Is Sherlock Holmes Still Readable?

Benedict Cumberbatch as Sherlock in Sherlock.
Benedict Cumberbatch in BBC’s Sherlock.

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

Buster Keaton in Sherlock Jnr
Buster Keaton in Sherlock Jr. (1924)

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

Lucy Liu as Joan Watson in Elementary
Lucy Liu as Joan Watson in Elementary

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

Rachel McAdams and Robert Downey Jr as Irene Adler and Holmes in Sherlock Holmes (2009).
Rachel McAdams and Robert Downey Jr as Irene Adler and Holmes in Sherlock Holmes (2009).

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.

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  1. Susie Richards

    Definitely! These short stories and novels are a blast to read when you want to get a taste of the original crime thriller stuff.

  2. What’s not to love?! I vividly remember the summer school holidays when I fell in love with Sherlock Holmes. Those long nights I curled up under my bed sheet with a fan on… sneakily reading by torchlight seem to pass in a flash!

    • Mette Marie Kowalski

      I have some memories like those too, although they are more likely to include books like Harry Potter or some by Enid Blyton. Those were good times, certainly.

  3. Holmes is one of my favourite fictional character. I obtained a copy of the complete collection when I was really young and I grew up reading the stories. I read every story so many times that my copy is utterly torn.

    • Mette Marie Kowalski

      Mine (or rather my sister’s) is torn after we’ve both read it just once, I can’t imagine its state after we’ve borrowed it to some other people.

  4. Tyler Ferguson

    I have to be a minority and say I am disappointed by the novels. I have seen the TV shows and movies and I was left with the impression that the character Sherlock Holmes was a total kick-ass dude. After reading the book, I could not be more let down.

    • Mette Marie Kowalski

      Well, there is that. He narrates a few of the stories in written form too, and explains how he just seems so wonderful and great because you can’t follow his train of thought. However, he does actually do some quite kick-ass things in the stories.

  5. Enjoyed reading this. What can one say? Holmes is wonderful, and his complex relationship with D Watson can be more interesting than the story itself.

  6. H. M. Bradford
    H. M. Bradford

    Great article! An interesting piece to check out in the vein of ‘Holmesiana’ is Pierre Bayard’s “Sherlock Holmes Was Wrong”. While Bayard’s argument is a little obnoxious, it’s a thought-provoking way to consider Sherlock’s problem-solving, calling into question the way we read mystery stories in general.

  7. I love the original stories! I watch the BBC Sherlock adaptation and have seen episodes of Elementary, and I enjoy certain episodes more because I’ve read the original versions. The stories are engrossing and Conan Doyle’s writing is great and definitely holds up with time.

  8. Nicola Kahler

    I read the stories after watching the Movies and various TV shows and I didn’t find them as exciting as I thought they’d be!! As much as I hate to say it, I definitely think the movies/TV shows are better than the books.

  9. Well if you do not like to read Sherlock Holmes, then let us face it- you do not like to read.

    • Mette Marie Kowalski

      Hm, I disagree… I don’t think that people who dislike a certain genre or so are necessarily ignorant people, it’s just a matter of taste, isn’t it?

  10. It’s always disappointing to me to hear people declare they will not read something because of some racism or misogynism in the story, without taking into account the culture and/or time period in which it was written. These stories, sometimes more than any others, have a lot to teach us now about the different ways we perceive others. Nice job!

    • Mette Marie Kowalski

      Exactly, you can learn from these stories and see how our ancestors thought very differently of certain things, and that this was considered normal back then. Glad you enjoyed reading!

  11. I’ve never read any of the original stories, but I think the BBC adaptation is a masterpiece, and after reading this I’m compelled to seek out some of the short stories. Good work!

    • Mette Marie Kowalski

      That’s wonderful, just what I intended to achieve here; to make at least one person decide to check out some of the stories. If you like the BBC adaption, I’m almost sure you’ll like the stories.

  12. I agree with a lot of what you are saying. I, for example, personally think the BBC Sherlock handled (and adapted) much of Doyle’s stories to such success, that I enjoy them more than I enjoyed the stories. However, it is likely that my enjoyment of the show got a heads start, because I knew the stories so well and appreciated their, as you put it, clever adapting.

    • Mette Marie Kowalski

      Yes, I fell in love with the show immediately as well and still love it more than the actual stories, but having read them makes me enjoy the show so much more.

  13. I am a horrible addict for he Sherlock show. Best. Thing. EVER. I loved the last episode. Seemed more about characters rather than mystery, but the characters absolutely make the show. I would watch an entire episode with Sherlock and Watson drinking tea.

