Some thoughts on adaptation regarding Sherlock Holmes

In 2013, I attended a lecture series at the University of London called Sherlock Holmes – Between Past and Present. One of the standout lectures was from James Brown about ‘Holmes and the Moving Image’, which examined the idea that Sherlock Holmes is literally a timeless figure.

Early Holmes adaptations updated to the stories to present day but kept Holmes firmly in the 1890s creating the everlasting image of the great detective with his deerstalker, Inverness cape, and pipe. The first two Basil Rathbone/Nigel Bruce films produced by Fox did attempt to place the stories in their original setting but when Universal took over they updated the stories to ‘present day’ but kept Holmes ‘ageless and locked in a time bubble’. It wasn’t really until the Granada series that they really tried to put Holmes back into the Victorian age, going to great lengths to pinpoint a date and stick as closely as possible to it. (Alastair Duncan pointed out that the Ronald Howard series also attempted to place Holmes in the Victorian age but I’m not very familiar with that adaptation so don’t know how much they stuck to their Victorian setting).

There is really nothing new in the idea of updating Sherlock Holmes, the majority of Sherlock Holmes have updated the stories – Basil Rathbone’s Holmes makes use of modern technology, as does Benedict Cumberbatch but these are not alien to the character of Holmes, the Sherlock Holmes of the original stories was a modern man and used up to date modern technology to aid him in his activities so there is nothing revolutionary about Sherlock Holmes searching the Internet or listening to the wireless because he is very much a man of his time, whatever time that may be.

Another panel I enjoyed was a discussion about Holmes as a social explorer in Luke Seaber’s paper on ‘Sherlock Holmes as a Social Explorer’ which linking in with Benjamin Poore’s paper on ‘Holmes as a Master of Disguise’ suggested that because Holmes is able to adopt different persona’s efficiently he does have a very good understanding of social cues and an understanding how those social cues differ in the class of society he was moving in. Seaber suggested that Holmes’s understanding of people comes from his ability to categorise people, like Henry Mayhew in his classification of people in ‘London Labourer and the London Poor’ (1851) so essentially, Holmes takes part in ‘incognito social exploration’ through his use of effective disguise.

An idea also suggested during one of the panels was that Sherlock Holmes himself was a character and that he was always acting, so did Watson really know his friend? I was especially reminded of all this with regards to the most recent series of Sherlock. Sherlock is very much part of the long tradition of adapting the character of Sherlock Holmes, rather than the stories…although Sherlock is perhaps closer than most of the looser adaptations.

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Thoughts on the Holmes brothers

WS Barring-Gould created a third brother to explain why Mycroft was working in London and not home minding the country estate. Barring-Gould assumes two positions regarding this mysterious third brother:

1) The Holmes family are upperclass
2) there is a country estate

Sherlock refers to his ancestors as being country squires who lived much as country squires did. It’s entirely possible this is suggesting like a lot of the upperclass landowners there were mis-investments, money being squandered and a family line being beset with all sorts of financial and interpersonal issues. Anyone who watches Downton Abbey will be familiar with the story of a family where there were no immediate male heirs. There could have once been a country estate, but not one Mycroft inherited.

Additionally, Barring-Gould is keen on the idea of the Holmes brothers being upperclass. It’s possible they were not. Mycroft would have joined the civil service following the results of the 1854 Northcote-Trevelyan report. This report criticised the civil service for being a dumping ground of the sons of the upperclass who did not demonstrate the kind of pioneering attitude Britian needed to oversee its colonial interests, the report recommended an end to nepotism and suggested the Chinese method of recruitment where potential candidates took an exam to secure their appointment. It wasn’t until the 1870s that the recommendations of the report were being put into place, by this time Mycroft would have been done with university and very likely would have found himself taking further exams to secure his employment as Ronald Knox* suggests as clerk in an unmentioned branched of government, before rising to his position as the British Government by the time Holmes and Watson meet. Oxbridge would not have been a barrier to the middle class Holmes brothers who could have benefited from patronage, something the Anglican church often did. Sherlock is quite enthusiastic about the board schools, “Beacons of the future! Capsules with hundreds of bright little seeds in each, out of which will spring the wiser, better England of the future.” As he’s a man who sees education for all as the future perhaps because this suggests own education was paid for by charitable or philanthropic means. Fittingly, this quote comes from ‘The Naval Treaty‘ which could be read as Conan Doyle’s commentary on the civil service – Percy Phelps, through his uncle Lord Holdhurst secured a position in the foreign office, looses an important document and has an epic breakdown as a result.

Of course, there’s also nothing to say Mycroft was managing the country estate and spent his weekends there checking up on things.

(*’The Mystery of Mycroft’ by Ronald A Knox, possibly published in 1934 – not sure but it’s definitely in HW Bell’s 1934 collection of essays ‘Baker Street Studies‘)

In response to comments on my previous post

I wanted to respond with a blog post rather than individually because there are points I want to address. (Previous Post)

Supernatural has been mentioned to me a lot and I don’t watch Supernatural, so can’t comment on what’s going on there re: queerbaiting, the second is I did a quick straw pole of the people I work with (4, two straight girls, a gay man and a straight man) and they saw queerbaiting as something that happens when straight men go out looking for gays to bash, or when a young attractive straight ‘twink’ flirts with gay men for attention. The second is closer to what I believe people are calling ‘queerbaiting’.

Sherlock is not and never has been marketed as a gay show. Shows which have and do use homosexuality to promote or improve their audience ratings should be rightly criticised, but Sherlock is not one of these shows. Sherlock and John were never going to be a gay couple, the writers have acknowledged a long held wink-wink-nudge-nudge belief by many people, not just Holmes fans, that they were a couple and they’ve done it in a way that does not feel homophobic or insulting (or at least, to me it doesn’t.)

People project their own interpretation on to the shows they watch and the books they read, Sherlock Holmes being a perfect example of this. On my bookcase I have many books analysing the canon, including one which argues that Sherlock Holmes was actually a woman (Mrs Holmes of Baker Street by Alan C. Bradley, which I’ve talked about here). People have read the character of Sherlock as asexual, as gay, as aromatic and many other things my spell check keeps underlining in red. In this instance, I see Sherlock as straight and his relationship with John echoes the relationship between Denny & Alan from Boston Legal – they are two very close men and Sherlock is in a way a celebration of male friendship. A comparable relationship would be the one between Meredith Grey and Christina Yang in Grey’s Anatomy.

I don’t seek out shows with gay content and having a gay character is not a good reason to watch a show (for me). I’m not defined by my sexuality and I don’t want to be, I don’t want people telling me to watch something because it has a lesbian in it, I want them to tell me to watch something because it’s good or entertaining. This preoccupation with finding queerness in shows concerns me as it ends up ignoring or missing the existence of many wonderful shows which are about gay people or feature gay characters, two recent examples being ‘Last Tango in Halifax‘ (written by Sally Wainwright) and the Swedish series ‘Don’t Ever Wipe Tears Without Gloves‘.

Finally, I addressed my thoughts on Irene Adler in a previous post.

On accusations of queerbaiting and homophobia in ‘Sherlock’

I wanted to write a blog post to address the accusations of ‘queerbaiting’ and homophobia that’s been levelled at the Sherlock team. It’s something I’ve not felt I’ve been able to do before, which is a bit ridiculous as I am a lesbian so ‘queerbaiting’ and homophobia are things that affect me so I should be able to respond but I’ve always struggled to understand what exactly ‘queerbaiting’ is. Recently, I’ve come to the conclusion that ‘queerbaiting’ and homophobia are essentially two sides of the same coin. It’s the same attitude.

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