Not My Sherlock

Or, why Spin-offs, remakes and reimagining most often don’t work for me.

I’m rather late to the party on the BBC Sherlock, so this post may be less than timely.  I spend a great deal of time at my little farm where we have internet, but not cable television. My TV viewing here is limited to what I can find on Netflix.  Recently, on a friend’s suggestion, I sampled Sherlock Holmes, the one with Benedict Cumberbatch.

Perhaps I should insert here that I was bitten very early by the Sherlock Holmes bug.  And after I had found and devoured every single one of Doyle’s tales, I went on to read the rest of his works with equal fascination.

But Holmes.  Ah, Holmes.

Unlike a lot of readers of my age at that time, I’d never enjoyed Nancy Drew or any of the pre-teen and teen mysteries available. Sherlock Holmes was my first introduction to the genre. He led me on to other tales.  Archie Goodwin and Nero Wolfe.  Spenser. A bit of Agatha Christie.  But as it is with first loves, Sherlock kept a special place in my heart.

I sampled other re-tellings of his tales. Basil Rathbone, I think, did an exceptional Sherlock.  And Benedict Cumberbatch is an excellent actor and I’ve greatly enjoyed his performances elsewhere.  Here he does, I think, very well with the material given him.  If this series had a different name, and if they had re-named the other characters and used a different address (that is, if they had simply filed off the serial numbers and pretended it was an original tale), I think I would have enjoyed it more.  Or if I had never read the original Holmes tales, I might have been able to accept it.

But no.  My most recent viewing in this series is the Empty Hearse.  And I’m not sure if I’ll go on.  “Jumping the shark”, a reference to the episode where Happy Days seemed to go completely over the edge, is appropriate for my response here.  Because this episode is where this reimagining torques the characters to fit the needs of the story to the point where I cannot recognize even a resemblance to my old friends.

I am categorically opposed to spoilers, for anything. So I’ll dance all around this as best I can.

First of all, Sherlock Holmes is not a James Bond type character.  James Bond is a man with a superb physique and an immense network of experts and gadgetry at his beck and call.  I like James Bond. I also like Superman. But I would never confuse them with Sherlock Holmes or Miss Marple.

Secondly, he operates alone.  Watson is a friend and a resource, but Holmes’ deductions are his own. He does have a network of newsboys and beggars, the Baker Street Irregulars.  But NOT . . . that’s all I’ll say.  If you’ve viewedThe Empty Hearse, you know what I mean. If you haven’t, you’ll have to decide if you want to view it and see what I’m talking about.

So now I’ll make a few other random observations about female characters in the original printed stories.  First, I will concede there are not many. There is, of course The Woman, Irene Adler.  And Mrs. Hudson.  And Watson’s wife, Mary.  There are women among his clients.  Although few of them could claim to be ‘main characters’, I cannot imagine Baker Street without Mrs. Hudson.  And I don’t recall that any of them were seen as ninnies or disposable. Holmes questioned them as deeply as he did his male clientele and takes their testimony as seriously.

Often in series television, when the series focuses on a male lead, there is an almost frantic need to keep that protagonist single and ‘available’ to the viewership.  In older series, it was not uncommon for the male protagonist to marry, and in the next episode, the wife would meet an untimely end as a way to motivate the protagonist. And make him single and available again.   More recently, on the series television that I’ve viewed, if a female character threatens to become too interesting, she moves or takes a different job or gets married to someone who lives in Offscreen Land, and is never seen again.

So, no spoilers, but I’ll mumble that I don’t think the female characters in this version are treated as well as they deserve to be.

.And although Sir Arthur Conan Doyle did not give us the clues that Holmes saw as the story unfolded, he did have Holmes explain his deductions to Watson towards the end of every tale.Oh.  And they also get Mycroft all wrong. IMO.  And of course, your opinion may well differ, and you are very welcome to have a different opinion from mine

The issues I’m having with Sherlock Holmes are the same issues I have with many other adaptations or re-imaginings.  Some are truly upsetting to me, such as The Jungle Book. Others, such as The Lord of the Rings movies, rang more than half of the right notes with me. But the ones that clanked would be the subject of an entirely separate post.

Far too often, the adaptations damage exactly the elements that made me love the tale in the first place.  Baloo should never be a jolly, bumbling comic relief. Kaa is Mowgli’s friend!  Nero Wolfe almost never leaves his home, and spends his afternoons tending his orchids.  Batman doesn’t use a gun. Holmes lives in a foggy London where the post comes several times a day and one travels in a hansom cab. He and Watson have the morals, attitudes and mannerisms of gentlemen of that era.  That’s my Sherlock and my Watson.  Take those attributes away from those characters, and you have altered the story so much that there is little point to retaining the names. As well try to make King Arthur the president of the United States, or Dracula an affable cowboy.

When a writer, any sort of a writer, creates a character, what the author secretly knows about the character, the details that are never leaked into the ink on a page, imbue the character with a inherent core that it’s hard for secondary writer or an adaptation to do justice to. Writers know what nightmares their characters dreamed, and why they like dark beer or only drink Coca-Cola. Writers know so much more than can be put on the page, but it’s there, in a shifting glance or what the character doesn’t do in a crisis.

Writers know more of their characters than can be conveyed to those who follow.

There are characters who have passed through a score of hands, mutating as they go.  if the tale is one that is particularly dear to me, I often avoid seeing it in hands other than the author’s.  Or I will sample, to see if carob does really taste like chocolate.

But that was not my Sherlock.

So, with a sigh, I fear that yet again, I must divorce myself from television and go back to where I first met my old friends.  In the pages of a reproduction of The Strand Magazine, complete with the Sidney Paget illustrations.

Doyle’s Sherlock is the one true one for me. It’s the difference between Vanilla Extract and Vanilla flavoring!



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