Sherlock Holmes: To “Kill Off”, or Not to “Kill Off”
Afraid to Kill Off Main Characters
The death of an important fictional character, whether it be in a movie, an anime, or a book, will almost always produce an effect on an engaged member of the audience. Not only that, but the entire story, depending on the significance and role of the character, will change in one way or another. It might be a slight or radical change, but the overall feel of the story, or how we experience the story thereafter will simply shift.
The Influence of the Audience
Many films, books, or animes are guilty of either refusing to have a main character die, or, in the event that a main character does die, the character somehow comes back from the dead. A loop hole is found (or created) in order to resurrect the character. It’s a Deus Ex Machina.
Are there times when keeping all the main characters alive produces a greater effect on the audience than not? Does preserving the life of the main characters enable the audience to have a clear experience of reality, of what life is really like? Some would argue not. The prospect that heroes will always make it out alive is a lie, and this lie takes effect especially when the film, anime, or book is geared towards children, who are easily influenced by the idea of heroes with incredible endurance, pain tolerance, willpower, and impeccable combat skills.
A great example of a story in which the main character dies is Sherlock Holmes. The short story written by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle about his famous, mystery-solving sleuth, The Final Problem, was supposed to bring about the end of his great mystery series. In The Final Problem, Holmes and his arch nemesis Moriarty scuffle with each other beside the Reichenbach Falls. In order to defeat Moriarty, Holmes grabs a hold of the professor and takes the plunge into the watery precipice, seemingly ending both his life and Moriarty’s.
It seemed like that was the sudden and yet climatic ending of Sherlock Holmes. However, urged by the voices of many upset fans, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle grudgingly agreed to devise a somewhat realistic way in which he could bring Holmes back to life. It would seem, to a degree, that we’ve come upon an important factor in the issue of raising main characters from the dead: the influence of an engrossed audience. This relates in a way, and rather indirectly, to “fan service”, which is changing or forming a story so that it suits whatever the fans want to happen. In “serving the fans”, the story is not necessarily improved. Rather, it is literally a “service” performed for the sake of satisfying the audience.
Both the notion of “fan service” and a persuasive, captivated audience, prompts a series of questions and observations. First, it seems like even though it is deceiving and unrealistic to make the main character come back from the dead, or somehow survive when he shouldn’t have, the audience delights in the pleasure of such fantasy. This is almost as bad as a kid’s movie giving off the message that the hero will always survive, and to a certain extent, it seems worse.
Adult audiences of such stories like Sherlock Holmes willing choose to be rendered child-like, in that they applaud the more unrealistic notion of Holmes surviving/coming back from the dead, instead acknowledging his noble, honorable demise. They don’t like to accept the fact that the hero doesn’t make it out in the end, that he has to perform some sort of self-sacrifice. They loathe the idea that “he’ll never come back”, or even the idea of those words “The End”.
Perhaps, this is a reflection of our culture. But what kind of reflection is it? Is it silly, childish, or foolish of adult audiences to forsake and refute the idea of the hero remaining dead, or any main character being killed off? Or can we learn something important from keeping the protagonists alive? Is there another side to this reflection of our culture?
No Pain, No Gain
One of the greatest faults pervading the prospect of heroes returning from the dead, or not even dying at all, is that it devalues both life and sacrifice. In regards to devaluing sacrifice, this is indeed a reflection of the fallen morality of our society.
When it comes to a hero making a sacrifice and then coming back from the dead, whether it be Sherlock Holmes dragging Moriarty over the Reichenbach Falls or the Iron Giant using his body to blow up a missile flying towards earth, one major thing is lacking. Society misunderstands sacrifice in namely one highly important way: sacrifice without consummation isn’t really sacrifice.
Imagine a modern day Jewish Rabbi or a monk trying to teach his disciples about self discipline or self denial. The Rabbi or monk instructs his pupils, “To obtain self discipline and to practice self denial, go one month without eating dessert.”
Sacrifice is involved in this situation: in order to teach themselves self mastery and practice self denial, the students have to sacrifice their desserts for one month. It’s a trade off, like many sacrifices are. They trade their desserts for self-mastery.
Now, imagine further that at the end of his supper one student has the opportunity to eat dessert. He remembers his teacher’s instruction, and refrains. However, turning back to the main course of his meal, he decides that he’ll have another helping, since he can’t have dessert. Is he remaining true to the heart of his sacrifice?
