Not long ago, Nicholas Meyer – producer, director, screenwriter, and author of the Sherlockian pastiches The Seven Percent Solution, The West End Horror and The Canary Trainer– wrote a very thought-provoking article titled “Whither Holmes” for the Los Angeles Review of Books. The article addressed the dilemma of adapting a classical work or character – specifically, Sherlock Holmes – for what he called the “postliterate” audience. Mind you, I don’t think that Meyer meant “illiterate”, but rather an audience whose predominant (or only) exposure to a classical work comes by way of a derivative work. Meyer observes that: “In my years as a filmmaker in Hollywood, I’ve attended numerous meetings devoted to making Sherlock Holmes movies; invariably none of the producers in the room have ever actually read Doyle.”
In an earlier blog, “Do Whatever You Like With Him” (http://janetility.com/?p=648), I had suggested that a bona fide adaptation (or pastiche, sequel, illustration) is one that correctly identifies the source of Holmes’s timeless appeal, era and environment notwithstanding. You can discard the trappings – the dressing gowns, the gasogene, the bullet-pocked wall – but if you want to ensure that the audience, particularly the “postliterate” are getting the genuine Sherlock, you can’t reduce the essence of what makes Holmes Holmes to quirks and conduct derived from something other than Conan Doyle.
Which calls to mind the 19thcentury “Butter Wars.” In the 1880s, the growing “butter substitute” (oleomargarine) industry came up against the dairy industry. In some cases, the consumer opted for the substitute because it was cheaper and tasted okay, but in other cases, an imitation product was passed off as butter to “the great unobservant public.” By 1886, a number of “margarine acts” attempted to eliminate any possibility that imitation butter might be mistaken for, or labeled as, the legitimate product. In New Jersey, these laws stipulated that “No oleomargarine, butterine or suine, or any substance or compound or mixture in imitation or semblance of natural butter or cheese, or any substance that is rendered, made, manufactured or compounded out of animal or vegetable or mineral fat or oil not the product of pure milk or cream from pure milk shall be sold…except when contained in tubs, pails, boxes, firkins, vessels or other packages that are marked or labeled as follows: … on the outside thereof and midway between the top and bottom thereof a stripe or band at least three inches wide and extending completely around said vessel or package and said stripe or band shall be painted with black paint [and] have legibly branded and burnt in ..in two places as nearly opposite each other as possible the words ‘oleomargarine’, ‘butterine’, ‘suine’ or ‘imitation butter’.
This may sound excessive until you learn that only a year or two earlier, half of what was sold as butter was reported to be an imitation product made from tinted caul fat derived from hogs. An ingenuous consumer might conclude that because the substance that they were spreading on their toast was pale yellow or lightly salted or tasty or oleaginous, or was labeled in a manner evoked butter (butterine) or was even combined with some butter, it was the real deal.
Unfortunately, there is little to prevent Meyer’s postliterate producers from passing off any substance or compound or mixture in imitation or semblance of Sherlock Holmes as the authentic character, and no requirement that the end product be labeled “imitation Sherlock”. The result is that the postliterate viewer may never appreciate how radically different Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes – the “chivalrous opponent” with his “cat-like love of personal cleanliness”, his fine balance of instinct with impartiality, and his embodiment of a great heart as well as a great brain – is from a spurious Holmes who presents as an ill-groomed, petty, socially inept vulgarian hopelessly afflicted with tachyphrasia.
The success of any adulterated product, whether it is dairy or Doyle, will always be determined by what the consumer can be persuaded to swallow. There may be nothing at all wrong with suilline caul fat, unless you’re attempting to persuade people that it’s butter.