On Sherlock Holmes, Pop Culture Dilution, and the Re-imagining of Old Things


Jeremy Brett 1

You’ll forgive me, I hope, for leaving out the spoiler warning in this case. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle introduced the world to the character of Sherlock Holmes in 1887, when A Study in Scarlet was published in an annual magazine. It was written over the course of three weeks and the characters it introduced, about whom there would be many short stories and several novels more written, have been pop-culturally recognized household names since before anyone reading this blog post was so much as a sparkle in daddy’s eye. Even if you’ve never read Doyle’s stories or taken the time to experience any of the direct adaptations on screen, on stage, or in any other medium, odds are around about a billion to one that you know who the character is, what his iconic hat looks like, and that he is the genius detective protagonist of a classic series of mystery fiction. This knowledge-through-pop-culture-osmosis is as basic to us now, nearly one hundred and thirty years later, as knowing that the Earth revolves around the sun.

A hundred and thirty revolutions around that great ball of fire that Sherlock was so dismissive of is a long time, though. So while you who read this certainly do know who Sherlock Holmes is, let me pose a question: what do you know about Sherlock Holmes, really? Does your knowledge perhaps stop at the summary I gave in the opening paragraph, at the premise of the thing? Have you seen him pop up, maybe, in some referential or definitive work? Are you by some miracle of good fortune old enough to have been introduced to him through the 1939-1946 Hollywood productions, starring Basil Rathbone? Probably not even that! Even the more recent Granada television series (the star of which, Jeremy Brett, is pictured above) is older than I am, and I’m nearly thirty.

Even when I was young, the norm among my peers tended to be a dismissive attitude toward any classic fiction, mostly because our schoolteachers shoved such stories down our throats in an obligatory fashion that did nothing to educate us as to why we might find it interesting. That time I had to read The Red-Headed League in English class barely even registers in my memory as a result. I haven’t seen much of a change in the way that tends to go as I’ve grown up and other stupid young people have sprouted out of the Stork’s sack to replace “stupid, young Me;” between the dated writing styles and borderline unrecognizable staples of an archaic society, it just makes more sense for most people to stick to the comfortable territory of “whatever the creative world has cooked up for us in the last ten years or so.” People who were alive in the ’40s and ’50s are more likely to know that version of the story where Watson was a bit of a buffoonish tag-along to the much-more-intelligent Holmes. People who grew up in the ’90s might possibly have seen the Jeremy Brett series but are more likely to know Holmes from some dumb, barely-passable cartoon depiction that boils him down to his most basic components, as ’90s cartoons tended to.

As time passes, the general public perception becomes more focused on the ghost of the character left behind in the wake of the adaptations, and an accurate impression of Sherlock Holmes or the stories and characters surrounding him becomes more and more out-of-the-way. I can almost guarantee you that anyone reading this article who knows enough of Sherlock Holmes to begin separating the Doyle original from his modern day imitations came to that familiarity in one of three ways: they either were curious enough to go out of their way to read the novels or watch a particularly on-point adaptation; they happened to be assigned one of the short stories in grade school or high school and were one of the few students open-minded enough to give older fiction a chance; or they were recommended it or educated on it by some friend or acquaintance who happened to fulfill one of these three conditions before they themselves had a chance to.

This is not a phenomenon unique to Holmes. It happens with nearly every pop culture thing that ages past a certain point. J. R. R. Tolkien’s written works, for example, have quite a different attitude to them, and a different approach to action and characterization, compared to the Peter Jackson film series based on them. And people are far more likely to watch the films before reading the books, in this day and age. If you’re even slightly younger than me, I bet fifty-fifty odds at best that your first, definitive impression of Legolas and Gimli are of a pretty-boy elf surfing shields down staircases and a comedy-relief buffoon with a beard and anger issues, neither of which is remotely accurate to the source material, and you probably don’t even know about the times Frodo did something brave because they were either cut out of the story or given to Arwen. You probably even have a misguided impression in your head of Arwen being a character who… did something other than marrying Aragorn and looking pretty. That impression, I’m sorry to say, is also not accurate to the book.

