Sherlock Holmes

I read somewhere that Sherlock Holmes has been portrayed on screen more than any other fictional character, and a quick scan of imdb gives one little cause to doubt this claim. This weekend I watched “Mr. Holmes” starring Ian McKellen and was quite pleased by the top-notch acting and able storytelling. As Holmes flicks go it was definitely one of the better sort. In a time when summer movie fare is dominated by explosions, car chases and cleavage, it’s balm to one’s soul to know that there are still quiet and intelligent stories like this to be told and an audience willing to listen. Maybe there’s hope for our species yet;)

What is it about Sherlock Holmes that resonates so powerfully, why is this fictional detective created almost 130 years ago so appealing and relevant to our modern sensibilities?

My take is that he’s a personification of pure intellect – so smart and clever that people admire him.

Adam-Troy Castro has hypothesized that it’s the relationship between him and Watson – two very close friends. Watson humanizes Holmes and the fact that he cares makes us care about him, too. Though Watson doesn’t appear in Mr. Holmes, you can still see that dynamic in action.

There was a thread last August where Simplicio noted that Sherlock’s IMDB numbers, while impressive, fall short of Dracula’s (and Santa’s). It looks like Batman edges Holmes out likewise – and if you count the Devil, yow.

Sherlock Holmes has much of the same appeal as a superhero, albeit a human and believable and relatable one.

I wouldn’t put it that way. There are other characters, including Holmes’s own brother Mycroft, who are more “pure intellect,” compared with which Sherlock is quite the man of action. But it’s true that his intellect is his defining characteristic and major “superpower.” And the great achievement of Arthur Conan Doyle’s stories, and (to the extent that they’re successful) later adaptations, is to make brainwork and figuring things out the basis for an exciting tale.

Indeed he does, but very briefly, and with no dialogue.

I think Holmes’s enduring appeal is due to his impressive intellect, his personality quirks, his close friendship with Watson, the (usually) cleverly-written mysteries they solve together, and the evocative late-Victorian setting.

Some people have suggested that he is appealing in the way Mr. Spock is on Star Trek: for appearing to be emotionless, but actually being highly emotional, only largely repressed.

Some of the best scenes in the stories are when he slips and reveals the depths of his emotional caring and feeling. The scene at the end of “The Three Garridebs” (if memory serves) is one of the most distinct:

Holmes thinks Watson has been shot, and is about to commit blatant murder to avenge him.

Obviously it isn’t the sole reason for his appeal, but one obvious reason that we’ve seen so many takes on Holmes is that, unlike many other fictional characters, he’s in the public domain. Everyone can do their own take on the character without having to worry about Doyle’s great grand-cousin coming out of the woodwork with a bunch of lawyers in tow. That, in turn has let people do their own versions of the character, which in turn has led other people to draw inspiration from these secondary Holmeses, and so on.

Indeed, when someone does a new version of Holmes, there’s a grab-bag of character traits they can pull from, some of which were added to the character post-Doyle. You can mix-and-match your own Holmes as needed for your particular story.

This is a good example. Doyle’s Holmes isn’t particularly emotionally repressed. He’s frequently motivated by compassion towards the victims in his cases, angered by the injustices perpetrated by criminals, proud of his abilities, depressed when he can’t find cases and attached to Watson, as you say. But over the years a sort of “Spock-lite” trait has been added to the character.

It used to be said that Holmes, Dracula, and Hamlet were the best known fictional characters of all time.

It also used to be said that the three historical figures with the most books written about them were Jesus, Napoleon, and Richard Wagner. I think Hitler knocked Wagner out of the top three by 1960.

For many years, Tarzan was also mentioned in this select group. Not so much these days.

Lincoln is also coming on strong, if he hasn’t already cracked the top three. Some 16,000 books since 1865 is the number I’ve seen mentioned.

Holmes is a very modern character. His success is based on his abilities, not his ‘birth’. He is wonderfully flawed. His life revolves around his work, not his family. He challenges authorities and institutions, and successfully.
And he is enigmatic enough that artists can imposed their own interpretations on him without violating the original.