    • Mette Marie Kowalski

      And that’s the point, right? So much happens in the show that it makes you go insane because you’d be alright with just Sherlock and Watson drinking tea, like you said. The last season has become more about the characters though, you’re right.

  14. H

    I downloaded the collection of Sherlock Holmes stories for free from the Book app on my iPhone and they’re a lot more interesting to read than the news! Nice job tackling all of this.

  15. I agree with you wholeheartedly. Film and TV do owe a debt to the original work, and I think that the new adaptations do it well. Hints to Doyle’s work is seen throughout the films and shows. At first I thought Irene Adler actually being Moriarty and being a world class terrorist was a bit too much, but as times change art must also.

  16. I really don’t find the language that inaccessible. It isn’t Anglo-Saxon, Middle English or Early Modern English. In fact, I find the Sherlock Holmes canon far more accessible than other works of the same time period. As they are far more adventures than they are mysteries the pacing is quick, even for the more lengthier novels.
    Compare them to the length of novels today and even the Young Adult novel can go on for longer page lengths than say The Sign of Four or The Hounds of Baskerville. I do agree about the antiquated depiction of ethnicities can be jarring at times but I don’t believe they take anything away from the adventure.
    You are not required to read them all at once and with a few exceptions you are not bound by much continuity to read them in a certain order. You can read one case from one of the commonly sold complete collections, finish it in maybe one sitting than put the book down to pick up at a later time.

    • Mette Marie Kowalski

      Well, you’re right that some books from the period are more unaccessible. Sherlock Holmes pleased a wide audience of especially less educated people I think. However, I read the complete collection after finishing the Divergent series and it was definitely hard at first to get used to the rather old-fashioned language.

  17. I really love that Sherlock Holmes and his stories have been interpreted and reinterpreted in many different ways. It’s fascinating to see the story take different shapes under the care of different actors and directors and especially how they are received among different audiences, intended or unintended. Thoroughly enjoyed your article.

  18. Tyler McPherson

    Great article! I thought it was really interesting and think Sherlock and Elementary are great shows. I have the second hand novels just haven’t got around to reading them yet. Hopefully will get around to that soon!

  19. Siobhan Calafiore

    Really enjoyed reading this! I’ve only seen the most recent films so its time to pull out the books I think and keep an eye out for the television series!

  20. Art Posocco

    Nice work! I’m really happy that you do not go the route of pushing the books because they are “superior” to later adaptations for some metaphysical reason. Indeed, as you illustrate, they are worth reading for vastly more practical reasons (including, and most importantly, sheer pleasure). Beyond the straight adaptations, I also like to seek out Holmes’s DNA in less obvious places, from film noir to Disney’s “The Great Mouse Detective.” (If you’re interested in the film noir connection, a good essay is “From the Sherlock Holmes to the Hard-Boiled Detective in Film Noir” by Jerold J. Abrams.) It’s truly remarkable how great a cultural impact Doyle’s prose has had.

    • Mette Marie Kowalski

      Thank you. I like that you used the word ‘metaphysical’ here, it’s quite fitting. It’s absolutely right that Doyle’s work has influenced a lot of others. I never saw The Great Mouse Detective but there are shows like Psych for instance, that use a Sherlock Holmes -esque character.

  21. I love to read, and while I would like to read the Sherlock Holmes stories, I just never seem to be able to. It’s not that one ma be better than the other, it’s just that the idea of how we see Sherlock in current media is so pervasive that when we go to read the stories sometimes it’s off putting.

    Which is why I always try to get friends to read book versions of things first. And why I usually try to as well.

    • Mette Marie Kowalski

      It’s great to hear that you want to though. I can understand why you wouldn’t read them, the adaptations (or some of them) are so good that there doesn’t seem to be a reason to read the originals.

  22. Jonathon Wilson

    I think you hit the nail on the head where you talk about things being “better” and then discussing original ideas. The idea of one version or representation over various media is truly subjective, but what one cannot deny is the work that Doyle did creating the character and stories that are unforgettable. After all, had Doyle done a shoddy job creating Holmes and his world, there would not be so many adapdations to compare the work against.

  23. Diana Chin

    Wonderful article! I’ve been a big fan of the Sherlock Holmes series and it amazes me to see the many adaptations on this literature icon. While I still prefer reading the stories written by Doyle, I found BBC’s version of Sherlock quite refreshing 🙂

    • Mette Marie Kowalski

      Thank you, Diana. How cool that you prefer the stories! My favorite is still the BBC adaptation but I wouldn’t call it better than the original stories.

