The fictional character of Sherlock Holmes is over a hundred and twenty years old. There are a total of 56 short stories and 4 novels dedicated to Holmes; 75 actors have played Holmes in over 200 movie adaptations (including one with a t-rex and cyborg Mycroft); and there are at least 5 television series dedicated to the character.
Then, there is House, which is an admitted Holmes adaptation where our antisocial genius is a doctor instead of a detective, and he pals around with Wilson instead of Watson. And, I think we owe a bit to Holmes in regard to the eleventy billion procedural cop dramas that have been on television for the last 20 years. Just this past year alone has seen a Guy Ritchie interpretation of the character, the above mentioned low-budget, monster movie version (streaming on Netflix), and, most recently, a BBC tv series set in modern-day London starring Benedict Cumberbatch.
What exactly is it that makes this man so pervasively popular in Western culture? The only detective I can think of that has maintained this level of prominence is Batman, and Sherlock has a good fifty years on the caped crusader. So I asked two of our resident Sherlock enthusiasts to try and explain the character, and their love for him. After the jump, Carey and Dania take a stab at what it is that makes Holmes have that certain... je ne sais quoi. (There, I resorted to French for this intro. You may flog me now.)
Holmes and Watson are more popular than usual lately, with the Ritchie movie adaptation not even a year old when the most recent BBC adaptation aired. As an avid reader of the Sherlock Holmes mysteries since college, I’ve watched both and was delighted with them despite the liberties taken. In Ritchie’s movie, Holmes was portrayed as a brilliant madman and Watson as the long-suffering, well-adjusted friend; in Steven Moffat’s BBC production, Holmes & Watson are updated, living in the present day. These differences in the traditional depictions of the duo aren’t exactly traditional but work beautifully.
Holmes via Robert Downey, Jr. came off as a bit wild-eyed, but it worked for me for three reasons: 1) I can totally see Conan Doyle’s Sherlock doing things like leaping out of windows from tall buildings into the river, 2) the bits that were lifted from books and prior movies blended very well with the new - the boxing is canon and the bit where he plays violin to captive flies as an experiment came verbatim from the 1939 movie The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, and 3) Robert Downey, Jr. played this interpretation perfectly.
Benedict Cumberbatch’s excellent portrayal has a very different spin – as a “high-functioning sociopath.” This is a perfectly believable way of seeing his detachment from the human suffering inherent in the mysteries he solves – he doesn’t solve crimes because he cares deeply about the victims; no interpretation of Sherlock ever has. In fact, at one point, his Holmes actually says of a victim’s referencing her stillborn daughter’s name in her last moments “that was years ago! Why would that still be bothering her?”
He knows though, that he’s prone to saying shocking things like that, so he asked Watson quietly after “…not good?” Watson, ever the helpful assistant, murmurs, “a bit not good, yeah.” Both Jude Law’s & Martin Freeman’s Watsons are a breath of fresh air – I’m not fond of the tradition in the movies of, as Kate Beaton says, “Stupid Watson.” Law plays Watson as both affectionate toward Holmes and weary of his nuttiness and Freeman plays him as subtle, likeable, and brave.
There’s a moment at the end of the first episode that I really liked, when the military man and the sociopath who’ve just met the day before, walk away giggling together and trying to make themselves stop – it’s not seemly to be giggling at a crime scene in front of the cops. It’s fun to watch these two bond over how much danger they’re in.
Now, BBC, all I need is some action figures. Well, and a speedier resolution to that last cliffhanger. I have to wait until next autumn?!
Holy crap is Sherlock Holmes popular. He was so popular that when Arthur Conan Doyle tried to kill him off in 1893, there was such an unholy rumpus among fans that Doyle had to bring Sherlock back and ret-con his death as faked.
