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Writing for Film and Writing for TV: Adapting Sherlock Holmes

Some of the best writing is happening in television.  With new networks like Netflix and Amazon hungry for quality content, there’s never been a more exciting time to get into TV Writing. In fact more and more writers work in both film and TV, either simultaneously or at different phases in their careers. Nevertheless, not much investigation has been carried out about the differences between writing for film and writing for TV and oftentimes, when it comes to writing TV pilots, screenwriters fail to recognize the vast differences between these two kinds of writing, and make mistakes that end up killing their chances before they even get a chance to show their talent. This piece of work aims to provide screenwriters with an awareness of the differences between writing for the big screen and writing for the small screen, by focusing on the screenwriting features that differentiate TV writing from film writing. Finally, this work will consider a case study, illustrating how the previous considerations apply to the adaptations of Sherlock Holmes, for the big and the small screen.

TV writing and film writing are inherently different in terms of what it’s expected from screenwriters. In both cases, it’s about telling a great story, and producers look for a unique voice, a writer who can tell a great story in a way that no one else can. In addition to that, TV writing is also about telling a story that is reproducible, which can be told again and again, for years and years, in a way that fits within the current business model of a very specific network. This influences the style and tone of TV storytelling and differentiates it from that of film. Films tend to be more complex than TV drama in terms of the visual storytelling and narrative structure. The pace of television writing is much faster than film writing, because there’s a continuous need to keep up with production. Writing for film has far fewer limits on structure, storyline, characters and tone. There are differences in the narrative scope as well: single dramas over 60 minutes tend not to fit into TV schedules, whereas feature-length films for cinema exhibition are rarely less than 90 minutes. We can identify three main differences between writing for film and writing for TV.

1. TV Writing Is all about the “engine”

A TV pilot script is a blueprint for every episode will follow. This means that by the time a producer is finished reading a pilot, they should be able to imagine how every episode that follows it is going to work, without any additional explanation from the writer.  Producers call this the engine of the series.  And without it, a TV series is totally unsellable. That’s because the writing team for this series is going to have to generate another episode at a frantic pace, every single week, for as many seasons as the audience require.  Therefore, the screenwriter needs to create a replicable engine from the very first episode that assures a producer they can run this series for the next eight years, without having to go back to the drawing board each week for a new source of inspiration. Another important aspect to bear in mind is the necessity for screenwriters of locking in the engine of the series by the end of the pilot, because if the pilot doesn’t grab their attention, the other episodes are never going to happen. That’s why TV writers aim to jam their pilot chock full of all their very best storytelling devices, so that the full hook and the full structure of the whole story is in there from the very first page.

2. You Need To Know What Network You’re Targeting and What Format You’re Writing

While film is much more of a director’s mean, TV writers need to pay more attention to the network where their series will be shown. It used to be that TV pilots fell clearly into one of two categories:  30-minute sitcoms or hour-long dramas. Nevertheless, with hit series like Orange is the New Black and Louis blurring the lines between dramatic and comedic writing, deciding the right format for your script can be more complicated, but also exciting, than it used to be.

Seeing all the groundbreaking work happening on TV nowadays, it’s easy to forget that each network has a unique and very deeply held model for the format of a successful series and they don’t stray from those models easily. That means the more risks a pilot takes, the more targeted it needs to be for the specific expectations of the network. Thus, it is the screenwriter’s responsibility to study every show produced by the network they are working for, look for storytelling patterns, establish how long each script is, how it’s formatted, where the act breaks happen and what themes the TV series explore. Writing for TV means following a prescribed format, whether it’s a sitcom or a one-hour drama. There are true act breaks to allow for commercials, a limited number of recurring characters and sets, and an overall mandate about what kinds of stories can happen and it’s necessary that the screenwriter takes all these elements into consideration while creating their series.

3. Your Characters Are Going To Arc In a Different Way

Feature film writers are used to building their structure around their character’s change, but the engine of many series, particularly in the world of comedy, depends on a structure where characters don’t change at all. Alternatively, where those changes do happen, they are limited to short story arcs or carry-overs within a few limited episodes. Even in hour dramas like Breaking Bad or Game of Thrones, where characters do change profoundly over the course of the season, those changes happen much more slowly then they’d ever happen in a feature film. There are many reasons for this, from the financial pressures of syndication, to the practical challenge of brainstorming new story ideas that also fit the arc of a character within the frantic pace of series production. But perhaps the most compelling reason is an emotional one.  The episodic nature of series means we’re not inviting these characters into our homes on a one time basis. We’re inviting them back again and again, until they become like family. Like our family members, for all their infuriating qualities, we love them for being consistently who they are for better or for worse. That’s really the biggest engine of any series, that keeps the audience coming back for more, episode after episode, season after season.



