A Plethora of Sherlocks

September 11, 2012 at 10:54 pm Leave a comment

After a speech, a Calculus quiz, an American Lit presentation, and a programming debacle involving radio buttons, a switch statement, and foreach loops, I’ve finally had some time to get back to reading. I’ve started working my way through the aftermath of the big event in Clarissa with an eye on the finish line (because I’ve reached the final volume at last), and in The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes I only have about 50 pages more. I hope to finish it within the next few days and get a review up soon afterwards.

In the meantime, I’d like to reflect a bit on the character of Sherlock Holmes. Sherlock Holmes seems to be a character for the ages. So intensely popular during his own time that his creator was forced to bring him back from the dead, this character has continued to be reincarnated again and again ever since in movies, television series, plays, and probably more.

With a little research on Wikipedia, I’ve found that the character has been played by 75 actors in movies alone (which number over 200). He’s come to adopt a signature hat (a deerstalker, I believe) and a litany of lines like “Elementary, my dear Watson” that I’ve never read in 352 pages. (I’ve seen the hat in one of the illustrations, but most of the time I’ve noticed that he wears no hat at all, and many times he’s depicted as wearing a more ordinary hat.) Within the past year alone I’ve seen three different remakings of his character merely by chance, so it’s clear that the character is just as popular as it always was.

Modern Remakes

The thing that I find interesting in all of this is the variety of ways that the character is presented in modern day remakes or reinterpretations. Of the three remakings that I saw within the past year, the first was a play performed at my college at the end of last year. I usually try to see the plays that our school puts on because we have a great theater program and because I like to support the student actors I know, so it’s a complete coincidence that the play happened to be about Sherlock Holmes. This particular play was a rewriting of “A Scandal in Bohemia” and “The Adventure of the Final Problem”. It was also steam punk in the costumes and sets. Besides bringing in steam punk, which I believe is a fairly new trend, the play also rewrites the Irene Adler plotline so that she is never actually married. This enables her to become a fairly involved character, which means that Holmes has an opportunity for budding romance. Of course, even in this situation he isn’t depicted as the most romantic person in the world, but he does allow a relationship to develop in his own awkward genius kind of way.

Let’s compare this to the second interpretation I’ve seen, which is the tv show Sherlock. When that series handled the Irene Adler plot, it did so very differently. Of course, part of that is that the whole series is different, placing Sherlock in modern day London and completely updating everything from the technology he uses to the culture that surrounds him. The character is different also. I remember one time he responded to another character calling him a psychopath by saying “I’m a high-functioning sociopath.” He’s very rude and rarely shows any concern for other people at all, and his explanations of his deductions usually take on the form of showing off.

So not only is Irene Adler updated into a dominatrix, but Sherlock addresses the issue of his attraction to her in a way that’s far from orthodox AND from the awkward genius vibe of the Sherlock in the play. In fact, it would be nearly impossible to tell that he was attracted to her at all if we weren’t familiar with the character and didn’t have a few clues thrown in (some explicitly via Watson’s dialogue).

Will the Real Sherlock Holmes Please Reveal Himself?

And then we have the real Sherlock Holmes, the one I’m slowly discovering as read my way through the original stories. He’s really not an exact copy of either of the reincarnations of him. Or, rather, I should say that neither is a perfect reincarnation of him.

The play draws heavily on actual lines and situations from the stories, but it falls apart when it extrapolates. Whenever it feels as though the playwright stopped and said “What if?”, it seems overly simple somehow. There’s not the real complexity of emotion and psychology and motivation in the way that the romance plays out, as if the character has suddenly fallen flat. Not to mention the fact that I doubt the original Holmes would have let the romance play out even if Adler had been available and interested in him.

The version seen in Sherlock is an incredibly deep and interesting character, but it quickly becomes clear that the original Holmes is much more caring and much more reasonable. He comforts those who come to him in distress, he listens with interest to people’s stories even when they worry aloud that they might be providing insignificant details, and he never does any of the crazier things that his reincarnation does (like shooting the wall of his room because he’s bored).(See I Stand Corrected)

The Way That it’s Supposed to Be

This brings up another version of Sherlock Holmes. My opinion doesn’t carry the same weight as with the others with this version though, because I’ve only seen previews for the two movies. They were the long version previews, the kind you see before other movies. Most people would clarify by naming the main actor, but I honestly can never keep track of those things, so I’ll just say that it was the latest big Sherlock Holmes movie and I believe the second was subtitled “Game of Shadows.” Anyway, after I saw these previews I talked to my family about them. Basically, I was annoyed.

“Sherlock Holmes would never act like that!” I said. My brother tried to argue with me, which made me even more annoyed because I’d read several of the original stories, and I was sure he hadn’t read a single one.

This is usually my reaction when I feel like Hollywood has distorted something perfectly good. Did you see the Series of Unfortunate Events movie? What was that? Cram the first three books together, mix in details that are nonexistent in the series as a whole, and push the ending of the first book out of the sequence of events. There are other examples, but this post has gotten long enough already. Suffice it to say that I hate it when a movie or television show supposedly based on a book goes wildly askew, completely disrespecting the author’s vision and the readers who loved it the way it was supposed to be.

But Then There’s Sherlock

I’ve already mentioned that the character in the tv show Sherlock, while based on the original, is far from a carbon copy of him. And yet I love it. I was obsessed with the show for weeks after I discovered it while channel surfing. I was particularly obsessed after the final episode of season two. It was like the characters were real, like they were people I knew. Even though the character was changed, I loved him. Not in the sense of a crush on the celebrity who plays him. I loved the character: his personality, his depth, the fact that he can care so deeply about the people he’s close to despite the fact that it seems difficult for him to care about anyone.

So it’s like I have this duality in my mind. I like the original character, and he’ll always have that special spot in my estimation, and yet Sherlock has proven that if a re-envisioned character is handled with skill, I can come to love that character, too.

So, What Do I Do With All of This?

First of all, I dismiss the versions I don’t like. “Oh, it was alright for that play,” I might say, “but that’s not the real Sherlock Holmes.” But with this duality, it’s like I recognize the two versions as different characters, each equal in their own right. On one hand there’s Sherlock Holmes, and on the other there’s just Sherlock. I find it rather odd because this is the only situation where I’ve had this sort of thing happen. (Although in the case of Wicked I flipped things the other way around and recognize the musical as the true thing rather than the book it’s based on.) Most likely it’s because the plethora of Sherlocks out there is unmatched by any other character I can think of. There’s something about him that must invite this wild activity of remaking and reincarnating time and again. I don’t know what it is, but as I said before, Sherlock Holmes is truly a character for the ages.

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