Is Sherlock Holmes Still Readable?
With two staggeringly popular modern television adaptations and a couple of rather successful cinematic releases, Sherlock Holmes has experienced an unexpected comeback in the early years of the 21st century. Popular culture has made a John out of Dr. Watson – if not a Joan, for that matter – and transfigured Holmes into Sherlock. From slow-motion boxing matches to the so-called Mind Palace, the attempts at depicting Sherlock Holmes’ wondrous line of thought have become much more creative and enthralling than anything Sir Doyle could ever have imagined. Exactly how appealing can it be then, to creep your way through over 1700 pages of text, written in the rather inaccessible English of the early 20th century, instead of re-watching season 3 of BBC’s Sherlock?
Very. Here’s why.
The Book Is Always Better
This is a statement that many people who deal with texts and their adaptations to other art forms arrive at (read more in this article). It’s hard not to take it for granted, however, there are many reasons speaking against it. First, you need to define what it means ‘to be good’ and ‘to be better’. If CBS’ Elementary has a smaller fan base than BBC’s Sherlock, is the latter necessarily the better? If fewer people have read The Hound of the Baskervilles than seen one of its film or tv adaptations but in general have liked it better than the audiences of the adaptations, how can you define which one is better? Is it even possible to compare completely different art forms or media with each other?
There’s no definite answer to these questions and everyone may tend toward either direction due to personal reasons or intuition. However, there’s no question about the original, most basic idea deriving from the author(s) of the book. In the end, any adaptation must have its roots in the text and either add new ideas and/ or rearrange the old ones in a new way. Of course this counts for any artistic output in the world and that there have been no basic ‘new’ ideas since the stone age or so. Any story, poem or picture is based on man’s most primary feelings – love, fear, hatred and so on. But what we call an original story, original screenplay or similar, is an installment that has joined these feelings in a way that hasn’t (officially) been done before. And an adaptation or remake of this installment dedicates itself to reinventing or retelling this particular combination.
The Complete Sherlock Holmes or any of the 56 stories and 4 novels aren’t necessarily better than Elementary, Sherlock or the Robert Downey Jr. films. But without Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s writing, none of these things would exist today. So it’s also a matter of genuine appreciation and thankfulness to sit down and read the original Sherlock Holmes.
The Cleverness of Adapting
In the process of adapting a story from one medium to another, things tend to get lost. Especially in adapting a text to a screen, decisions have to be made about whether to include certain subplots and characters, whether to cut time frames and details. In the case of Sherlock Holmes, there are two advantages. Firstly, the material is vast enough and not very chronological, which makes it easier to create something new from the original source. Especially the lack of chronology is important here – think of the vast yet chronological material of Harry Potter, a case where the film producers had to be very careful to make things wrap up at the end. Sherlock Holmes was never truly ‘wrapped-up’. In fact, Sir Doyle had attempted to do so by killing off Holmes in The Final Problem and was met by a reaction so furious, that he felt forced to let the detective return eight years later with The Hound of the Baskervilles. Funnily, this remains the most popular of all Sherlock Holmes stories and novels to this day. The actual last Sherlock Holmes book, The Case-Book of Sherlock Holmes ends as unspectacular as any other story in the canon, leaving it to the reader to put an end to her/ his experience.
Age is another helpful factor in the business of adapting the Sherlock Holmes stories to screen. The popularity of the sometimes heart-less, intellectual detective has increased exponentially with time passing, and there must be some reason for that. Probably the distance to the origins of the character makes audiences less likely to cling to their own imaginations of these, also because few people have actually read the stories today. If you do decide to read some or all of Sherlock Holmes, you will find that the adaptations are extremely clever in hinting to the original stories, yet creating something completely new and, yes, original. Whether it’s rewriting novels, expanding short stories and assembling others, transforming 20 pages into 1 second and a one-story villain into someone who defines a whole show, the Sherlock Holmes adaptations have proven to belong to the cleverest of their kind.
An Expanded Universe
The Complete Sherlock Holmes is one tough collection of paper indeed. Apart from further explanation on John Watson’s relationship to women and Sherlock Holmes’s drug addiction, which actually helped me understand the back story in the adaptations, the stories also feature a huger amount of racist and misogynist content than expected. For instance, the novel The Sign of Four features non-Caucasian characters that are depicted as rather unpleasant, cruel and primitive. Sir Doyle especially looks down upon India, which was still a part of the British Empire when the stories were written. However, this proves that no matter how intelligent a person, it was hard not to follow the common prejudice in past, less educated and open-minded societies. This is a topic I have often discussed with myself and other people, especially in relation to The Third Reich and Nazi-ism, and reading Sherlock Holmes has helped to cast a bit of light on the puzzling and terrible attitude of times past.
Another difference between the original Sherlock Holmes and the reinvented ones, is their attitude toward women. The surprise was big when NBC announced casting Lucy Liu as Joan Watson instead of John in Elementary, not only because it’s a brave step to challenge the boundaries of a story this way, but also because Holmes’s antipathy towards women is one of his most characteristic trademarks. Contrary to NBC, the BBC decided to take a more traditional route by establishing Holmes as someone who is at least not completely trusting of women – that is, until he meets The Woman/ Irene Adler. Even in Sherlock though, we have the female Sergeant Donovan, who repels Sherlock, pathology lab assistant Molly Hooper, the expanded appearance of “Not-Your-Housekeeper” Mrs. Hudson and most recently the establishment of Mary Morstan as Dr. Watson’s wife. In the original Sherlock Holmes stories, Mary Morstan is part of one short story, after which she is only mentioned side notes and eventually disappears from the storyline completely, Mrs. Hudson is just ‘there’ but never a part of the action and other female characters are mere story devices. Except for Irene Adler, of course, but her character is much more evolved in the adaptations, most brilliantly as the distinguished dominatrix in BBC’s Sherlock. Another example is the 2009 film, which clearly hints towards a romantic relationship between Irene Adler and Sherlock Holmes.
There is a whole other book to be written about the reasons why you should read the original Sherlock Holmes – and if not The Complete Collection, at least try some of the wonderful short stories like The Red-Headed League, The Man With the Twisted Lip or The Veiled Lodger. At any rate, I haven’t mentioned the best reasons to stick your nose into some of these pages yet, which are going to please all the people addicted to any of the recent Sherlock Holmes adaptations out there:
No cliffhangers and a vaster supply than any television show or films will ever be able to produce. What more could a fan hope for?
What do you think? Leave a comment.