In glancing back at January’s focus on a few screen renderings of Sherlock Holmes adventures, I see that half of my subjects – The Blue Carbuncle and The Hound of the Baskervilles – addressed films adapted from Conan Doyle stories, and half – Murder By Decree and A Case of Evil – were original material incorporating the character of Sherlock Holmes.
Sherlock Holmes, as the subject of adaptations – pastiches, sequels, mash-ups, modernizations and assorted character cadging – has only one rival: Jane Austen, generally; Pride and Prejudice, particularly and Mr. Darcy, specifically. If Jane Austen derivative works outnumber Conan Doyle’s, it is only because some of Doyle’s property is still protected by copyright (in the US) and Austen’s work and characters are in the public domain. To an eager aspirant, “public domain” translates as “open season”; or, as Conan Doyle rather snappishly replied to William Gillette, when Gillette wanted to know if he might marry off Holmes in a stage adaptation, “You may marry him or murder him or do whatever you like with him.”
Yet, given license to marry or murder or convert to vampires or transport to the twenty-first century, the nagging consideration is not, “What can we do?”, but “What should we do?” What license or should you take with a work or a character that was not of your own invention?
In Edgar W. Smith’s cogent essay on the character of Sherlock Holmes- “The Implicit Holmes” – he asks, “What is it that we love in Sherlock Holmes?” and I think it’s that “what is it we love” that ought to define the limits of license. After all, haven’t Conan Doyle and Jane Austen – or, more specifically, Sherlock Holmes and Mr. Darcy – been singled out because they represent qualities that have a timeless appeal? And if that is true, should not special care be taken to retain those fundamental qualities even when the superficial trappings change?
The first part of Smith’s essay defends the requisite of keeping Holmes in his era and place. Some may disagree; however, there was a social canon that shaped Holmes’s character (and Darcy’s) that risks appearing quaint, or alien or artificial when he is taken out of his time. Holmes and Darcy were gentlemen when “gentleman” described caste as well as conduct; when they are transplanted, their conduct may become irrelevant in the context of a modern setting, or is coarsened to adapt to a modern age. Even the Canon suggests this. In its most cringeworthy tale – The Adventure of the Three Gables – Holmes’s language and conduct are frequently appalling. So much so, that some scholars reject Conan Doyle’s authorship. The truth is more to the point – more to Smith’s point: The Three Gables was published in the late 1920s, when detective fiction inclined toward snappy dialogue and conditional morality. (Holmes could subscribe to conditional justice, but never conditional morality). In succumbing to the influence of a more modern style, Doyle’s Three Gables Sherlock is barely recognizable as the gentleman who was once prepared to commit an act that is “morally justifiable though technically criminal” because “a gentleman should not lay much stress upon [personal risk] when a lady is in most desperate need of his help”. Likewise, Darcy’s revulsion at the prospect of acquiring relations whose “condition in life is so decidedly beneath my own”, loses its credibility if he is taken out of his era, as does the extent of his chivalry when he lowers himself to “meet, to frequently meet, reason with, persuade and finally bribe” Wickham.
For both characters, a re-imagining that cannot retain the fundamental blend of “Galahad and Socrates” (Smith’s phrase) risks losing what we love, however entertaining the substitute may be.