlock describing the case he is investigating as:

“…a study in scarlet, eh?  Why shouldn’t we use a little art jargon.  There’s the scarlet thread of murder running through the colorless skein of life, and our duty is to unravel it, and isolate it, and expose every inch of it.”

A Study in Scarlet, chapter 4, by Arthur Conan Doyle

I’m looking forward to reading the rest of ACD’s Sherlock stories to see what other little tidbits have made it into the BBC show.  Mysteries aren’t usually my cup of tea but these are not too long and they do feature a fascinating, eccentric, egotistical, brilliant protagonist.


Filed under Books, television

13 responses to “Sherlock: ACD’s “A Study in Scarlet” vs. BBC’s “A Study in Pink”

  1. Miss Alexandrina

    Great comparison. I’ll be keeping up with these. I think the mind palace is meant to be the brain attic. I quite like it as a modern adaptation.
    I agree with you that it was good A Study In Pink didn’t include the weird backstory in Utah from In Scarlet. I love Conan Doyle’s works, but I found myself skipping so much of that.

    • yeah, I was really confused about the Utah part at first because I was reading from a “complete works” on kindle and I thought maybe I had accidentally skipped ahead to a completely different story!

      • Miss Alexandrina

        Haha – I have the complete works, but in print, so I didn’t have that problem, but, yeah, for such a good writer (I’d, possibly weirdly, read two Holmes stories before the first one), the jumping back seemed really random. I guess Sherlock couldn’t really have told it his way, but I’m sure, if he’d tried, Conan Doyle could’ve found a way to give the same plot without going back.

      • Erin

        I remember reading this story several years ago and being impressed by the apparent hatred and revulsion ACD had of Mormons. It was a weird section.

  2. I’ve just finished a collection of ACD stories. Some were far too short for my liking. Great article!

  3. Great post, I have been a big fan of the original short stories,I am just now getting into the BBC series. There are a lot of hidden connections, I couldn’t help but laugh at the Adventure of the Geek interpreter, as oppose to the Greek Interrupter, in the books. And yes that e once again there is a war Afghanistan, that Watson could have fought is very eerie. .

  4. Each new series of Sherlock sends me back to the original books. I prefer the short stories to the novels, they are faster-paced and a lot of fun. The BBC’s Study in Pink was so clever in all its allusions to the original work. I’ve enjoyed all the episodes so far, but I don’t think any compare with the first in updating the old story for the new millennium. Although Gregson doesn’t feature in the BBC Sherlock, he hasn’t been forgotten – it can be no coincidence that Lestrade’s first name is Greg.

  5. Pingback: Comparison of A Study In Scarlet VS A Study In Pink | Sherlock Holmes

  6. Pingback: A comparison of A Study In Scarlet and A Study In Pink | Sherlock Holmes

  7. Jess

    I haven’t seen the show for a while, but I know there are way more parallels. You’ve covered some great ones! I could literally spend my entire life looking for these things.

  8. Gale

    u spelt Arthur wrong lol

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