My original concept for this diary was to talk about how the expiration of the copyright on Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes stories had led to three high-profile bastardizations of the works in recent years. But when I started researching the issue of Sherlock Holmes copyrights and trademarks, I discovered that I didn't know squat about the subject, and many of the stories are still under copyright in the United States. Therefore, all three of the entities I'm railing against (The Robert Downey Jr. films, the British "Sherlock" series, and the American "Elementary" series) were produced with the blessing of the Doyle estate.
There's a fascinating story to be told about the copyrights and trademarks, believe it or not. But at this point, I don't know enough to tell it. It's complicated, tangled, contentious and baffling -- seemingly an appropriate subject for the great detective himself. But if I tried to tell it, I would undoubtedly mess it up.
But about those three "bastardizations" ... follow me below the squiggle if you dare.
I'm a Sherlock Holmes fan from way back. I read the stories for the first time when I was in junior high school (or middle school in the current vernacular). I read every single one of the stories, over and over.
Then I found the Basil Rathbone movies -- adoring the first ones that kept Holmes in his period, and forgiving the silly later movies that had Holmes fighting Nazis. After all, even if they were trashing all the beautiful Victorian detail of the original stories, they were giving me a little more access to the character I loved so much.
Much later, I watched the British Jeremy Brett series. It wasn't perfect, but I felt it captured the characters of both Holmes and Watson well.
Along the way there were other films -- Holmes is a favorite cinematic subject. Most kept the stories in their Victorian context, though there are exceptions.
But in the past three years, there has been an explosion of new Holmes projects. I thought it was sparked by the end of the copyrights on the original material, but it's more likely a matter of the ownership of those copyrights passing to people with a greater interest in making money off them.
First, there was the Guy Ritchie directed, Robert Downey Jr. films. I won't go on too much about them except to say I don't hate them. I just don't think they have anything to do with Sherlock Holmes. If they'd decided to name the detective Sherman Heathercorp and his friend John Witterdon, I would be wholly satisfied. The movies are energetic and entertaining. They take a somewhat steampunk approach to the era. They're bright, well designed and fun to watch.
The use of Doyle's character names seems to be entirely a marketing strategy. People will turn out for a Sherlock Holmes movie. A movie about Sherman Heathercorp is less certain.
Next came the British production of "Sherlock," starring Benedict Cummerbatch. It's received a lot of acclaim and I'll admit that in my own circle of friends, I'm the only person I know who hates it.
I hate it because it fails in every aspect of moving the characters of Sherlock and John Watson to the present. The stories are based in part on actual Doyle stories (the first episode being a reworking of A Study in Scarlett). But the writers seem to completely miss the point of every one of those stories.
In the first episode, Cummerbatch's Holmes declares himself a "sociopath," who doesn't care a bit about the right or wrong of the situation, but is only interested in solving a puzzle.
I'm sorry, this isn't Sherlock Holmes. The character as Doyle wrote him was fascinated by puzzles, but he was the opposite of a sociopath. He was deeply committed to fighting evil in the name of good.
Doyle was a Victorian, and he believed in good and evil. More than that, he believed in the spirit world and in the existence of magic. He believed in fairies.
Arthur Conan Doyle carried on a long friendship and rivalry with Harry Houdini over the question of whether spiritualists were charlatans or a link to the great beyond. Houdini spent his adult life debunking spiritualists and Doyle defended them.
The idea that Sherlock Holmes was a sociopath would have Doyle spinning in his grave. Not only was Holmes not at all sociopathic, he was charming a erudite when dealing with his clients. He never left his rooms on Baker Street without being impeccably dressed (unless he was in disguise). He treated women with courtesy.
Sherlock Holmes was the epitome of a Victorian gentleman. He was perfect on the surface with a roiling, hidden underbelly. Doyle showed Holmes dark side entirely within his Baker Street flat, where he fired a pistol at the walls, was slovenly, abused drugs, and offended polite society (but never where society could see it).
This is a metaphor for what Doyle saw of the Victorian world. For all the proper social convention of Victorian society (where women were advised to "close their eyes and think of England" while having relations with their husbands), there was a thriving porn industry, and persistent rumors of sex orgies among the upper crust. London was a jewel of civilization that sheltered Jack the Ripper.
Doyle saw this and fashioned it into his perfect gentleman who seemed absolutely admirable to the world, but hid a bundle of ugly habits from everyone but his closest associate, Dr. Watson.
But despite the underground sexual culture, which I believe Doyle would have been quite aware of, he chose not to give his perfect gentleman a sexual dimension. I don't know whether it was because he was uncomfortable with sex or because he simply wanted his creation to marketable to the widest possible audience. Whatever his motivation, Sherlock Holmes, as written by Doyle, did not have boners.
There has been, in contemporary times, a temptation to portray the Holmes/Watson relationship as gay. But that would not have been a reasonable assumption in Victorian society. The sexes were more widely divided in that time, and for men to form close bonds of friendship and even live together entirely platonically was not viewed as anything unusual. Look, for a moment, at Evelyn Waugh's "Brideshead Revisited." Sebastian and Charles Ryder are inseparable friends through their college years. Sebastian does turn out to be gay, though he never made (to the reader's knowledge) advances to Charles. Charles, on the other hand, is entirely heterosexual (at least in that we see him pursuing women through his life).