The stories of Sherlock Holmes by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle were very popular as adaptations for the stage, and later film, and still later television. It has been estimated that Sherlock Holmes is the most prolific screen character in the history of cinema, whereas in the TV industry 14 series and 10 TV movies revolving around the character of Sherlock Holmes have been produced and distributed.[1] Drawing on the considerations we have just exposed and the areas in which the storytelling style of a feature film is different from that of a TV series, we will now look into the main differences between Sherlock (2010) and Sherlock Holmes (2009), written by Simon Kindberg, Mike Johnson and Anthony Peckham and directed by Guy Ritchie. In particular, we will analyse the first episode of the TV series, A study in Pink, focusing on the main elements which determined the success of the whole series.

A study in Pink tells the story of Sherlock and Watson as they investigate on a series of “unusually linked suicides” committed by swallowing poisonous pills. With very few action sequences, the emphasis is on Sherlock’s wittiness, which is eventually the tool through which he manages to defeat the criminal. Ritchie’s feature film Sherlock Holmes follows detective Holmes and his companion Watson as they are hired by a secret society to foil Lord Henry Blackwood’s plot to expand the British Empire by seemingly supernatural means. Even though the film does mention Sherlock’s wittiness and intelligence as powerful tools to fight crime, the film focuses more on the protagonist’s skills as a swordsman, including several action sequences which are its strongest points.

1. The “engine” of Sherlock

The first episode of Sherlock contains the engine of the whole series, it develops a plot which reaches its peak in tension at the end of the episode and gives a complete idea about the characters’ personalities, wants and needs. In order to better understand what we mean by engine, we are going to analyse the opening sequence of Sherlock and of Sherlock Holmes and we’ll see how, if A study in Pink contains the engine for the whole TV series, similarly the opening sequence of Sherlock Holmes contains the engine for the whole film.

The episode A Study in Pink opens with Dr. John Watson having nightmares about his experience on the battlefield, during the war in Afghanistan, and going to a therapist to whom he stubbornly refuses to admit his tormented state of mind. In exchange, as the therapist suggests that he should write a blog about everything that happens to him, Watson states “nothing happens to him”, thus implying the need for some excitement and mental stimulation in his life. The opening on John Watson hints at the prominent role that this character is going to play throughout the series, in his relationship with Sherlock, in moving the story forward and in conveying his own point of view and interpretation of facts as well.

Sherlock TV series (episode 1, season 1): Doctor John Watson haunted by war-related nightmares

The attention then shifts to the criminal case which sees several people committing suicide in a similar way. The facts suggest that the deaths might be linked, even though it’s yet to be explained how suicides can be related. As inspector Lestrade is explaining the case to reporters and journalists, Sherlock makes his entrance virtually, by sending a text message to the people attending the press conference contradicting everything that Lestrade is saying. Sherlock’s text messages “Wrong” and the final one, addressed just to Lestrade saying “You know where to find me” introduce the protagonist as a smart, self-confident upfront detective.

Sherlock TV series (episode 1, season 1): Detective Lestrade holding a press conference about the recent string of suicides

The image of Sherlock Holmes as an unconventional character is emphasized by a later scene, in which the first camera shot frames him for the first time upside down as he analyses a corpse. But the first time when we actually witness how smart Sherlock is the scene when Watson and the protagonist meet. The doctor is looking for a flatmate and an acquaintance of both introduces them to one another. When Sherlock accepts to have him as a flatmate, Watson objects, claiming that they don’t even know anything about each other. It is then that Sherlock regurgitates a huge amount of information about Watson that he guessed through his main tool: the deductive reasoning.


We don’t know a thing about each other. I don’t know where we’re meeting, I don’t even know your name.


I know you’re an Army doctor, and you’ve been invalided home from Afghanistan. I know you’ve got a brother who’s worried about you, but you won’t go to him for help because you don’t approve of him, possibly because he’s an alcoholic, more likely because he recently walked out on his wife, and I know your therapist thinks your limp’s psychosomatic – quite correctly, I’m afraid. That’s enough to be going on with, don’t you think? The name’s Sherlock Holmes, and the address is 221-B Baker Street. Afternoon.

11 minutes into the first episode, the engine of the whole series is encompassed within the 11 minutes of the first episode, by which the spectator has a clear idea of who the main character is (Sherlock Holmes) what the challenge he’ll need to face is (solving a criminal case of a row of apparent suicides but probable murders) and what the tools he’s going to use are (the science of deduction and some help from his new friend, Dr. Watson) and they have learnt about the protagonist’s conflict with police detective Lestrade as well.

Similarly, the opening sequence of Sherlock Holmes works as the engine of the whole film, presenting characters plot and providing hints about how the case is going to be solved in the end. The film opens on the two bursting in upon the fiendish satanist Lord Blackwood in the act of committing a dastardly act. Blackwood is sent to the gallows and sealed in his tomb, only to reappear (to Holmes’ undeniable satisfaction) seemingly still alive. This sets off a series of action set pieces in the streets of London, which have never seemed more looming, dark and ominous. Right from the start, Sherlock Holmes is presented as more dissolute and fitter than previous incarnations. Holmes’ canonical devotion to cocaine is here augmented by other drugs and a great deal of booze. Holmes has the body of a lithe athlete, the skills of a gymnast and the pugilism of a world champion. He and Watson spring readily into action like Batman and Robin, working together and balancing each other out in perfect harmony. Here, Sherlock’s reasoning skills are introduced as he goes through the weaknesses he detects in the first enemy he comes across.

