I knew when I chose this month that it was going to be a five-week month. And yet, poring over an exhaustive list of Sherlock Holmes adaptations, I found that, once I eliminated the films I’d seen, the works that were not theatrical feature films, the ones that were not part of series I’d already covered, the releases too fresh to approach, and the silent and foreign films that had too little to recommend them, time and again I came up with only four to cover. And then one turned out to be a remake of the same script. While it’s disappointing that so few passed my filter, having a fifth space to fill affords me the opportunity to close my series on the character that has meant so much to me and the culture that I’m partially a product of with a personal reflection that can touch on the whole of my history with Sherlockiana.
Sherlock Holmes was about as ingrained in my childhood as nursery rhymes. Aside from environmental references, and The Great Mouse Detective‘s pastiche, my introduction to the stories themselves may have been with the cassette tape of Jim Weiss performing children’s adaptations of some of the short stories that I recall being my favorite of the Jim Weiss tapes we had, but it’s the earliest I can cast my mind back to now. In particular, his versions of The Speckled Band and The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle have stayed with me. Later, as I’ve previously discussed, Wishbone was for a long time the biggest children’s show in my life, and while The Hound of the Baskervilles may have been cut down too much, the most faithful handling of Irene Adler I’ve ever seen was in Wishbone’s take on A Scandal in Bohemia.
I’m just as concerned as readers no doubt are that this is going to become an exhaustive list of every encounter with Holmes I’ve had, but I’ll try to keep it brief. I had a brief fling with Sherlock Holmes in the 22nd Century, but eventually decided that it didn’t translate well to science fiction, and may have been the genesis of my antipathy to the “it’s always Moriarty” trope. Growing up in a reading household, I got my hands on canon Doyle earlier than I had the capacity to properly read it, especially as the most readily available copy was heavily annotated, which didn’t mix well with my attention span. Jeremy Brett didn’t have quite the presence at home that David Suchet and Joan Hickson did, or even Ian Carmichael, but he was there.
And then Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan came out on DVD. This may seem like the wildest of digressions, but what happened was that in the bonus features, I learned that the writer/director Nicholas Meyer had gotten noticed for writing a book called The Seven Per-Cent Solution. A book which had for all my life sat on the bookshelf right next to the television that I’d never paid much attention to. I suddenly paid it quite a lot of attention. In short succession, I read it and his two other Holmes pastiches and then somewhere in there learned that Solution had been adapted into a film, which is why Meyer had been able to get into the movie business.
While I enjoyed the novel immensely, I left the movie with the sense that something had been off about the story, including the novel. Eventually I realized that what had rubbed me the wrong way was that it seemed to treat the characters like toys from the toybox to play with. “Let’s have Sherlock Holmes meet Sigmund Freud! A grand adventure with the World’s Greatest Detective and the World’s Greatest Psychologist!” In short, it felt like some of the more grating kinds of fanfiction.
That feeling puzzled me. Fanfiction as I knew it was published by authors online. Write, post, move on. But this was a dead-tree novel. It had, at least as I understand it, a kind of blessing from the Doyle estate that a lot of apocryphal Holmes stories never got. It was as close to new canon as one could get. Eventually, through working out this crisis of Holmesian faith, I came to realize that the difference between fanfiction and official works is much more fluid than I thought. Indeed, franchised works have been known to solicit fanfiction as writing auditions. I’ve seen fanfic writers go on to publish their own original works and I’ve seen others get hired to write official derivative works. I’m sure I’ve encountered fanfiction authors that go on to write mainline official works, but I can’t think of one right now.
Returning to this film now, I think the chief reason the movie failed me where the book did not is that by necessity, it dumps the pastiched prose, which goes a long way toward removing the feeling of “A Sherlock Holmes Story”. Collapsing the story into two hours also brought to light how little the plot concerns itself with unspooling a mystery. The first full half or more is about Holmes reaching rock bottom, the plan to help him, and the recovery process. By the time the mystery presents itself, it seems an accidental intrusion to the study of a side of the character Watson would have been reluctant to bring to light.
Additionally, the movie’s need for blustery action sequences exposed two further problems: the red herring chase into the stable finding them in danger at a moment where Holmes is in a theraputic trance was the clanging moment when I realized back then how much more in love the story is with Sigmund Freud than with Holmes. So much of the movie is a Freud and Watson adventure enabled by Holmes’s addiction and then his intellect. I don’t recall if the stable scene is in the book, but I do know the final chase and battle was, and I regret to say it seems rather low stakes for such a thunderingly exciting sequence. I don’t mean to denigrate the worth of the abducted lady, but usually in movies a breakneck chase and rooftop swordfight with an evil baron has world-shattering stakes. Indeed, a glance at the book summary reminds me that in the novel, there were political implications that postponed World War I. Ultimately, I feel the movie could have done with either more intrigue or much less. The scandalous character study would have made a fascinating film all on its own.
Such is the legacy of Sherlock Holmes. There are many interpretations of the man. Sherlock Holmes has infinitely many faces. He may be a cold logician, a student of criminal psychology, a master observer, a passionate force for justice, or even a cocaine fiend. All of these qualities are present in different measures across all incarnations. What is constant is that he is, by whatever measure is relevant to the time of the work, the world’s greatest detective, and for whatever reasons we find to latch on to, we love him. There will never be an end to the tales, and so there will never be an end to the character. Perhaps Holmes will return to this blog sometime, through some reevaluation of a work, or through discovery of one not previously considered. But for now, it’s time to give him a rest. Good night, Mr. Holmes.