This even happens with adaptations that began before their source material even ended. Take a shot every time you meet someone who thinks Ron Weasley is a buffoon who contributes nothing of value to the adventures of Harry Potter, because their personal imagined version of the character is based more on the movies than the books! A similar dilution of Dr. Watson’s character is apparent in modern interpretations of the Holmes stories, though. And thus the tangent is justified, and your patience with my ramblings, rewarded!

People tend to forget that Doyle was a doctor as well as a writer, making Watson not only a relatable point of view for the reader but also for the author himself. Something the Granada series highlights about Watson — and this is one of many points that elevates that particular show above other adaptations, even if some Sherlockians have contentions about its particular portrayal of Holmes compared to the Rathbone version — is his ability to understand Holmes when a problem is explained without discrediting the deductive skill it took to reach that explanation. This is a very important aspect of their friendship, and one of the first sparks of true chemistry between them in the original “A Study in Scarlet” novel. Other characters sometimes react with something along the lines of an “I thought you had done something clever” sentiment when the steps taken toward a deduction or observation are made plain, which is why Sherlock initially is reluctant to explain his deductions after examining that first crime scene in Scarlet.

Yet Watson, a true mystery fan in spirit if not in a literal sense, expresses admiration when he is shown or told what basic information Sherlock used and told how he processed it to arrive at a conclusion or theory that he himself would not have done, and Sherlock relents, explaining another portion of what he has deduced. Holmes, early on, was quite receptive to the praises this new friend of his responded with; other people never really quite got where his talents came from, and sometimes were put off by his eccentricities, or else reassured themselves that they weren’t so inferior to him by devaluing his prowess in a tactless manner. In Watson he found someone he could communicate with, essentially, and who could follow along with his logic even if (unlike his brother Mycroft) Watson could not match or exceed it. Watson, in turn, became an encouraging force who prompted Sherlock to explore cases in spite of initial feelings of apathy, leading him to learn of more interesting conundrums to solve than he would have gotten involved with otherwise.

The pop-culturally-recognized image of Watson as this unintelligent counterpoint to Holmes’s brilliance, which by my understanding was an element of the ’40s films (by all means, correct me in the comments if I’m wrong about the origin of that one) has no real basis in the source material. Watson is the point-of-view character, yes, and he is meant to be “relatable,” but he is also a capable doctor and former military man who has, in the modern parlance, “seen some shit” in his time. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle made the rather smart decision to tell Holmes’s stories from another character’s point of view, probably to avoid the problem of having to write Holmes’s complex stream of thoughts and observations directly into the narrative. Through Watson, we’re presented the mystery of a thing from a basic point of view, and are able to observe Holmes observing it, and then receive organized, compacted versions of his theories and deductions as the case goes on. Writing from Holmes’s point of view, or even in the third person with a focus on Holmes’s thoughts or perspective, would very likely have produced a convoluted narrative flow that would have lost as many readers’ attentions as it managed to keep hold of.

The problem this presents to an on-screen adaptation is that Watson’s narrative “purpose” in written prose doesn’t translate directly into a third-person medium where a character’s inner thoughts aren’t the lens through which you experience the story. The creators in charge of adaptations tend to fumble the ball when it comes to adapting the character of Watson. The portrayal of him as a buffoonish character in contrast to Sherlock’s intelligence is one common approach, presumably because having someone relatively stupid in the room gives Sherlock an excuse to explain things on-camera. But what this version of the character lacks is that chemistry with Holmes that made him an interesting point-of-view character to experience Holmes through in the first place. Another adaptation, such as the most recent “modernized” Sherlock produced by BBC (or as I like to think of it, DmC: Detectives May Cry) might get the particulars of Watson’s character somewhat right but fail to write him in such a way that he is a consistent and prominent participant in the proceedings. The cumulative result is that Watson exists in the eyes of the general public only as a diluted shadow of his original self. You must go out of your way to experience the original stories or at least a specific adaptation that gets the character’s portrayal right if it is your wish to experience the author’s vision of that specific character.

