Wednesday, 18 January 2012

Similar, Yet Different: The Three Moriartys

With the recent Guy Richie Sherlock Holmes sequel, 'a Game of Shadows', and last Sunday's conclusion of Stephen Moffat's second series of 'Sherlock', I was struck by a number of things I thought were interesting. Namely, the ways that they portrayed Sherlock Holmes' archenemy: James Moriarty.

Now, the original one from the books was interesting in his own right: a celebrated mathematician and author of an early book on astrophysics who, at the same time, controlled all crime within the city of London. Every pickpocket, burglar, blackmailer or armed robber in town made sure that they gave the Professor a cut of their loot, in exchange for support setting up their capers as well as money for additional expenses if required.

Now both big and small screen incarnations of the character bear similarities to both each other, and their original source material, but how much so?

Here I cover the similarities and differences between the characters, and see whether sticking to source material effects the portrayal in a postive or negative manner. Is being original better than being being faithful to the books.

Now this contains spoilers for both Guy Richie movies as well as seasons one and two of Sherlock, so beware all ye who enter here. And, just to say, this is kind of my opinion, but if you have a different one, please let me know. Discussions are interesting.

Well right off the mark, the main thing that all versions of Moriarty have are that they're all really, really intelligent. The difference is how they choose to display it. In this regard, the book and film Moriartys have the most in common, as they are both highly respected scientists, pillars of the community that have published the aforementioned book and are teaching in a top university.

The difference between them, however, is that the Guy Richie version appears to be using his intelligence to gain power and wealth, not just through criminal enterprises but through the acquiring of new technology in the first film to exploit for his financial benefit (by having Irena Alder steal a radio activated device, something entirely unique at that point in history, so he can back engineer it). And in the second he was attempting to instigate an early World War for profit, through a complicated scheme involving worming his way into numerous industrial facilities around the world (becoming a silent owner of arms companies, medical firms, steel mills etc.) so he'd make money of of all the countries involved. In comparison, the book Moriarty's desires appear to be slightly more domestic, with his attentions only being focused in Great Britain and only venturing abroad whilst pursuing Holmes in the story 'the Final Problem'.

Either way, the Professors Moriarty use their formidable mental powers to gather power and wealth, while the 'Sherlock' version of the character... he's definitely a very intelligent character, Holmes' equal in many respects, as is standard for Moriarty, but unlike the book and film versions of the character he doesn't seem to be after anything as concrete as a mountain of cash. Like the books and film, he does operate as the head of a huge organisation that acts as a "consultation service" for criminals the same way that Sherlock assists crime's victims. In fact prior to his appearance in the season one finale it's implied that all of the various cases investigated by Benedict Cumberbatch's Sherlock Holmes and Martin Freeman's Dr Watson are in fact organised or funded by and linked through Moriarty's involvement.

However, while he definately has the resources and "day job" as his big screen and book varients, the tv show's Jim Moriarty doesn't have the persona of being an university professor. Heck, it's not entirely certain whether his name is Jim Moriarty or even what his nationality is. Stephen Moffat seems to have been at least partially inspired by the Heath Ledger version of the Joker in this regard. Jim Moriarty, like the Joker, is shown to be really good when it comes to schemes and seemingly making the police seem helpless, while at the same time remaining a complete mystery, even to his archenemies. Also, like the Joker, his goal doesn't seem to be collecting money and power, so much as believing that he's better than regular people, and thus uses his enormous mental powers purely just to mess with people.

Another feature that all three share is their ruthlessness amd use of violence, but they differ in their approach. All three are willing to have people killed if they either fail them, stand in their way or just flat out of spite. However, both 'GoS' Moriarty and the book version are willing to engage Holmes in a more or less civil conversation to scare Holmes off before getting their henchmen to try and murder him. 'Sherlock' Moriarty, meanwhile, actively seeks Holmes out and randomly begins killing people as part of some elaborate mindgames against the one person he, initially, considers to be his equal.

