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Moriarty: A Contemporary Monster

Moriarty: A Contemporary Monster

“He [Professor Moriarty] is the Napoleon of crime, Watson. He is the organizer of half that is evil and of nearly all that is undedicated in this great city. He is a genius, a philosopher, an abstract thinker. He has a brain of the first order”
-“The Final Problem” (1893) Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

Professor Moriarty, known as Jim in more recent adaptations, is not a conventional monster. He doesn’t have scales or a knife, he isn’t some otherworldly creature…yet, in all his incarnations he is viciously terrifying and capable of creating ultimate chaos for our hero.

Moriarty, considered one of literature’s finest villains, was only in two Doyle novels: “The Final Problem” and “The Reichenbach Fall”. He was introduced as a crime lord who protects nearly all the criminals in England in exchange for their obedience and a share of their profits. However, in most modern adaptations Moriarty doesn’t appear to be motivated by money. The Sherlock adaptation of Moriarty, played with delicious maniacal glee by Andrew Scott, is most obsessed with destroying and messing with Sherlock’s mind.

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Moriarty is such a brilliant monster because in many ways he is the mirror image of Sherlock. He is who Sherlock would be if he had gone down a different path. Moriarty basically acts as a reflection for Sherlock, telling him “this is what you could become”. Due to his limited presence in the books, it’s the film and television adaptations that stick with most audiences. In film he’s been played by everyone from Laurence Oliver in The Seven Percent Solution (1976) to Jared Harris in Guy Richie’s 2011 film Sherlock Holmes: Game of Shadows. George Zucco played Moriarty in three of the Basil Rathbone Sherlock films. He’s also the only actor to be “killed” three times in three different films.

In the contemporary adaptations of Sherlock Holmes, the best known incarnation of Moriarty is likely the one brought to life by  Andrew Scott. He’s a “consulting criminal” in a killer suit and a “changeable personality” who so memorably warned Sherlock (Benedict Cumberbatch) that he would “burn the heart” out of him. Scott’s Moriarty is still the calculating monster we had come to know from the books and previous adaptations but where he becomes truly terrifying is when the audience realizes that his grand plan is ultimately chaos. He’s a modern monster in an impeccable Vivienne Westwood suit.

“I can open any door, anywhere with a few tiny lines of computer code,” Moriarty tells Sherlock over a cup of tea in “The Reichenbach Fall”, “No such thing as a private bank account now. They’re all mine. No such thing as secrecy. I OWN secrecy. Nuclear codes? I could blow up NATO in alphabetical order. In a world of locked rooms, the man with the key is king. And honey you should see me in a crown.” What’s so utterly monstrous about this moment is the glee in his voice. While Moriarty would be doing this even if Sherlock were not around, it only adds to his fun to terrorize Sherlock in the process.

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There is also CBS’s Elementary that reimagined Irene Adler (Natalie Dormer) as Jamie Moriarty. Much like the rest of the series it was a novel approach to an old character but her emotional connection to Sherlock stands. Despite the atrocities she commits, she is a key figure in Sherlock’s life and story.

Modern adaptations of Moriarty have showcased the shift in how a monster and the  hero interact. Scott’s Moriarty and Cumberbatch’s Sherlock crash into each other violently and there seems to be, at least in the beginning, a sense of wonder on Sherlock’s end; Or at least a very morbid curiosity. They understand each other, and it could be argued that Sherlock liked playing the game that Moriarty creates for him. It’s not unreasonable to point out that they probably would have made great partners if the circumstances had been different. As it is Moriarty is the greatest enigma of Sherlock’s life and that deep connection has been endlessly inspiring when it comes to other villains and heroes in film, television and literature. Moriarty is a unique monster. It’s a testament to the brilliance of the original Doyle character and the people working on shows like Sherlock and Elementary that the character has made an easy transition to the modern world.

– Tressa Eckermann