While "Brideshead Revisited" is a World War II story, not Victorian, it does reflect the society that grew out of the Victorian era.
Doyle would have been aware of the existence of homosexuality. Oscar Wilde was a contemporary. It's not like gays weren't discovered until the 1960s.
While "Sherlock" doesn't specifically cast Holmes and Watson as a gay couple, the writers have winked at the concept, particularly in an early scene where Holmes seems to think Watson is "coming on" to him. This is one of the ways that the Sherlock Holmes stories suffer when they're brought forward to contemporary times. The contemporary audience assumes, in the real world, that two adult men who live together are probably a couple.
Please don't construe my objection to implying Holmes and Watson are gay as homophobia on my part. I'm fine with gay characters in literature, entertainment and the real world. My objection is that Doyle did not envision a gay couple when he created Holmes and Watson. He could have if he'd wanted to. If you want to use his creations, you should try to use them as Doyle created them -- otherwise write your own characters.
Another objection I have to recent adaptations is the use of Irene Adler and Professor Moriarty. Both were characters in one story apiece.
Irene Adler was not Sherlock Holmes girlfriend. She was an adversary whom he admired because she outwitted him. Note: She was not a "bad guy." As the story she starred in worked out, the client was the person in the wrong. Irene Adler was simply protecting her own person and getting what she was entitled to. Holmes ends up admiring her intelligence.
Yet, the Robert Downey Jr. films make her his girlfriend. Let's be clear: Sherlock Holmes did not have a girlfriend! The current American TV incarnation has cast her as a recent emotional trauma (her exact relationship hasn't been revealed yet).
Moriarty was created solely to be the foe strong enough to kill Sherlock Holmes, who was approaching superhero status in his Strand magazine stories. Doyle wanted to be done with Holmes. He was tired of writing the detective and wanted to concentrate on his other works -- which were attracting scant attention, overshadowed as they were by Sherlock Holmes.
Moriarty was never mentioned before Reichenbach Falls, and never afterward. Yet, he seems to turn up in every contemporary Holmes pistache.
Finally, let me finish with my animus toward the current CBS series. This is by far the worst of the three productions I'm talking about. I watched it up to this past week's episode, at first because I enjoyed Lucy Liu's character, but after the first two episodes, more because it was like a train wreck where you can't look away.
Let's be clear: THERE IS NOTHING ABOUT THIS SERIES EXCEPT THE CHARACTER NAMES THAT HAS ANYTHING TO DO WITH SHERLOCK HOLMES!
I find Jonny Lee Miller to be mildly repulsive. His accent is deeply annoying. (And I generally like English accents.) The character is continually disheveled and generally inappropriately dressed. (The opposite of the way the character was portrayed in the original material.) He's an emotional train wreck. (Doyle's Holmes was a man always in control of himself in public, only defeated by boredom in private.) He's a recovering addict. (Holmes was never addicted. He used drugs when he was bored and put them aside instantly when something grabbed his attention. I'm not saying this is a realistic thing. It's just the way Doyle wrote it.)
And while I like Lucy Liu as a performer, her character here is a prying busybody. She is a brilliant but discredited surgeon (Watson of the stories was never shown to be much of a doctor. He wasn't a incompetent, but he was never lauded for his medical skills either.)
The "Elementary" Sherlock was introduced as having just finished partaking of the services of hookers -- which instantly disqualifies him as having any connection to the Doyle character.
I watch most of my TV time delayed, because I work nights. I fell asleep half way through last week's episode of Elementary. Usually, when that happens (not that unusual -- my falling asleep is usually not because I'm bored by the program, it's because my hours cause sleep disruptions), I rewind to the point where I checked out and watch again. Not this time. I was utterly disinterested, and I went ahead and deleted it. I think I'm taking it off my DVR list now.
Here's the bottom line: If you want to make a Sherlock Holmes story set in contemporary America, stop and ask yourself why you don't just make something with characters you create yourself. Doyle didn't write about a recovering drug addict in 21st century New York. He wrote about the world he lived in -- Victorian London. He wrote a body of stories that vividly portray that world, and which are still accessible to the modern reader. It's not like trying to understand 16th Century Spain by reading Cervantes, or Revolutionary American by reading Nathaniel Hawthorne. Anybody can pick up a Sherlock Holmes story and read it without wading through obscure language and idiom.
Doyle was a writer in the form of Mark Twain. His prose was clear and evocative and his plotting was straight forward and involving.
If you want to write a TV series about a highly perceptive detective go ahead and do it... wait, that's The Mentalist, or Monk, or Columbo, or Psych, and on and on. The truth is, practically the entire body of contemporary TV detectives trace their ancestry back to Sherlock Holmes.
It doesn't make your story better to paste Doyle's character names into it.