06 December 2014

Elementary Things: Sherlock Holmes and His Interpreters

In “The Greek Interpreter,” Dr. John Watson describes how Sherlock Holmes' reticence to discuss his family “...increased the somewhat inhuman effect which he produced upon me, until sometimes I found myself regarding him as an isolated phenomenon, a brain without a heart, as deficient in human sympathy as he was pre-eminent in intelligence....

This description sounds like Holmes the high-functioning sociopath as played by Benedict Cumberbatch on the BBC's “Sherlock.” But Watson as written by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle gives these descriptions more as asides than as a diagnoses, and he recognizes his impression is influenced by the “effect” Holmes produced, an effect reflecting as much about Watson as it does about Holmes.

Doyle's storytelling amplifies the effect for readers because we know Holmes through Watson. We read Holmes' adventures in the first person, but we encounter Holmes mostly in the third person.

In “The Adventure of the Golden Pince-Nez,” Watson writes, “...Holmes had, when he liked, a peculiarly ingratiating way with women...” which might sound like psychopathy, except that in “The Adventure of the Second Stain” Holmes describes female motives as “inscrutable,” which makes him sound more mystified than manipulative.

This distance allows Doyle and readers to admire Holmes—and critique him at the same time—such as in chapter 9 of “The Sign of the Four” when Holmes says, “Women are never to be entirely trusted....” And Watson writes, “I did not pause to argue over this atrocious sentiment.”

One might wonder how Watson after a “long and intimate acquaintance” doesn't know Holmes has a brother. Perhaps that is how Nigel Bruce's Watson became the dim but personable sidekick to Basil Rathbone's Holmes in the 1939 to 1946 film series.

Holmes has other interpreters now.

The BBC's “Sherlock” and CBS's “Elementary” set Holmes in present day London and New York respectively. “Elementary” goes further in some ways, turning John Watson into Joan, making Moriarty a woman, and making Irene Adler one of her aliases. It is hard to imagine Lucy Liu's Joan Watson calling Johnny Lee Miller's Holmes “the best and the wisest man” she has ever known. 

But both shows use pathology to explain some part of Holmes. In “Sherlock,” Holmes calls himself a high-functioning sociopath. In “Elementary,” Holmes is a recovering heroin addict whose intelligence and rationalism make relationships difficult.

Perhaps this shift reflects the medium. A book must focus on some things and leave others to the readers' imaginations. By speaking through Watson and Watson's relationship with the Holmes, Doyle focused on the action...and the mental action. 

On screen, many more details become explicit and require conscious explanation. Viewers now relate to Holmes directly. So Holmes himself must become less mysterious. 

And perhaps this is particularly true for that character-driven swath of television "Sherlock" and "Elementary" occupy.

But there's something else at work here too. Doyle imagined rationalism might make a man eccentric; "Sherlock" and "Elementary" imagine it might make a man corrosive, except for the saving grace of his closest friends.
"Holmes game me a sketch of the events," by Sidney Paget,
appeared in "The Adventure of Silver Blaze,"
 December 1892.
(Public Domain) 

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