  24. Matt Laffey

    Excellent article – I’ll be including it in this week’s Sherlock Links Compendium on which is syndicated here:

    On the one hand, it seems futile to mount an argument for why it’s important/essential to read the original texts (in this case the original 60 stories, aka the Sacred Canon), opposed to just watching various TV adaptations no matter how brilliant, true to the text, etc. they may be. I say “futile” because it seems like an a priori assumption that familiarity with an original text trumps all other derivative work.

    But then again, the importance of the original text is not actually a given a priori assumption – one can go through life ‘loving’ various Sherlock adaptations without even being aware of the original, old books which the adaptations are based. Hence the need for Ms Kowalski’s noble defense of the written word.

    Currently we’re in a Sherlockian ‘boom time’ which means there’s a ton of new, enthusiastic Holmes fans out there whose gateway drug is BBC sherlock (or Elementary or RDJ films). The trick is to get them to gravitate toward the Canon and embrace the source material, creating an entirely new, young generation of Sherlockians/ACD scholars and/or participants in Sherlock scion culture.

  25. Books will always be readable and Sherlock Holmes is no different. Much how an adaptation is adapted to a certain kind of character or time period books are kind of fixed points that we can enter and enjoy ourselves in. So long as the story is engaging and we can “relate” in a way to the characters, which we usually always do in a well written novel, we can find a place in our heart for it.

  26. I’ve always been a fan of the Sherlock Holmes and the books. I thought this take was very interesting to read and I definitely agree!

  27. I’m no purist but I’m enjoying Sherlock and, to a lesser degree, Elementary as something other than an expansion of the Holmes universe. Am I alone in cringing when Sherlock goes all soapy and at the end of every episode of Elementary Holmes grows a little as a person?

    • Mette Marie Kowalski

      I haven’t really watched Elementary so I can’t say… but I like every bit of Sherlock. It has some soapy moments but I kind of love them as well.

  28. rubengc

    In my opinion the Conan Doyle original novels entirely legitimise the canon. to read them now is a wondeful experiance and newer incarnations will live by their own merit.

    Great article and talking point.

  29. I think I read somewhere that Sherlock is one of the most adapted characters of all time. And of course, you have to give Doyle credit for creating such an intriguing character. His personality quirks are what carry the books oftentimes more than the actual mystery for me. I love how the BBC series Sherlock is playing up on those idiosyncrasies.

    If you do read the original Sherlock works, that makes the viewing experience of the adaption all the more enjoyable. It’s like constantly watching for “easter eggs” and nerding out whenever you can catch them.

    • Mette Marie Kowalski

      I haven’t thought of the easter eggs that are included in reading the original works, but you’re absolutely right – it’s something I think fits the Harry Potter series very well too.
      Sherlock is a very original and unique character, and one of the few that almost every human in the world actually knows. Pretty amazing – I would love to know what Doyle would’ve thought if he had known.

  30. I’m ashamed to admit that I haven’t read any of the Sherlock Holmes literature, although I love the BBC Sherlock and RDJ movies. Of course, they are part of my never-ending to-be-read list, and I look forward to a better understanding of characters, plot, and background when I do become acquainted with the material.

  31. Mary Awad

    I watched Sherlock and then I read the books and I still found the cannon very accessible and interesting even in this day and age. Good literature can withstand the test of time and Sherlock Holmes proves that brilliantly~

  32. LadyRose

    I think that the original stories can be fun to read and obviously any fan of Sherlock Holmes is glad that they were written, but I do not find them to be as enjoyable as the later adaptations. This is mostly because of the characters attitudes. Having to get past all of the racism, sexism, classism, etc, found in the original stories makes it less enjoyable. Though sadly even some adaptations have these things as well. Not as obvious or in your face, but they are definitely still there in some degree.

    • Mette Marie Kowalski

      That’s something most kinds of older culture struggle with and the reason many people don’t read many older books or watch older movies. It’s definitely very apparent in Sherlock Holmes so I don’t blame you for disliking the books a bit.

  33. I discovered the books by accident when I was ten and hanging around in the library after school. The D section happened to be next to the window I liked to sit in. I’d watched a few of the Jeremy Brett Holmes episodes, so I knew the characters, but I remember how excited I was, dragging home a tattered anthology, and realizing there was MORE.

    It can be difficult for modern readers to dig into them, both because of the racist and sexist story elements and because the visual action of the new films and both series, but I try to encourage fans of the adaptations to read some of the stories, because it really does make a difference to encounter Holmes in his original form. I especially encourage people to read the stories that expand upon his drug addiction, as that is only touched upon in the adaptations.

