Monday, September 19, 2016

A Tale of Two Holmes

Without going too long into it, I’m not going into anything new here given that the show in question was first aired in 2010 and has produced several seasons to date. However, it is a subject matter that has occurred to me recently and something I am interested in, hence my decision to write one of my occasional blog posts aside from the play reports (of which I now have to write two) and random gaming stuff that usually ends up here. I will warn that there are likely to be some mention of plot developments in both Sherlock and Doyle’s original stories though, for the most part, I will focus on personality issues.
I do very much love the original Holmes as written in Doyle’s singular style. I have been reading quite a few of the old stories recently now that my Kindle is operating again (my print collection being in the States). And this love for the original is probably why I didn’t watch much of the first season past A Study in Pink until well after the second season was completed and only really watched the third season in the last couple of weeks. Cumberbatch’s portrayal threw me off of my expectations and dropped some facets of Doyle’s Holmes while picking up others.

This sort of dissatisfaction does pop up from time to time still, as it did with the His Last Vow recently. I was a bit underwhelmed by the rather less than clever means by which Holmes “solved” the situation and this is what brought me to pull up my Kindle copies of the stories and read the original short story of The Adventure of Charles Augustus Milverton where I discovered that Doyle’s Holmes had similarly resorted to simple burglary as a solution with the only major difference being that in Doyle’s Holmes, the murder is done by an unnamed woman who is implied to be someone of high social status, likely a real life and contemporary personality (it was common in the day to make allusions to high profile individuals in stories without naming them. In Dumas’ Monte Cristo they would be referred to by the first letter of their surname followed by a few underscores creating a blank space.).

This did uncover my own nostalgia based bias for the original books where I like to imagine that Holmes is eternally clever, cunning and sophisticated in his schemes while, in fact, he does sometimes still come to frustrating situations where he takes up less than clever plans. It also triggered my plumbing through many other of Doyle’s short stories and even picking up a new complete copy on finding that I was missing certain novels.

Reading the stories, however, has confirmed my initial understanding that Cumberbatch’s Sherlock is different from Doyle’s Holmes and I’ll go ahead and discuss some of the points in this regard below.

Doyle has Watson describe Holmes as commonly genial and polite. He has a way of making everyone comfortable and at ease. The instances where Holmes is impolite or even outright rude are rare enough that Watson notes the instances as extraordinary and they usually end up being part of some scheme or ploy later on in the story. This is almost completely the opposite of Cumberbatch’s Sherlock, who is almost unfailingly rude and dismissive with nearly everyone he meets. Likewise, while Doyle!Holmes uses rudeness as a dodge or ploy, Cumberbatch!Sherlock likewise does the same with common courtesy, only being polite when it serves some distinct objective.

Their levels of egotism are also rather mirrored. Cumberbatch!Sherlock takes the rather common track of displaying Holmes well-deserved self-confidence as out and out arrogance. Comparing the two, when Doyle!Holmes meets a client who begins the interview by stating that he had heard Holmes had never been beaten, the immediate response is for Holmes to state that he had “been beaten three times by men and once by a woman.” Doyle frequently has Holmes chiding Watson for making him seem more competent than he really is, including a clever little self-referential dig where Doyle has Holmes refer to Watson withholding key information from his readers until after the problem of the story has been resolved. By comparison, most of the time Cumberbatch!Sherlock can be found exaggerating his capabilities himself and trying to dismiss situations where he felt outwitted.

Cumberbatch!Sherlock knows he’s special and expects to be able to think circles around most people. He is impatient and rude to others and only takes interest in other extraordinary individuals. The only time he deigns to deal with common individuals is when they have an interesting problem for him to consider. By contrast, Doyle!Holmes suffers from the ignorance of the expert whereby he has forgotten the effort it took to lay the foundations of his craft and tends to be surprised when the things he considers easily handled are considered amazing displays of intelligence by the people around him. Intellectually, he’s aware of and comments on the discrepancies that prevent others from achieving his results, but you still occasionally see him surprised when people are impressed by an off-hand statement.

Another difference is in their attitude to the spotlight. Cumberbatch!Sherlock is, as the show itself has discussed in the Sign of Three, a drama queen who thrives on being the center of attention. He enjoys pulling stunts like sending a mass text to all of the reporters in an active press conference simultaneously. Doyle!Holmes rather dislikes having a heavy amount of attention directed his way though he tolerates it while he remains in practice. He only attracts attention when there is a need to do so in order to achieve some other goal.

