Why 'Sherlock Holmes' Works (And Why Sherlock Holmes Always Will)

Arthur Conan Doyle

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Like all my fellow Sherlock Holmes nerds, I have experienced a solid year of foreboding, awaiting Guy Ritchie’s gonzo reinterpretation of Arthur Conan Doyle’s iconic detective with a mixture of excitement and total dread. Yes, over the last century or so, we Holmesians (or Sherlockians—and if you want to get into the nomenclatural distinctions, I could really tear your mind apart) basically invented modern fan culture. Fan fiction, obsessive crypto-scholarship, ‘zines, clubs, conventions featuring unfortunate costumes—you name it, we got there first. But for most of my 25 years of Sherlockianism, dedication to 60 antique stories featuring a Victorian detective with unusual views on proper headgear made for a blessedly obscure pop cultural diversion. You couldn’t think of anything less hip.

So news that Ritchie planned to unleash a “gritty” reinvention of Holmes and Watson—are there any pop-culture archetypes that have not been given a “gritty” makeover in the last decade?—inspried some anxiety. We Holmesians have our own version of “But Is It Good For the Jews?”: would a rock-and-roll version of the Baker Street’s prototypical independent oddball be Good for the Canon, which is to say Conan Doyle’s original work? Then pictures of Robert Downey, dressed up like the lead singer of a Black Crowes cover band, hit the wires, followed by the trailer clip of Downey’s Holmes kissing—kissing?—Irene Adler, in the admittedly fine form of Rachel McAdams. Disaster seemed more or less guaranteed.

Well, I actually saw the thing last night. I don’t know whether this represents a catastrophic decline of personal aesthetic standards or mere seasonal generosity of spirit, but I must say I had a fine time. Oh, the bizarre plot Ritchie devised out of whole cloth could not be more super-stupid if it involved space aliens. The first-ever filmic instance of Holmes and Watson jump-running out of a massive fireball is not necessarily a high point in the history of action cinema. I have no doubt that wiser students of Victorian fashion and society will find approximately 1,000 errors per minute in Ritchie’s grimy, louche, dandified take on the era’s settings and clothing. (Although if McAdams’ fitted tweed breeches never existed, perhaps they should have.) Some of the secondary actors are frankly pathetic.

And, and, and. Problems abound, no doubt—and certainly there has never been a Holmes/Watson pairing as loose and bromantic as the Butch/Sundance axis formed by Downey and Jude Law. The thing is, Arthur Conan Doyle didn’t write his stories as social documents or attempts at realist art. He wrote them as money-making entertainments for a mass audience. On those terms, I thought Ritchie’s retake worked just fine.

Downey’s portrayal takes a few of the more eccentric attributes of the original Holmes (a boxing career; an intermittent substance abuse problem; bizarre domestic habits, including household pistol target practice; dangerous chemical experiments on the family dog) and blows them up into a goofball comic-book version of the character. (As for the “real” Holmes’ supposed “cat-like love of personal cleanliness”—maybe in the sequel. This time ‘round, Downey looks like he is either ending or beginning a week-long bender.) Jude Law’s Watson, on the other hand, is a little more authentic—the mustachioed and be-tweeded Law looks like a classic Sidney Paget illustration from back in the day. Doyle’s Watson was a war hero, a worldly ladies man, a long-suffering but intelligent foil and a less-than-excellent manager of his personal finances. (In-the-know Holmesians will dig the aside about Holmes keeping Watson’s cheque-book locked in his desk.) Law builds his admirable second-fiddle performance around these characteristics.