  34. CDK

    In discussing whether or not we should read the original Sherlock Holmes stories, you make a larger point about adaptations and of how, essentially, writers should approach the past work of others. This was actually a conversation that took place during Doyle’s lifetime, and is known as a movement called “modernism.” This artistic, philosophic, and cultural movement arose from the changes taking place in Western society and included writers such as T. S. Eliot, James Joyce, Ezra Pound, Virginia Woolf; musicians such as Arnold Schoenberg and Igor Stravinsky; painters such as Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse, and Paul Cézanne; playwrights Bertolt Brecht and Eugene O’Neill; and architects Frank Lloyd Wright and Le Corbusier. This is, of course, a small sampling of the actual number of artists and thinkers who added to modernism.

    In relating to the past, modernism adopted various techniques designed to adapt what had already been done, or known, to the present and our circumstances and concerns in the present. In an essay titled “Tradition and the Individual Talent,” T. S. Eliot wrote that “No poet, no artist of any art, has his complete meaning alone. His significance, his appreciation is the appreciation of his relation to the dead poets and artists. You cannot value him alone; you must set him, for contrast and comparison, among the dead.” (T. S. Eliot, “Tradition and the Individual Talent,” 1921.)

    James Joyce’s work, especially “Ulysses” and “Finnegans Wake,” is stuffed with allusions to other writers’ works, both past and present. “Finnegans Wake” actually begins in the middle of a sentence:

    “…riverrun, past Eve and Adam’s, from swerve of shore to bend of bay, brings us by a commodious vicus or recirculation back to Howth Castle and Environs.”

    In this incomplete sentence, there are references to the Church of the Immaculate Conception in Dublin (Eve and Adam’s), a pub by the same name where Franciscans secretly said Mass, the Roman emperor Commodus, and the Italian philosopher Giambattista Vico (1668-1744), whose work “The New Science” Joyce greatly admired.

    As far as Sherlock Holmes goes, one may relate to an adaptation because it has brought Sherlock et al. into our present and hence may be of more interest to us than an adaptation that is faithful to the period in which Doyle placed his characters. This certainly might account for the popularity of the newer television adaptations (the two recent movies, of course, are set in Doyle’s time).

    But mightn’t there be another, more persuasive reason to read the original stories? Doesn’t one of the great advantages of story-telling lie in its ability to transport us to a different time, a different place, a world no longer accessible to us save for the stories told about that place and time? And to allow us to meet with those whom we cannot hope to meet? In addition to that England in that time, there is also something about the character of Sherlock Holmes, with his faults, that serves as a symbol. The late Edgar Smith put it this way: “Let it be said, more simply, that he is the personification of something in us that we have lost, or never had. For it is not Sherlock Holmes who sits in Baker Street, comfortable, competent and self-assured; it is ourselves who are there, full of a tremendous capacity for wisdom, complacent in the presence of our humble Watson, conscious of a warm well-being and a timeless, imperishable content. The easy chair in the room is drawn up to the hearthstone of our very hearts – it is our tobacco in the Persian slipper, and our violin lying so carelessly across the knees – it is we who hear the pounding on the stairs and the knock upon the door. The swirling fog without and the acrid smoke within bite deep indeed, for we taste them even now. And the time and place and all the great events are near and dear to us because they are a part of us today.”

    “That is the Sherlock Holmes we love – the Holmes implicit and eternal in ourselves.” (Edgar Smith as quoted by William S. Baring-Gould, editor, The Annotated Sherlock Holmes, Vol. 1; New York: Clarkson N. Potter, Inc., 1967.)

    I can’t think of a better reason to sit down with “The Adventure of the Greek Interpretor” and watch Sherlock and Mycroft engage in a battle of deduction.

    Cristofre Kayser

  35. I think your article is beautiful written, and you make some very valid points. I think each version(book, TV, and movie) all have their charms and I dare say downfalls, and it would be difficult to say which is “better.”

  36. L:Freire

    Definitely some significance to the adaption of the original text. To those who are illiterate or disabled, television, radio, or cinema can contribute to their appetite for art in a palpable manner. Can also be a teaser for a long, lost with the original context.

    • L:Freire

      Definitely some significance to the adaption of the original text. To those who are illiterate or disabled; television, radio, or cinema can contribute to their appetite for art in a palpable manner. Can also be a teaser for a long, lost reading with the original context.

  37. Themes of death and murder, no matter the time or culture, seem to be imminently familiar themes to them all. This explains the continued appeal of Sherlock Holmes.

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