The Victorian Sage

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Imagining the Detective in The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes (1970) and Sherlock (2010- )

The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes (1970, dir. Billy Wilder) went relatively unnoticed on its first release, but has gone on to become one of the most admired screen narratives featuring Doyle’s great detective. Mark Gatiss and Steven Moffat, co-writers and -producers of Sherlock, have been vocal in their admiration for the film, and in acknowledging its influence on their series.

Private_Life_of_Sherlock_Holmes_1970

The title of the film announces the specific project it takes on: the depiction of the private life of Doyle’s character. This is a character who, in earlier versions, doesn’t have a private life, who is defined by his lack of private life. He lives only to detect:

I am a brain, Watson. The rest of me is a mere appendix. (“The Adventure of the Mazarin Stone”)

His dedication to his work is absolute. It is not just in action that he is devoted to his work, but in thought, too. It possesses his mind to the full. Only in the absence of work does he develop a sort of humanity, a human-all-too-human dependence on cocaine.

But Private Life overturns this character, and interrogates the standard depiction of Holmes. It is the Freudian conception of character, as I have discussed before. What is Holmes really like? What urges underlie his desperate compulsion for work? This question of Holmes’ private self is fundamental to Sherlock and Elementary, but it is in this film that it gets its first substantial treatment. Holmes’ drug use is alluded to several times from the beginning of the film, as well as his standard rationale for it:

[HOLMES] My dear friend — as well as my dear doctor — I only resort to narcotics when I am suffering from acute boredom — when there are no interesting cases to engage my mind.

[…]

[WATSON (VOICEOVER)] Naturally, I don’t mean to imply that my friend was always on cocaine — sometimes it was opium, sometimes it was hashish. And once he went one of these dreadful binges, there was no telling how long it would last.

http://www.dailyscript.com/scripts/holmes.pdf

As well as introducing Holmes’ drug use, the opening conversation between Holmes and Watson sets up several threads that would later be woven into Sherlock. These include:

  1. Holmes’ complaints about Watson’s “tendency to over-romanticize” his cases when writing them down. This is also found in Doyle, but Private Life takes it further, and also extends it to complaints about the illustrations in the stories, which depict Holmes wearing a “ridiculous costume” which the public now expects Holmes to wear. This latter idea is lifted wholesale into Sherlock episode “The Abominable Bride”.
  2. Mrs. Hudson’s more outspoken character. In Doyle, she meekly accepts Holmes’ eccentricities, but in Private Life, she has a somewhat sharper tongue. For example, in the opening scene, Holmes’ famous paper on 140 types of ash is mentioned, prompting Mrs H. to sarcastically interject, “I’m sure there’s a crying need for that.” Sherlock really runs with that in their Mrs Hudson character. The day of the meekly loyal serving class in narratives of pop culture is gone, alas.
Mrs_Hudson

Mrs Hudson (Una Stubbs) in Sherlock

There is also an amusing suggestion by Watson that Holmes has only moved in with him to get access to drugs. This is one suggestion that Sherlock has not used. In fact, Sherlock is merely a former cigarette smoker now using nicotine patches in the series.

A plot begins to form in the next sequence of Private Life, when Holmes and Watson go to the Russian Royal Ballet performance of Swan Lake. After the performance, Holmes is invited for an audience with its star, a lady known as The Great Petrova. She has a proposition for him: she wants to have a child, and she has chosen him as a suitable partner because he is a genius. How does Holmes respond to this? How would Holmes respond? This is a question that Private Life tries to answer, and that in different formulations would go on to be central to Sherlock.

But, on the whole, Private Life does not live up to its title. Roger Ebert’s review of the film concludes:

Before the movie is 20 minutes old, Wilder has settled for simply telling a Sherlock Holmes adventure.

https://www.rogerebert.com/reviews/the-private-life-of-sherlock-holmes-1971

I think Ebert’s line is basically accurate. Wilder in a sense plays on the word “private”. The early part of the film promises an exploration of a putative hidden side of Holmes’ psyche. The latter part locates the private nature of the story in the standard Doylean device of invoking secrets of great national importance, involves royalty and top government officials, etc. Wilder didn’t quite have the tropes available to tell the story he apparently wanted to tell. In many ways, it is this story, the one Wilder didn’t quite get a handle on, that is told over and over again in Sherlock.

