With over 250 screen adaptations featuring Sherlock Holmes, the fictional detective created by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle is one of the most famous characters to have graced a screen. But few of those adaptations have come from non-English speaking countries.
In the new Russian TV series, “Sherlock: The Russian Chronicles,” which transfers Sherlock Holmes to Saint Petersburg in 1889 to hunt down notorious killer Jack the Ripper, international audiences will now get a chance to discover the revered detective through a completely new lens.
ZDF Enterprises has just secured global distribution rights for the original series, produced by the Russian streaming service Start and production company Sreda.
The character of Sherlock Holmes, which British author Doyle first brought to life in 1887 in the novel “A Study of Scarlet,” has gone on to have a life of his own since that time, adapted not only in film and TV, but also gaining huge success on stage, in radio plays, and even in video games.
Typically set in late-19th century London at the tail end of the Victorian era, the adventures of Sherlock Holmes and his loyal friend Dr. Watson make the titular character quintessentially British. But what happens when the character is adapted in a non-English production, and placed far away from his habitual 221B Baker Street? Might a foreign environment make him lose his gentleman-like character, or his perceptive sense of deduction?
These are questions that are explored in “Sherlock: The Russian Chronicles,” the eight-part mystery thriller which originally premiered in Russia on Start in 2020 and debuted on TNT earlier this year.
“We picked the Sherlock adaptation to give buyers and programmers in Europe and around the world the chance to market a recognizable IP and discover Russian productions,” Robert Franke, VP of ZDFE Drama, told Variety. Also, he added, timing is perfect to include in the ZDFE catalogue a more escapist and uplifting show.”
The series was written by Oleg Malovichko, who also penned the big-budget sci-fi film “Attraction,” and directed by Kyrgyz and Russian director Nurbek Egen, best known for feature films “The Wedding Chest” and “The Empty Home.” Russian rising star Maxim Matveyev delivers a tearaway performance as Sherlock Holmes, with other actors well-known on the Russian film scene by his side, including Irina Starshenbaum and Vladimir Mishukov.
This is the third Russian adaptation featuring the famous private detective, but the first with an original script. Set in the-then capital of the Russian Empire, the crew recreated a gothic version of Saint-Petersburg forced an intense four-month shoot just before the pandemic forced production companies to shit down shoots.
“There are around 150 characters in the show, we even have Tsar Alexander III and his entourage featured in two episodes,” director Nurbek Egen told Variety. “We built a 3000 square meter (more than 1.1 square mile) set space where we tried to reconstruct the streets and houses of 1889, attempting to maintain their colors and style.”
The story follows a multilingual Holmes who decides to go to Russian to chase down Jack the Ripper, after the killer left a bloody trail in London and severely injured Dr. Holmes, who is forced to stay behind in a London hospital to recover.
Arriving in Saint-Petersburg, Holmes quickly realizes that although he knows the Russian language fluently from reading Dostoyevsky, it takes more than reading the country’s literary legends to know how to survive and make his mark as a detective in the Russian Empire. Though in England he could rely on Watson or even the police in times of distress, he is alone in Russia. On top of that, his scientifically-led deductive methods are reprimanded by authorities, rather than appreciated like they were in London.
By placing Holmes far away from his native land, this story adds a new layer of vulnerability to a usually unbreakable character. In this Russian environment, confronting first-hand the corruption of authorities and a violence and poverty in the streets incomparable to ones in London, Holmes is forced to question not only his surroundings but also himself and his past. He is not only more vulnerable, but more existential, as he shares with his new Russian companion Doctor Kartsev that he suffers from a form of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
When Holmes arrives in Russia, “he starts to face his fears directly, and in my opinion, he accepts them, he accepts himself for who he is, and is even enriched in some way spiritually,” Matveyev told Variety.
A big fan of the Guy Ritchie films and the BBC TV adaptation “Sherlock” with Benedict Cumberbatch, Matveyev said that he was persuaded to play this role by a compelling script telling a “completely new story” while staying faithful to the original stories written by Doyle.
“Our emphasis was on keeping those canonical traits that are inherent in the character, so that it really is Sherlock Holmes and not somebody else who could have been in his place. But he finds himself in a very unfamiliar place that begins to change him regardless of his wishes,” the Russian actor told Variety.
Staying aligned with the character first concocted by Doyle, the private investigator in “Sherlock: The Russian Chronicles” is both an agile fighter and a quick-witted character who surprises many in Saint-Petersburg by his logical pragmatism. But what will no doubt surprise audiences and mark this show as different from other adaptations is that the detective here now speaks fluent Russian. To stay faithful to Holmes English origins, the producers asked the Russian actor to speak Russian with a specific English accent.
“The most challenging aspect of playing Sherlock Holmes was the accent – we wanted to make it authentic,” Matveyev said.
The actor had his own speech consultant for the duration of the shoot, an Englishman based in Russia called Toby Aubin, who helped Matveyev read the whole script and the dialogue over and over, and together they dissected how an Englishman might structure his Russian sentences in his own specific way, following the rules of English grammar.
“When Englishmen come to Russia and start to learn Russian, they often do not use the ‘soft sign’ – there is a letter that softens consonants,” the actor said. “They don’t have a ‘soft sign,’ thus every sound is hard. It’s all in their psychophysics, which is also interesting.”