A change from the novels that both newer versions of Moriarty share to an extent is how their ruthlessness applies, not just to Holmes, but to other people in general. Maybe it's because the books are told from Watson's perspective, but it appears that Moriarty only seems to want to kill Holmes when the two eventually clash Moriarty is actually fairly sporting about not trying to kill Watson, even allowing him to be called away so that when Moriarty confronts the Detective for the last time Watson isn't killed as well, or maybe just to ensure that Holmes is alone when the battle to the death occurs.

In the 'Game of Shadows', however, Moriarty's ruthless in the pursuit of his goals isn't quite so chivalrous. Heck, besides his overall plot of wanting to start WW1 to make a mountain of money, causing millions of deaths in the process, he pretty much has his agents kill everyone who fails him, as well as murdering people out of spite or just to create a distraction. For example, in the first of the Guy Richie movies, Irene Adler is shown to be blackmailled into working for the mastermind under the threat of Moriarty having Holmes assassinated. She tries to make precautions, such as hiring multiple bodyguards, but despite her efforts she is murdered by Moriarty the moment that she disappoints him. He also blackmails various anarchist groups around Europe into carrying out terrorist attacks by holding their families hostage (and due to Moriarty's policy of "No loose ends", the only way to ensure they aren't killed, the anarchists have to commit suicide first), and orders the assassination of Dr Watson and his wife, firstly as a distraction to keep Holmes out of his hair while his plot comes to the fire, and then again later when Holmes eventually foils him purely out of spite. All of his killings are orchestrated directly by his organisation are mainly covered up, either by exotic poisons or throught manipulating the press to be seen as being just accidents or natural causes, such as the "official" explanation for Alder's death was her suddenly circuming to TB, as Moriarty's ruse of being a honest and respectable celebrity and popular scientist requires him to be as subtle as possible with his many murders.

The 'Sherlock' version of Moriarty, not having a "secret identity" like the other two versions, as well as being utterly insane, is decidedly less subtle in his approach. While he does use snipers, like the other versions do via Moriarty's "Watson" Colonel Sebastian Moran, Jim's gunmen are all utterly invisible for the majority of the first and second series, only revealed at dramatic points by dots of red light shone on the targets from some distance away. But besides his use of long range marksmen, Jim also uses bombs to blow up old ladies, poisons children with mercury laced chocolates, and is implied to have blown up an airplane at some point. Not for any financial or strategic reason like the canon or 'GoS' versions, he has people die because, well, I'll let him explain himself,

In keeping with the 'Dark Knight' version of the Joker, the 'Sherlock' Moriarty seems to be portrayed as being so lacking in empathy that having dozens of people murdered on a whim for his own amusement is something that doesn't even cause a break in his stride. He even casually made the threat having someone skinned alive to make some new shoes if they were lying to him... Don't get me wrong, Andrew Scott does a stellar job as Moriarty in a lot of ways, but really, I feel that the character would be more effective if he wasn't so, well, hammy.

So, which version of Moriarty works the best? The calculating gangster-maths professor from the books, the AntiHolmes from the Guy Richie films, or Jim the Batman Villain-Riff? Well, to me really it depends on story. I'll explain.

Moriarty was brought in by Arthur Conan Doyle primarily as a means of giving Holmes a worthy opponent before he killed off both characters. As such the only book where he appeared in in person, the 'Final Problem', was also the one which was intended to be both Holmes and Moriarty's last. He was introduced to be a threat, but as the majority of the canon Sherlock Holmes cases were designed mostly to be stand-alone stories, so we had to be mostly told what he was doing and capable of via Watson relaying what Holmes told him, as opposed to the usual narrative of Watson being directly involved in the proceedings. Plus, with Moriarty having no actual goal other than "Kill Holmes for interfering with my criminal empire", the story was more a case of Holmes and Watson running away from the villain at a leisurely pace through continental Europe as opposed to some daring game of cat and mouse that was IMPLIED to be going on prior to Watson entering the story. Moriarty's agents allegedly causing a series of accidents to nearly kill Holmes on the way to his flat in Baker Street in addition to him dodging snipers equipt with powerful airguns. If he had appeared in several stories other than his introduction and a single reference in one of the later stories, his impact and presence might have been drastically improved. In my opinion in any case.