This comes to their professionalism as well. Doyle!Holmes has a generally good relationship with the police. There are some detectives that he does not get along with, but most he has a generally good impression of and he is generally complimentary of most police officers. In addition, while Doyle!Holmes does find cases that don’t challenge his powers tedious, he avoids giving that impression to his clients and quite competently handles their problems in a calm and professional manner. Cumberbatch!Sherlock is generally regarded as a freak by the police he knows directly and frequently forgets Lestrade’s given name. When clients present him problems which he doesn’t have an interest in, he is prone to interrupting their conversation and irately giving them their answers before dismissing them from his presence.

We are also made quite aware that Doyle!Watson cherry picks the cases that he makes into stories for the papers. There are several statements in the stories to the effect that there have often been cases where Doyle!Holmes’s skills have been greatly tested but where the details of the case were so boring as to not be worth reporting. Likewise he also states that Holmes has been involved in several cases with bizarre or strange details but in which he himself was only a small part of the whole story. We also know that Doyle!Holmes has a habit of sometimes aiding the police in certain cases without letting the public know that he was involved in the situation at all. This gives us a glimpse at Doyle!Holmes’s broader workload.

Cumberbatch!Sherlock uses a similar technique of giving us a montage of various cases where Sherlock has been consulted. Most of the time, he solves these before the interview is even completed (as I noted above) though sometimes we’re given a glimpse of him dealing with some bizarre fact without telling us the end result of the case. Usually at least one or two of the small cases shown end up having some minor connection to the showcase problem of the episode. Again, this gives us a broader glimpse of the stories that Holmes is involved in.

This makes perfect sense as a fictional technique. We know that Doyle!Holmes makes his living on his practice (at least at first) and it is unbelievable that every case he is consulted on be something extraordinary or else be situations where he takes central stage. As such, Doyle does establish that Holmes receives far more work than we see directly. By contrast, the main purpose for the montages of Cumberbatch!Sherlock dealing with clients is meant to highlight the character’s disdain for the common man. In both cases, the center stage focuses on the more stand out incidents of each character’s lives.

This comes to their approaches to their craft as well. Doyle!Holmes considers the constant exercise of his mind to be one of the purposes for his chosen occupation, but he quite graciously accepts jobs that don’t challenge him as well, especially if there is an injustice to be righted. This continues even when he has achieved enough success and worked for certain high profile clients so that he can afford to be picky about his jobs. By contrast, we’ve already discussed how Cumberbatch!Sherlock treats clients that don’t come to him with cases that he considers worthwhile. Quite clearly, the craft of deduction and inference are of high importance to both characters, but Doyle!Holmes places justice on a higher priority and is aware and appreciative that problems he considers trite might be horrifying to the people dealing with them. Contrarily, Cumberbatch!Sherlock places the morality of a situation as a less important facet of the cases he accepts.

They are both capable of manipulating and deceiving those closest to them though this is far less common in Doyle!Holmes’ case than in Cumberbatch!Sherlock’s.

The most glaring case of Doyle!Holmes’ manipulating Watson is in sending Watson to the Baskerville case seemingly alone while watching from the wilds on his own. Doyle!Holmes is also willing to deceive the police, or, more accurately, fail to illuminate them usually in cases where he feels the criminal of the situation is more in the right moralistically speaking than the victim, an advantage he assigns to his being an unofficial agent of justice as he is not bound to oaths of duty the way a police officer is. Most of the time when he is withholding thoughts or information is because he is not yet certain enough of his hypothesis and has no wish to contaminate the thoughts of other people in case they are on a better path. Alternately, he might not have the opportunity to warn his friends of his playacting ahead of time.

Cumberbatch!Sherlock, however, gets a real charge out of being one up on his friend and colleagues. He loves to constantly remind people that he smarter than they are. For example, the trickery he employs to get a confession of forgiveness out of Watson for the faked death is something that would not have been performed by Doyle!Holmes as there was no practical purpose for it and, indeed, it would actually increase the amount of danger involved. Cumberbatch!Sherlock seems to invent reasons for excusing adding in some manipulation or deception to the mix.

By and large, Doyle!Holmes is a very intelligent, professional and empathic individual. It is hard to tell how much of his capability comes from genius, though some portion of it would have to, and how much is due to his singular dedication and study on his life’s work. He is a disciplined and talented expert with a systematic and organized approach to matters. Beyond the unusual stories which Doyle put to pen we are given references to a wide practice the majority of which sounds as if it would be dull as reading material. He is eccentric, but he does not unnecessarily rock the social boat.