Which is also true of Ron Weasley. And Frodo Baggins. And for the people who played the Ratchet & Clank remake before experiencing the original series? It’s also true of both Ratchet and Clank. It’s also quite true of Lara Croft by this point. But probably not of Dante. Dante is probably safe. I think Ninja Theory landed so far off the mark with their version of the character that at least his original version remains untarnished in the collective unconscious for the time being, cheesy quips and all.

I have only recently delved into Sherlock Holmes, I have to admit. I did so after watching HBomberguy’s feature-length video on why he believes BBC’s Sherlock is a bad show. Unlike many on the Internet, I’m compelled to go out and form my own opinions and videos like the one I just linked to are usually just the thing that convinces me to get off my arse and see for myself. Similarly, it was The Gaming Brit’s eighty-minute analysis of the Ratchet remake that inspired me to pick up the Ratchet & Clank HD Collection at MomoCon this year and to download the 2013 reboot so I could form my own opinions. In both cases it so happens that my opinions ended up aligning with the video that prompted me to examine the thing in the first place, and between the two experiences, I’ve come to understand something about the iterative process of adaptations, remakes, reboots, and derivative original works:

The most compelling fresh takes on old ideas will always arise from creative endeavors in which the parties re-envisioning a work have not just knowledge of the source material, but also respect for it and why it appeals to people. It is only a clear view of and respect for that material that make visible to a creator potentially-interesting new directions to take existing ideas, or inspires them toward new ways of expressing them. And unless you’re fortunate enough to land on a broken-clock-twice-a-day lottery-ticket case, your bullet-point mainstream-marketing checklist is probably going to do more harm than good.

And that is why, behind the fantastic Granada television series, House M.D. might just be the best adaptation of Sherlock Holmes ever made.

But seriously, all this roundabout blogging does have a point. And it’s a very general one, not specific to Sherlock Holmes. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s work is just a very good example of the principle at work, and a good one to point to in order to demonstrate what can become of a very specifically-defined set of stories and characters over time as it passes through the hands of so many generations of consumers and (re)creators. The classics in any medium are perhaps classic in part because they inspire people to such a degree, grab their interest and their attention to such an extent, that they’re compelled to not just imagine them but re-imagine them. But with that process comes simplification, dilution, and a loss of what made the original vision such a sight to behold in the first place.

In going back to read the works of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, and to watch the adaptations made of them over the last half-century, I’ve been made acutely aware of something that I’ve always sort of passively known about pop culture and fiction. With exposure comes distance, and with long-term mainstream appeal comes dilution as only the simplest and most-recognized concepts survive the transition between all the conversations, adaptations, and reinterpretations. Odds are that whoever is reading this knows very little about Sherlock Holmes, and odds are probably good that they know just as little about Dr. Jekyll, or Dorian Gray, or Frankenstein, who is not the monster but the scientist, and if you didn’t know that or know someone that doesn’t, then my point just got up off the table and proved itself!

And so, for both the inquisitive consumer and the ambitious creator, I end this article with a piece of advice: if you’re ever curious about a particular story or character or game or movie, go straight to the source. You can know neither the true appeal of the story nor the full potential of the ideas you might derive from it until you’ve experienced it for yourself. And by doing so, you’ll not only gain a deeper appreciation of the roots from which that story grew, but also a more fleshed-out perspective on everything that has come out of it over time.

That said… the Jeremy Brett series that I keep bringing up makes for a pretty fantastic “gateway drug,” in Sherlock’s case! I recommend you give it a buy if it does anything for you.

2 thoughts on “On Sherlock Holmes, Pop Culture Dilution, and the Re-imagining of Old Things

  1. Informative. I have a copy of the classic stories, so I can see your point. I will need to give the series a shot at sometime.


  2. I read the books as a kid and loved them, though it’s been several years since then. Might give them another reading and see if they still hold up!


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