Why Sherlock Holmes remains the greatest detective
There is no need to make Sherlock Holmes more likeable, part of his brilliance is in his ambiguity
In 2012, Sherlock Holmes made it into the Guinness Book of Records. This particular accolade was awarded because the character had been portrayed more than any other human in fiction in film and television, an impressive 254 times.
Holmes’s nearest rival, Hamlet, only appeared on a trifling 206 occasions, although Holmes was not the character who had enjoyed the most outings on both the big and small screen. That particular accolade belonged to Count Dracula who, as of 2012, had appeared 272 times, and has certainly notched up a few more since then, not least in Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss’s reinvention of the character at the beginning of this year.
Attempts to make Holmes a more likeable character in adaptations have not worked well
Moffat and Gatiss, of course, were responsible for the Benedict Cumberbatch-starring reinvention of the Sherlock Holmes character in the present-day set Sherlock, but there have been many other examples in the past decade alone, each different from the last. Robert Downey Jnr portrayed a swashbuckling man-of-action in the Guy Ritchie films, and Ian McKellen interpreted the detective as a retired and curmudgeonly figure succumbing to dementia in Mr Holmes. Will Ferrell was tiresome and loud as a buffoonish Sherlock in the critically panned Holmes and Watson, and Jonny Lee Miller transported the character to modern-day New York in Elementary. In perhaps the most unlikely interpretation, Johnny Depp voiced a version of Holmes as an animated garden gnome, named (naturally enough) Sherlock Gnomes. And now, the new adaptation of Enola Holmes boasts its own twist; Holmes is a supporting character, with the protagonist being his 16-year-old sister, Enola.
Due to its release on Netflix, it is likely that Enola Holmes will be seen by many millions more than might have ventured to the cinema, but its relationship to the Sir Arthur Conan Doyle character is tendentious, to say the least.
The film is based on a series of young adult books by the prolific American author Nancy Springer and is irreverent when it comes to the traditional mythology. Watson is nowhere to be seen, nor is Holmes’s traditional nemesis Moriarty. Sherlock’s older brother Mycroft, usually interpreted as a wise and slightly donnish figure, is portrayed by Sam Claflin as a moustachioed and misogynistic type, much given to sneering at his younger sister and ward Enola. (There are some deep inconsistencies about the age of the characters, which the film wisely does not attempt to deal with.) And as for the great detective himself, he is played by Superman actor Henry Cavill as a twinkly, likeable fellow, impressed by his sister’s derring-do and somewhat jealous of her ability to solve the central mystery before he does.
The film is amusing light entertainment, with some enjoyable appearances by character actors such as Helena Bonham Carter, Frances de la Tour and Fiona Shaw. It may well result in sequels, but first it has to overcome a legal action that has been filed against it by the Conan Doyle estate. It was decided in 2014, much to the joy and relief of studios and authors alike, that the Sherlock Holmes character was largely in the public domain, with all of the stories involving him before 1923 (such as The Hound of the Baskervilles, The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes and his purported swansong in “The Final Problem”) free for adaptation of whatever kind. There was only one exception made, namely the final stories written between 1923 and 1927.
Under most circumstances, this would be a mere technicality, but the Doyle estate stated that these stories (which most literary critics have largely regarded as a postscript to the original character’s exploits) are in fact crucial to his psyche. As their deposition in the action stated:
In World War I Conan Doyle lost his eldest son, Arthur Alleyne Kingsley. Four months later he lost his brother, Brigadier-general Innes Doyle. When Conan Doyle came back to Holmes in the Copyrighted Stories between 1923 and 1927, it was no longer enough that the Holmes character was the most brilliant rational and analytical mind. Holmes needed to be human. The character needed to develop human connection and empathy.
Therefore, the estate now argue – with an entirely straight face – that Sherlock “becomes warmer” in the material which remains within copyright, and so therefore if any filmmaker attempts to present him in a more human fashion than the cold and brilliant creation of legend, they can expect similar legal action. Given Cavill’s charming and empathetic interpretation, copyright has apparently been broken.