Comparatively, Cumberbatch!Sherlock is a true iconoclast and his portrayal betrays a lot of the disdain modern audiences seem to hold many established institutions in. He is a much less attainable ideal because there is a lot more inborn talent in his formula than there is acquired mastery. He is constantly rocking the boat and never fails to casually point out situations where common practices can be shown to be illogical and even ridiculous. He is a thorn in the side of the status quo.

I do tend to find that Cumberbatch’s Sherlock is needlessly abrasive in many ways. Jeremy Brett’s kind, considerate but frenetic Holmes is ever my preferred version of the character. However, I can say with some confidence that a faithful rendition of Doyle’s Holmes would not have been nearly as successful. The primary reason being that a faithful rendition of Doyle’s Holmes would simply be a copy of the original with little to nothing new added to the mix. It is hard to be excited over something that has been done before and it will invariably invite comparisons to earlier attempts.

The BBC Sherlock uses the short stories and novels as an inspiration to create something new that stands on its own. This has been done many times before. A Fistful of Dollars is one of the legendary Man with No Name trilogy featuring Clint Eastwood and used Akira Kurosawa’s Yojimbo with Toshiro Mifune as a basis for its storyline. Likewise, Sherlock Holmes has been the archetypical independent detective for ages, being partially the inspiration for characters like Dr. House or Inspector Columbo, who have legends of their own.

In addition, it speaks from a different place. The original collection of Sherlock Holmes stories were written by a man who was imminently proud of his society and culture. He was one of a number of Victorian era heroes who were paragons of the all the best parts of that society. In places, Holmes would shine a light on the inadequacy of the status quo but he came out of a feeling that the British Empire was doing better and improving the lot of life for people. Doyle knew that the Empire he loved was far from perfect, but he trusted its intentions and its purpose. He wrote the stories from this perspective so even though he mostly set out to write fun stories, that perspective is evident.

Leading from that it would be tempting to say that the modern audiences are far more dissatisfied and distrusting of their governments than people were in Doyle’s time. That’s not really the case, however. The Victorian period in which Doyle lived and was writing was the perceived crest of the British wave: the streets were largely safe, the empire was vast and people were more prosperous in general than they had been. The best modern day comparison would have been to the 1990s for America: the street crime of the 80s was fading away, Communism had fallen apart, the economy seemed to be going nowhere but up and things were good. You’ll find similar characters to Holmes rising out of American fiction in that period.

However, the Victorian period’s visible success did cover a lot of festering sores. This is the period during which Jack the Ripper operated. While many enjoyed the benefits of the Empire, there were also many that felt it an oppressive weight on their back. This wasn’t long after large numbers of men and women were being exiled to Australia, sometimes for rather minor or non-existent crimes. India and Ireland both were straining under British rule. You can even see some of this in Doyle’s writings as he deals with more than one situation where an Australian exile or veteran of India figures in the story. Dr. John Watson himself is a veteran of the British military actions in Afghanistan of the time.There were also a lot of stories featuring fading old families of the aristocratic class.

What’s different between the stories told by Doyle and the stories told by the BBC is not that there is more dissidence now than in those days. What’s different is that the BBC stories are written to appeal to the disenfranchised. This is not unusual for the current climate. If you go back to the 70s and 80s, there were a lot of movies that portrayed the government as suspect or untrustworthy. Through the 90s and early 00s this trend shifted and you got a lot of movies and stories where government agents were the good guys. Then it started back into stories of government abuses and iconoclastic heroes and anti-heroes.

It is also tempting to be upset with the BBC for using the Sherlock Holmes name. Cumberbatch’s and Doyle’s versions of the character are so extremely different, one begins to feel that they should have named the character something else. It wasn’t as if there were many famous fictional detectives who had been similarly inspired by Holmes and Doyle himself had been inspired by Edgar Allen Poe’s work and characters such as Arsene Lupin. So why did they feel they had to name the character Sherlock Holmes? Most likely the answer was money, but given the large number of references to the actual stories that work their way into the Sherlock episodes it is certain that the writers also love Doyle’s character and are simply giving their own interpretation. It is basically a set of original characters given the names and general circumstances of the Doyle characters, but that is no less an expression of appreciation as anyone who has ever written or read fanfiction can attest to.

That’s the beauty of public domain and individual interpretation, something we rarely see much of in this era of nigh-endless IP ownership.

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