As for the rest, Ritchie does some cute things with little elements from Doyle, and largely invents everything else he needs. Some hard-cores may find that annoying, but I think it’s fair game, because it speaks directly to the genius of the originals. Doyle’s true accomplishment lies in the creation of a legendarium that far exceeds the sum total of what’s actually in his stories. What with Watson’s incessant references to cases never documented (the Giant Rat of Sumatra, et al), the passing allusions to fascinating characters, and dense atmospherics surrounding Doyle’s often-slight plots, the Sherlockian universe seems much bigger than it really is. Professor Moriarty, Holmes’ evil crimelord nemesis, appears in all of three of the original stories, almost always offstage. Mycroft, Sherlock’s brilliant and mysterious elder brother, gets two outings. Irene Adler surfaces once.

And yet this sketchy-seeming creation has proven endlessly fascinating to an enormous international public for over a century. Why? Because Arthur Conan Doyle’s most brilliant move was not creating Sherlock and Watson, but turning his stories into an open invitation to readers to invent Sherlock and Watson. In his essay on the Canon, Michael Chabon (one of the few modern writers with a vaguely Doyle-ish career), writes:

Through parody and pastiche, allusion and homage, retelling and reimagining the stories that were told before us and that we have come of age loving—amateurs—we proceed, seeking out the blank places in the map that our favorite writers, in their greatness and negligence, have left for us, hoping to pass on to our own readers—should we be lucky enough to find any—some of the pleasure that we ourselves have taken in the stuff we love: to get in on the game. All novels are sequels; influence is bliss.

Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson, then, are the ultimate modern fictional characters: they are public domain; open-source; they can be recreated to suit the times or a particular aesthetic need. Basil Rathbone’s plummy, elegant Holmes was perfect for the the 1940s and ‘50s; Jeremy Brett’s neurotic, antic Holmes suited the ‘80s just fine. Now Ritchie, Downey and Law have created a Holmes-world for the new juiced-up, overblown, sort of silly ‘10s—not the perfect version, by any means, but a fun one, crafted with affection. If nothing else, their work will inform the inevitable next version of Sherlock Holmes, which should come along in about 2021.

But is it good for the Canon? While you can’t say Guy Ritchie’s Holmes speaks to a particularly literary sensibility, I do note that Doyle’s Complete Sherlock Holmes is currently #80 overall in Amazon’s Kindle rankings, and #1 in the Action & Adventure category. And at just $0.99, it would be hard to find a cheaper entrée in a possible lifelong obsession.


About zachdundas

Freelance journalist. Author of The Renegade Sportsman (Riverhead Books). Thank you.
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4 Responses to Why 'Sherlock Holmes' Works (And Why Sherlock Holmes Always Will)

  1. Pingback: Tangible Motion

  2. Michael Middleton says:

    Excellent post. I, too, went into this whole thing with just a bundle of dread. I was quite prepared to be the nuisance in the theater who dramatically sighs every time some dimwitted offense against the Canon surfaced. Had I done so, I probably would have hyperventilated, because there were way too many flaws and sticking points to keep up with.

    But I think that my own realization that this was not Canon Holmes allowed me to suspend enough disbelief, as it were, to accept this version on its own merits, and to that end I was pretty entertained. You make a valid point about the original stories – they were Doyle’s way of bringing in cash, and this movie is no different (it does everything short of shoot rocks into the audience with the word SEQUEL!!!!!!!! painted onto them.)

    I doubt I will see the movie again; if I do, it will probably become one of those films which, due to DVD scene selection, I will never see in full again. But I have a lot less bad to say than I thought I did, and I think your article nails a lot of the reasons why this new movie isn’t so bad as we all feared, and how the Holmes universe will be able to endure expansion forever.

  3. brianlibby says:

    Turner Classic Movies had a wonderful Sherlock Holmes day of movies last week, with Basil Rathbone as Holmes. Great stuff!

    I was hoping there would’ve been something more obvious in your post, just so I could say, “No shit, Sherlock!” 🙂

  4. Alas, I must dissent. I’m not doing a canon bawl. Just too much bloat, too much frantic, overblown, late-period-James-Bondian helterskelter hugger-mugger tedium. I say take the sequel away from Rich Guy and give it to the Coen heads. Be fun to see what they’d do to 19th-century England.

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