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The Case of the Immortal Detective: Sherlock Holmes and His Enduring Appeal

The great detective’s purchase on popular culture was not always so assured. Benedict Cumberbactch and Martin Freeman in Sherlock, courtesy of Channel Nine

The Case of the Immortal Detective: Sherlock Holmes and His Enduring Appeal

Sherlock Holmes has been the subject of more screen adaptations than any other literary character, with 75 different actors donning the deerstalker since 1900. But, as Benedict Cumberbatch prepares to return to 221B Baker Street for a Sherlock Christmas Special, the greatest mystery remains: what is the source of the detective’s enduring appeal?

In recent years Sherlock Holmes has headlined a blockbuster film series (2009/2011) starring Robert Downey Jr., a US police procedural TV show Elementary (2012-), the nostalgic drama Mr. Holmes (2015), and the modern day BBC miniseries Sherlock (2010-).

With Sherlock back on our screens next month for a Victorian era-set special, the show’s creators Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss were in Melbourne on Monday for the Sherlock: From Script to Screen fan event. The pair recounted how childhood encounters with the Hammer Horror adaptation of The Hound of the Baskervilles (1959) starring Peter Cushing sparked their early interest and how they are now “infected by Sherlock Holmes”.

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Indeed, this infection has spread to all corners of media and entertainment; but the great detective’s purchase on popular culture was not always so assured.

Sherlock Holmes originally met his demise in 1893 when his arch nemesis, Professor James Moriarty, cornered him above Switzerland’s Reichenbach Falls. The ensuing conflict sent hero and villain careening over the edge, disappointing the huge readership that the great detective and his stalwart sidekick Dr Watson had amassed since they first appeared in Beeton’s Christmas Annual in 1887.

However, Moriarty was merely the instrument of Holmes’ destruction; the real mastermind was the character’s creator Arthur Conan Doyle. The Edinburgh-born writer had grown to resent his popular creation, believing the character thwarted his literary ambitions.

In the decade following Holmes’ plunge from the Swiss Alps, Doyle resisted increasing fan pressure and financial incentives to bring back the detective, commenting in 1896:

If I had not killed him, he would certainly have killed me.

However, Doyle’s efforts were in vain. The indefatigable detective had already caught the public’s imagination to the point that he was beyond his creator’s control.

During these wilderness years the American playwright and actor William Gillette was tasked with adapting the deceased detective for the stage. Although the play, Sherlock Holmes, drew on a number of the hero’s adventures, it was primarily based on The Final Problem (1893) in which Holmes had his fateful scuffle with Moriarty, and A Scandal in Bohemia (1891) in which the resolute bachelor is outwitted by Irene Adler – the closest that Doyle came to offering a love interest for his “reasoning and observing machine”.

However, Gillette did more than bring the character to the stage: he enriched the mythos. It was Gillette who popularised Holmes’ curved pipe and deerstalker hat, which was never mentioned by Doyle and only occasionally hinted at by illustrator Sidney Paget.

He also introduced the pageboy Billy (who was played by a 13-year-old Charlie Chaplin during a 1901 production with Doyle ultimately incorporating the character into the canon.

Perhaps Gillette’s most lasting contribution was coining the phrase, “Elementary, my dear Watson”. For many, Gillette was the definitive Holmes with Orson Welles commenting in 1938:

It’s too little to say that William Gillette resembles Sherlock Holmes; Sherlock Holmes looks exactly like William Gillette.

Holmes also made a turn-of-the-century appearance in the upstart medium of moving pictures with the 45-second film Sherlock Holmes Baffled (1900).

Sherlock Holmes Baffled (1900).

The Mutoscope movie was not only the first Holmes adaptation, but with a production date of 1900 it is quite likely the first detective film – even if the case amounted to little more than Holmes chasing a thief around his drawing room.

Although Doyle would eventually resurrect his hero on the page in 1903, in The Return of Sherlock Holmes, through adaptation the character had already begun to transcend his original form. In doing so Holmes joins other mythic characters such as Dracula, Tarzan, and Frankenstein, whose recognition dwarf their readership.

Commenting on another heavily adapted character, Don Quixote, the French film critic André Bazin observed in his 1948 article Adaptation, or the Cinema as Digest:

with time, we do see the ghost of famous characters rise far above the great novels from which they emanate.

Image from The Return of Sherlock Holmes (1903). Wikimedia Commons

Indeed Holmes has become part of cultural mythology, whether it is in faithful adaptations such as the films of Basil Rathbone or the Jeremy Brett television series; or in looser adaptations that imagine the hero as a school boy sleuth (Young Sherlock Holmes, 1985), an anthropomorphic dog (Sherlock Hound, 1984–, originally directed by anime legend Hayao Miyazaki), or solving crimes on the Holodeck of the Starship Enterprise, as seen in the Star Trek: The Next Generation episode Elementary, Dear Data (1988).

For the Sherlock showrunners it is the relationship between Holmes and Watson that is central to the character’s success with Mark Gatiss noting at the recent Sherlock: From Script to Screen fan event:

it shouldn’t work at all, Sherlock is a sociopath, but Watson makes the unbearable bearable.

Furthermore, the original Doyle stories, riddled with continuity errors and spare on backstory, allow adapters enormous latitude, with Gatiss’ fellow Sherlock showrunner Steven Moffat noting,

We are every bit as reverent as Doyle was to Holmes, which is not much at all.

François Truffaut described adaptation as a barometer for the age, in that we can tell a lot about a time and a place by looking at the adaptations that were produced. Holmesian levels of deduction are not necessary to identify the attitudes and interests that shape today’s adaptations.

Sherlock Christmas Special, extended trailer.

The Robert Downey Jr. films, which portray Holmes’ deductive reasoning as a superpower, tap into our penchant for comic-book movies, while primetime show Elementary introduces female versions of Watson and Moriarty (Lucy Liu and Natalie Dormer), thereby allowing the network show to pick up on the implied eroticism in their relationships with the detective without worrying middle America.

Sherlock Holmes (Johnny Lee Miller) and Joan Watson (Lucy Liu) in Elementary. Courtesy of Channel Ten.

Undoubtedly it is the BBC’s Sherlock that has most firmly brought 221B into the 21C with Benedict Cumberbatch more likely to reach for his smartphone than a magnifying glass.

Such is the success with which Gatiss and Moffat have modernised the character that, while promoting their upcoming Victorian era special, journalists questioned, “How can Sherlock exist in a world without iPhones?”

An explanation for the character’s enduring appeal was offered by one of the first adaptations to modernise Holmes in order to reflect a contemporary concern: the 1942 Basil Rathbone film Sherlock Holmes and the Voice of Terror in which Holmes and Watson join the war effort to uncover a Lord Haw-Haw-style spy.

In justifying the second world war setting, the film opens on a simple yet eloquent card:

Sherlock Holmes, the immortal character of fiction created by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, is ageless, invincible and unchanging. In solving significant problems of the present day he remains – as ever – the supreme master of deductive reasoning.

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