In the example above, the disciple is practicing self discipline and self denial by not eating dessert. Nevertheless, knowing that he can’t eat dessert and trying to derive more satisfaction from his meal, his sacrifice for the sake of self mastery is incomplete. It lacks consummation. If the disciple truly wished to teach himself self denial or discipline, he would refrain from eating dessert and making up for this lack by eating more supper.
How does this relate to Sherlock Holmes, or any movie involving the somewhat sacrificial death of a main character?
Sacrifice is supposed to hurt. That is a fact that our society should never disregard. Finding someway to ease the pain, or make it okay in the end, is a cheap version of sacrifice. In the film Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows (2011), Sherlock—played by Robert Downy Jr.—realizes that there is absolutely no way he can stop Moriarty from bringing war upon the world, unless Moriarty is killed. Nevertheless, playing out the fight between himself and Moriarty in his mind (the usual technique he employs before skirmishing), he also realizes that, when it comes to hand-to-hand combat, he can’t beat Moriarty without losing his life. Consequently, just as in Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Final Problem, Sherlock clutches Moriarty and drags the professor with him into the Reichenbach Falls. Sherlock’s sacrifice creates one of the most powerful moments in the film.
But then, what happens at the end of the movie? We see Dr. John Watson grieving, writing an article about the life of his friend. Then a package is delivered to Watson. It’s a breathing device Holmes had once shown him. Now the audience is catching on: Sherlock may not be dead! Watson leaves the room, his suspicions growing with the audience’s, and the moment he leaves his typewriter, we see Sherlock suddenly emerge, approach the typewriter, and, seemingly in favor of the modern day audience that refutes such sad “The End”s, he punches into the typewriter “The End?”.
There are a number of things to take into account regarding the near-death occurrence of Sherlock Holmes: first, it was a sacrificial act. But then, on the other hand, Sherlock certainly seemed to have planned out that he might have to take a plunge into the Reichenbach Falls. Otherwise, why would he have brought the breathing device with him? It may just be my opinion, but this seems to lower the value of Holmes’ sacrificial act, and the same would go for all stories in which the hero sacrifices himself, and yet comes out unharmed. There isn’t full consummation. Conversely, there is the existence of the notion that not all characters will know that they will come out unharmed. A character in a story may believe that he or she will die as the fruit of their sacrifice. In this case, if the character does happen to survive his or her own offering, subjectively the sacrifice is complete. Nonetheless, from the viewpoint of the story-writer, as well as the people viewing the story, it is a lie for society to believe that sacrifice mustn’t come with consummation, and that life will not require these types of sacrifices.
Death, Where is Your Sting?
While having main characters come back from the dead, or not die at all, may present a misinterpretation of reality or the meaning of true sacrifice, we can still draw some positives from such stories. The most prominent and important positive is that sacrifice is usually—or hopefully—followed by something very promising.
Like we determined before, sacrifice is like a trade-off. Usually, when somebody in a story (or real life) sacrifices himself, he does so with the hope that it will better the people he loves, or even the world itself. He sacrifices himself because he believes his offering will be repaid, or make enough difference, to keep the people he loves safe. Such is the case of Sherlock Holmes. And this is what makes it an honorable thing.
There is also another side to this, however. Deeply routed in many of the concepts found in Christianity, the notion of “rising from the dead” is something that the hero of a story earns. The greatest example would always have to be—from a Christian perspective—Jesus Christ. By Christian belief, Jesus takes on the sins of the world, and after doing so, He dies for the world. And the sacrifice is consummated on the Cross, upon which He breathes His last. However, what do Christians believe that happens three days later? Jesus is resurrected.
The importance of this example is that it possesses a theme very common in stories that have heroic characters returning from the dead. And the theme is that death should not prevail over people that fight for life, or for that which is good. Death cannot hold such people. Or in the case of Jesus, He “destroys” both sin and death. As St. Paul writes, boasting about Jesus’s resurrection, “O Hell, where is your victory? O Death, where is your sting?” (1 Corinthians 15: 50)
Perhaps, while audiences should still be given stories that reveal the reality of death, and the worth of life and sacrifice, it’s okay for them to delight in the fantasy—or for Christians, the supernatural reality—that death and evil should not be able to triumph over those that live righteously, or even sacrificially. And should a movie, book, or anime try to promote such a theme of light triumphing over darkness, or life being unstoppable by death, perhaps we should take the time to understand what this symbolizes and means in our lives.
What do you think? Leave a comment.