So, what the hell? Holmes is kind of a jerk. His only friend is Watson, he hates most other people, he dislikes women and largely ignores them, does a lot of cocaine when he’s bored, is an absolute slob, smells bad, and probably would not piss on your house to put out a fire. But the ladies love him, Watson is dedicated to him, and fans were ready to tear off Conan Doyle’s righteous ‘stache for killing him off. Why, damnit?
I guess part of the answer is that we all enjoy a loveable but incorrigible rogue. A rapscallion if you will. While Holmes is not someone we would probably want to know in real life, the fantasy of his character on the page or screen is pretty cool. He’s a detective – which is kind of badass. He catches bad guys and solves crimes, he’s in danger regularly but always escapes, and could get some any time he wanted but just plain decides not to. I used to want to live on the island on Lost and play ping-pong with Hurley, but if I ever thought about it too hard, I knew it would have been horrible and I would have been miserable. It’s all about escapism. Holmes is awesome in theory but the reality of him is pretty gross and annoying.
All fiction is escapism though. What is it about Holmes? I think he might be appealing because he’s just a dude. He doesn’t have any super powers or special abilities. Yes, he’s very smart and takes the time to see what the rest of us don’t. But he’s still a dude. A dude with a coke problem and crappy social life. How many of these folks do we know for real? But this dude has adventures. Doesn’t that mean we could all have adventures, too? If Holmes can do it, we can too. We could all solve crazy mysteries if we worked at it, but we’re lazy so we let Holmes do it and then read about them.
So what about the ladies? I have seen women online who are so crazy for Gregory House that they would leave good families and jobs behind to be abused by him and then tossed out once he figured out that it is in fact never lupus. These people also have no concept that House is Hugh Laurie, who’s actually really funny and British. I freaking love Prince George on Blackadder.
Characters on the show also ruin their lives for him. Cameron loved him but then married Chase but then left Chase over some murder thing but then said she only ever loved him anyway because he was like House. Cutty kind of wants House and over the seasons, he really wants her (which is a deviation from Holmes), but he’s a complete dick about it. He’s like the boy at school who always calls you fat and sets fire to your hair because he has a crush on you. Still, Cutty ruins her life over him. She breaks off an engagement with a perfectly good dude to take her baby and go be with House who now that he has her would rather play video games in bed and would just as soon put the baby in the oven as look at it.
Holmes had a thing for a woman, once – Irene Adler. But it’s only the one woman and she only shows up once and nothing ever comes of it, and really Holmes’ thing for her sounds a lot more like anger than love. Both Holmes and House have eyes for only one woman. This is a pretty popular romantic trope. Wouldn’t it be cool to be the one and only for a dashing, drug addicted, filthy man? It’s almost as if this character is programmed for only one specific woman and doesn’t notice any other. There’s a certain draw to being that one and only. That one woman is the only one in all of existence who can tame this crazy jackass, and once he is tamed, well maybe this woman can clean him up and teach him a little civility, like putting his mail on the kitchen table instead of nailing it to the wall with a knife.
As for Watson… his loyalty to Holmes is kind of weird. Watson would do anything for him and more often than not, Holmes is ungrateful or unresponsive. Watson is like a battered wife. Every so often, Holmes remembers that Watson is a person and deserves some praise, or he sees that Watson has been wounded and maybe doesn’t want him to die, so he behaves himself and pretends to be nice. And these tiny little crumbs of humanity are apparently enough to sustain Watson and buy his undying devotion. At one point, dear Watson gets married to *gasp* a woman and moves out of the Baker Street flat. But then the woman dies and what does he do? Moves back in with Holmes. Marriage is temporary. Holmes is forever.
So, Sherlock Holmes: dirty, annoying, prone to violence, general all around asshole. Most popular protagonist in Western culture. What does this say about us? Eh… maybe not a lot. He might not be an ideal reality, but I sure as hell would rather read or watch the adventures of Sherlock Holmes than Boring McAveragedude. And I wouldn’t trust Holmes to feed the cats or DVR my favorite shows while I’m gone. You could never claim Holmes is boring and I guess that's how he's managed such longevity.