Sherlock Holmes (2009): Sherlock and Watson fighting Lord Blackwood

Again, the engine of the whole film is encompassed in the first sequence and 7 minutes into the film the spectator knows that Sherlock Holmes is the protagonist, they have learnt about his conflict with Lestrade and about his close collaboration with Watson, he knows what the challenge that Sherlock will have to face is (chase Lord Blackwood) and which tools he’s going to use to achieve his goal (deductive reasoning). The only difference with A study in Pink is that in the film so much more about Sherlock’s personality and relationship is going to be revealed as the story unfolds.

2. Sherlock on BBC and Sherlock Holmes on Warner Bros

Warner Bros had just enjoyed a huge box office success thanks to Batman Begins and The Dark Knight when they laid their eyes on Sherlock Holmes. With a much darker atmosphere in mind and a focus on the protagonist’s skills as a boxer and swordsman, in conformity with Warner Bros’ tone and style, the company got director Guy Ritchie on board to polish a script based on the comic by Lionel Wigram. The focus on the action also responds to the need for films to be visualized on the big screen, differently from TV, which is the reason why if films can rely on big action sequences with dazzling special effects to entertain their audiences, TV series often have to increase their appeal by brilliant lines of dialogue and witty characters. This element is evident in the case of the two adaptations of Sherlock Holmes as the TV series comes across as a more sophisticated product addressed to a more educated audience, whereas the visually sensational action sequences of the feature film make it accessible to a wider audience and more suitable for the big screen. As in the case of Ritchie’s film the story the style and the tone of the original material have been shaped and modified to adapt them to the language of Warner Bros, this is even more evident in the case of the TV series Sherlock, where, drawing on the necessity of complying with BBC’s missions and ideology of creating innovative material which is accessible to all spectators and suitable for all sorts of audiences, able to inform, educate and entertain[2], the writers managed to create a thrilling, funny, fast-paced contemporary reimagining of the Arthur Conan Doyle’s classic.

3. Sherlock Holmes’ arc of transformation in the TV series and in the feature film

While feature films tell the story of a protagonist’s moral growth and at the end of the film the main character has gone through an arc of transformation that has changed them, TV series are designed so that the protagonist does not change throughout the seasons, until very late into the series, so that the spectator can get used to their flaws and their strengths and can perceive them even more like real people who are similar to them and who they are happy to welcome in their homes over and over again, evening after evening. Sherlock Holmes is a detective story and mysteries are more plot-driven than character-driven. The fun comes from trying to solve the mystery, and the investigation is usually led by a dynamic character who does not go through any arc of transformation. This is true for both Sherlock and Sherlock Holmes, with the difference that the protagonist of the feature film also has to face a personal challenge, whereas in the TV series the focus is more on emphasizing Sherlock’s wittiness. In Sherlock Holmes, the protagonist is particularly challenged by the relationship with Irene Adler, skilled professional thief and divorcée, who outwitted Sherlock twice in the past and with whom the protagonist had a love affair. Not only is the protagonist fascinated by her, as his reaction to seeing her naked, when he visits her in her hotel room, suggests, but he also admires her for her wittiness and intelligence. In the TV series, in the first season, the character who plays the closest role to Irene is Mary, Watson’s girlfriend, for whom Sherlock doesn’t have any romantic interest though, whose influence towards him is therefore reduced.[3]

Sherlock Holmes and Irene Adler in Sherlock Holmes (2009)

This piece of work showed how TV writing and feature film writing are inherently different in terms of what it’s expected from screenwriters. While in both cases, it’s about telling a great story, TV writing is also about telling a story that is reproducible over time, that fits the network on which is going to be broadcast and that grabs the spectator’s attention from the very first episode, that is to say, the pilot. As we observed by looking into to the differences between the TV series Sherlock and the feature film Sherlock Holmes, writing for film has far fewer limits in terms of structure, storyline, characters and tone. If the common feature to writing for film and writing for TV is the necessity to create larger-than-life stories and characters involve different techniques, it is also true that these two platforms require different skills and appeal to different audiences.


[1] DE WAAL, R.B., The Universal Sherlock Holmes, University of Minnesota Libraries, 2005

[2] For further information about the mission, the values and the principles driving BBC, please see BBC Charter and Agreement, 2 April 2017.

[3] It is only in the second season, in the episode titled A scandal in Belgravia, that the character of Irene Adler is introduced in the TV series as well. Nevertheless, in the TV series on the whole, her character is not as prominent as it is in the feature film here considered.