The benefit that the Guy Richie films and 'Sherlock' have is over a century of fan speculation and non-canon works to considerably flesh out the Professor a bit more. For example, the oft praised Jeremy Brett version of Holmes that was on British television on the 1980s and 90s (avaliable mostly on DVD, and very good too), took the time to have Moriarty be a building presence in the stories, with him ultimately connected to stories such as 'the Red Headed League' in a way that gives the audience a feeling of building rage on the side of the mastercriminal with each of Holmes' victories. Both of the newer versions benefit from the approach of showing that Moriarty's involved before he meets Holmes, as well as how and why we should consider him to be Sherlock's archenemy.

So which of we come to the Guy Richie and the Stephen Moffat versions. The Guy Richie version works as the writers put a lot of work into showing, even before his starring role in 'GoS', how Moriarty is very much the hidden power behind things in the Sherlock Holmes universe, as well as giving both a grand scheme with a ticking clock for the heroes to defeat and an expanded backstory for the villains. The actors playing Moriarty and his second-in-command Moran also have great chemistry together, building further upon the idea that they are effectively the Anti-Holmes and Nega-Watson. Moriarty was even given a humanising quirks of feeding pigeons in parks and listening to music, which makes him seem more of a person than, say, a James Bond villain. Oh, he's still a horrible murderer and torturer, but he does other things to that aren't just related to hanging people from meat hooks. This version of Moriarty works really well with the film and a bit that he has revolving around him, though it does raise the question where the second sequel would go IF one gets made.

And then we come to the Moffat version... in places, yes, this version of Moriarty does work and work very well, and you can definately admire how they've attempted something new here. But on the other hand... I'll cover what I think are positives first. Again, they've created both a building sense of how Moriarty is a threat and pretty much an equal to Sherlock Holmes, and like the 'GoS' version even manages to outfox him in several occasions. He's very smart, very ruthless and very scary. Jim also has the quirk of constantly changing his personality quirks, means of dress and accent to ensure that Sherlock can't get an accurate fix as to who he is exactly, and even blows up an old lady when she starts to describe his voice. He's definately a good Moriarty in a lot of respects, and a damn good archvillain across the first two series' of the show. And here comes the But. He's a good archvillain, BUT the acting could be a little more consistant, and l kind of get the impression that this Moriarty, despite his flare and gift for planning around people, doesn't really have the patience to run a secret criminal empire as large and effectively as he's implied to. Maybe it's through the power of money and fear or something, but he just seems to be too unstable to be an effective supercriminal in "reality" as opposed to a superhero universe or something. Maybe if they had introduced Moran, it's implied that he doesn't exist in the 'Sherlock' universe, at least not in the close second-in-command role that he has in other continuities, he could have acted as the mediator between Moriarty and the regular criminals, like how the real life London gangsters, the Kray Twins, worked. One is more or less stable and handled the day to day stuff, while the other is a crazy person who cuts people's faces off. Either way, to me the Moffat version is good, but could have been a lot better.

So, my final verdict after rambling for several hundred words? ...Although it's probably blasphemy to say it, I do prefer the Guy Richie Moriarty to both the canon and Moffat versions. He's more rounded characterwise, you can believe the guy is both Sherlock's equal mentally and capable of pulling off the things he does. They also put more work into fleshing him out more than the original source material. The Moffat version is good in its way, an interesting portrayal of a very intelligent criminal lunatic, but despite everything, I think that they may have borrowed from the Heath Ledger Joker brand of supercriminal behaviour a little too much. Jim didn't really fit with the tone of the rest of the series in a lot of ways, at least to me. There's acting in a campy, silly way to show your contempt of your enemies, and then there's just looking kind of daft.

Well, that's my final verdict. Working on a couple of other things at the moment whilst my scanner is temporarily out of commission, but hopefully I should have more original content up on a more frequent basis from now on.

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