On paper, this sounds like ridiculous nit-picking and an attempt by an estate to cling onto their lucrative character’s rights for as long as they can. (A similar case was launched in 2015 against Mr Holmes, which was eventually settled out of court.) Yet it also says something about the fascination with which audiences continue to have with Sherlock Holmes, and have done ever since he first appeared in 1887’s A Study in Scarlet. That novel established the relationship between Holmes and Watson and portrayed the great detective as cold, brilliant, possessed of an analytical mind with near-supernatural qualities and fascinated by the darker side of human existence. As Holmes says, “There’s the scarlet thread of murder running through the colourless skein of life, and our duty is to unravel it, and isolate it, and expose every inch of it.”
Conan Doyle’s presentation of Holmes remains the most interesting and psychologically rich
Holmes appeared in four full-length novels and fifty-six short stories written by Conan Doyle, which have laid the ground for the iconography that has developed around the character over the last century. The greatest surprise that one has while reading the books is that Moriarty, Holmes’s most infamous nemesis and the so-called “Napoleon of Crime”, appears in few of the books, and never directly as an active character: Watson, the narrator of the stories, has to rely on Holmes’s reminiscences and observations of him instead. Subsequent adaptations of the stories have made him a considerably more prominent figure, played by everyone from Laurence Olivier and Ralph Fiennes to Andrew Scott and, in a neat bit of gender-switching, Natalie Dormer. But the other characters and tropes are all there from the beginning, from 221b Baker Street to the perpetually exasperated Inspector Lestrade and the motherly housekeeper Mrs Hudson.
Generally speaking, attempts to make Holmes a contemporary or more likeable character in adaptations have not worked well. Conan Doyle’s presentation of him, despite whatever the estate might argue about the final stories, as a man who has carefully divested himself of normal human emotions, while nursing a deeply wounded heart, remains the most interesting and psychologically rich version.
While it was amusing, in 1985’s Young Sherlock Holmes, to see an origin story which allowed the detective to be reinterpreted as a rather gauche schoolboy who stumbles upon a fiendish plot involving human sacrifice, it joined the many other adaptations that essentially used the Holmes “brand” to add credibility to what would otherwise have been an unexceptional and run-of-the-mill adventure story.
Viewers have seen Holmes solve the Jack the Ripper mystery (Murder by Decree), anachronistically battle the Nazis (Sherlock Holmes and the Voice of Terror) and encounter the Loch Ness monster (The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes). And the continued popularity of the contemporary interpretations suggests that the detective speaks as much to the 21st century as he ever did to the Victorian and Edwardian ages.
The more ambiguous and tormented figure of Holmes may not be a man one wants as a friend
It does not take a private investigator to ask why people continue to send letters to 221b Baker Street, asking for Sherlock Holmes’s assistance. (The building was a branch of the building society Abbey National for many years, which employed a full-time “secretary to Sherlock Holmes” to deal with correspondence but is now occupied by the Sherlock Holmes Museum.) Just as the warmer characters of Miss Marple and Poirot have remained much beloved because of their ability to solve crimes and see that justice triumphs, so the more ambiguous and tormented figure of Holmes may not be a man who one would want as a friend. Rather, Holmes’s skills stem from a near-supernatural ability to detect and defeat crime through his use of deduction. As Holmes states in The Sign of Four, “When you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.”
His appearance in Enola Holmes, however the legal action is eventually settled, is unlikely to be anyone’s abiding memory of him. For some, Basil Rathbone was the definitive Holmes and for others Jeremy Brett will never be surpassed. There was a melancholy to both actors, that may have been associated with their subsequent typecasting, which adds a certain piquancy to their performances, unlike, say, the more conventional excellence of Benedict Cumberbatch. Yet this remains true to the character.
Sherlock Holmes is not a happy man, but one who uses his enormous intellectual gifts in the service of cutting through lies, pomposity and hypocrisy. At a time when we seem to be drowning in such things, his influence – fictional though it might be – continues to be a welcome and admirable aspect of contemporary entertainment. We can but wish that the real-life equivalent will emerge before too long.
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