The Magic of Sherlock Holmes

Monday 13 January 2014 by

Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman in Sherlock, BBC One

Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman in Sherlock, BBC One

What is it about Sherlock Holmes that is so enticing?

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s legendary genius consulting detective has entranced readers (and now viewers) alike since Holmes’ arrival in 1887 in the novel A Study in Scarlet. Since then, Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes has gone on to appear in 4 novels and 56 short stories, as well as video games, eBooks, comic books (notably appearing in the 50th anniversary of the Detective Comics as an 135-year-old man talking with Batman), stage and radio adaptations, and has become the most-adapted character onscreen in the history of cinema.

But what makes this sociopathic, neurotic, and downright impossible character so loveable? By all accounts, he should be detested – he’s a drug addict, pompous, morally ambiguous and has the emotional intelligence of a gnat. But he’s adored. In his latest incarnations – Benedict Cumberbatch in BBC’s Sherlock, Robert Downey Jr in Guy Ritchie’s film franchise, and Jonny Lee Miller in the CBS drama with an American twist, Elementary – Holmes is eccentric, endearing and an infuriating wit. The slashes of humour and displays of humanity make him even more approachable than before, and even his more devious exploits are given little outrage because you know it’s happening for the greater good.

Jonny Lee Miller and Lucy Liu in Elementary, CBS

Jonny Lee Miller and Lucy Liu in Elementary, CBS

There’s nothing quite like a morally ambiguous hero to endear people. If they are too squeaky-clean then they fall down because they aren’t believeable. However, where Holmes really works is not, in fact, in his own character, but in that of Dr John Watson – his trusted assistant, friend and our narrator for much of the Holmes legacy. Watson draws out the nicer side of Holmes, grounds him in reality and tempers the manic tendancies with patience and affection. It is the affection between the two that drives the Holmes franchise, really. Not Moriarty or any of the other villains that Holmes has to fight, but the fact that Holmes and Watson are a team.

But why is he such a success? Other literary characters of note have received the same kind of affection from fans, and not lasted as long. What makes Holmes endure?

Robert Downey Jr and Jude Law in Sherlock Holmes, directed by Guy Ritchie

Robert Downey Jr and Jude Law in Sherlock Holmes, directed by Guy Ritchie

With each new adaptation, there is a greater exploration of the Holmes story – there are “new” Holmes characters being created all the time, to move with the decades. But the original Holmes was ahead of his time as it was – a forward-thinking genius in a world often afraid of its own shadow. It is his inherent ability to adapt and learn and develop that has given each new writer the chance to advance the character. The complexity of Conan Doyle’s creation has opened up the realms of possibility, making each interpretation a new and yet entirely recognisable hero.

Holmes is a superhero for the modern era – someone whose intelligence means he can outwit almost anyone. In the world where the internet rules, we don’t need the super strength and powers of the traditional superheroes – we need someone who could live just around the corner from us, who could (almost) be just like us, and who (in their own way) can grasp the modern world and shape it.

It the vulnerability at the very heart of Sherlock Holmes – his need for Watson’s company – that grounds him in the here-and-now, in the imagination of everyone who ever stumbles across him. That’s what makes him endure. And that is what makes Sherlock Holmes a distinctly magical character.

Sherlock in books

If you’ve never read any Conan Doyle, then always start with A Study in Scarlet, but I will openly admit that I’m a traditionalist and The Hound of the Baskervilles is my favourite. If you’re not quite decided, pick up a collected works.

Sherlock on screen

I can’t recommend the BBC version enough! The third series has just finished, and the show goes from strength to strength. Also try some more classic Sherlock: The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes ran from 1984 to 1994, and sticks pretty well to Conan Doyle’s creation. In terms of film adaptations, the Guy Ritche films are entertaining enough, but the 1959 The Hound of the Baskervilles is amazing – Peter Cushing does an amazing job (also try any film starring Basil Rathbone as Sherlock).

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