Professor James Moriarty, Sherlock Holmes’ archnemesis, is almost as famous as the great detective himself. He appears, sooner or later, in just about every film or TV adaptation of the stories–and Sherlock is no exception. So I was surprised, when I first read Conan Doyle’s writings, that the prof only shows up in one story–The Final Problem–and all the reader’s knowledge of him comes secondhand, through Holmes. But what we do know is more than enough to spark a host of plot ideas in a creative screenwriter’s head.
BBC’s Sherlock has been very creative with Moriarty. One of the reasons Sherlock acknowledges him as an “intellectual equal” in the books is his ability to hide his connection to all the crimes he arranges. What separates him from other criminals is his gift for deception. In a 21st-century setting, deception can become even more sophisticated. In Sherlock (SPOILERS AHEAD), Moriarty is hired to facilitate crimes that range from faking a painting to blackmailing the British government, but, just like in the books, he is never caught. We see his talent for disguise (one he shares with Sherlock) right from the start, when he escapes Sherlock’s notice by pretending to be Molly’s boyfriend in The Great Game. Later, he steals other people’s voices to talk to Sherlock without being traced. In The Reichenbach Fall, he creates a fake identity and erases every digital trace of the real Moriarty. Without straying too far from Conan Doyle’s character, this show creates a villain who preys on a very modern source of anxiety. See why I love it? Here’s how Moriarty is described in The Final Problem, intercut with the way he’s portrayed in Sherlock.
“He is the Napoleon of crime, Watson. He is the organizer of half that is evil and of nearly all that is undetected in this great city.”
“Who would sponsor a serial killer?”
“Who’d be a fan of Sherlock Holmes?” – Cabbie, A Study in Pink
“…his agents are numerous and splendidly organized. Is there a crime to be done, a paper to be abstracted, we will say, a house to be rifled, a man to be removed–the word is passed to the professor, the matter is organized and carried out. The agent may be caught…But the central power which uses the agent is never caught–never so much as suspected.”
– The Blind Banker
“He does little himself. He only plans.”
“Someone else is holding the rifle. I don’t like getting my hands dirty.” – Moriarty, The Great Game
“‘This is not danger,’ said he. ‘It is inevitable destruction. You stand in the way not merely of an individual but of a mighty organization…You must stand clear, Mr. Holmes, or be trodden under foot.'”
“I can’t take all the credit. Had a bit of help. Jim Moriarty sends his love.” – Irene Adler, A Scandal in Belgravia
“He is a genius, a philosopher, an abstract thinker. He sits motionless, like a spider in the centre of its web, but that web has a thousand radiations, and he knows well every quiver of them.”
“First mistake. James Moriarty isn’t a man at all. He’s a spider. A spider at the centre of a web. A criminal web with a thousand threads, and he knows exactly how each and every single one of them dances.” – Sherlock, The Reichenbach Fall