Private Life found itself trapped by the Doylean tropes of the top secret diplomatic affair, and couldn’t keep its focus on Holmes as a private individual; Sherlock is trapped by the notion of individual becoming, the personal journey, the fundamental importance of one’s personal relationship and their contribution to personal growth. According to current dominant tropes visible in Sherlock, the detective can never really be a detective. He can only be a complex human(-all-too-human) who does detective work. That, in the early 21st-century western world, is what people are.

[Y]ou have to find new ways of progressing Sherlock himself. He’s a bit like Pinocchio: he is  creeping towards becoming more human. He’ll never make it, but he has to change, otherwise you just set the whole thing in aspic, and there’s no point doing that. – Steven Moffat, quoted in Steve Tribe, Sherlock Chronicles, p. 248.

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Canonical Referencing in Sherlock

Sherlock is becoming an increasingly divisive series, as discussed in this recent post on PopMatters. The special, ‘The Abominable Bride’, shown over Christmas, garnered plentiful criticism, for its patronising approach to feminism, its convoluted plot and its incessant self-referentiality. It’s viewing numbers, though, were huge: 11.6 million in the UK, the most watched program over the holiday period.

‘The Abominable Bride’ brings the self-referentiality in the series to a whole new level. There’s nothing post-modern about the kind of self-referentiality herein: it’s at least as old as Don Quijote. Doyle has it in his stories, too, of course: in the amusing opening dialogue of ‘The Copper Beeches’, Holmes chides Watson with the judgement that ‘You have degraded what should have been a course of lectures into a series of tales’. But Holmes’ awareness of the impression Watson’s stories are making on the outside world is referred to very sparingly by Doyle. Not so in Sherlock, especially ‘The Abominable Bride’:

 

MRS HUDSON: And I notice you’ve published another of your stories, Doctor Watson.
WATSON: Yes. Did you enjoy it?
MRS HUDSON (after only a second’s thought): No.
(She turns and goes inside. Watson follows her.)
WATSON: Oh?
MRS HUDSON: I never enjoy them.
WATSON (pushing the door closed behind him): Why not?
(In the hallway Holmes has taken off his coat and hat and hangs them on a hook near the front door, then walks further into the hall.)
MRS HUDSON: Well, I never say anything, do I? According to you, I just show people up the stairs and serve you breakfasts.
WATSON (hanging up his own coat and hat): Well, within the narrative, that is – broadly speaking – your function.
MRS HUDSON: My what?!
HOLMES: Don’t feel singled out, Mrs Hudson. I’m hardly in the dog one.
WATSON (indignantly): “The dog one”?!
MRS HUDSON: I’m your landlady, not a plot device.
WATSON (to Holmes, who is heading up the stairs): Do you mean ‘The Hound of the Baskervilles’?!  (From transcription by Arianna DeVere here. DeVere has painstakingly and sometimes wittily transcribed all of Sherlock.)

So even Mrs Hudson is getting in on the act. This is the sort of material that Doyle couldn’t have written. It wouldn’t have made sense in Doyle’s time. The ghost of contemporary feminist discourse haunts the exchange, and this is confirmed with the use of feminism as an explicit theme later on. There follows a clever reference to The Hound of the Baskervilles (should have been italicized rather than bracketed in the transcription), though perhaps it would have been cleverer and more satisfying not to have spelled it out, so only the cognoscenti would have worked out the reference is to the long section of Hound where Holmes is hiding on the moor, and the reader is following Watson and his investigations at Baskerville Hall.

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This passing Hound reference brings me tangentially on to my point here, such as it is. In my thesis, I coined (I think) the term ‘canonical indicators’ to describe those passing mentions of random Holmes stories in this series. I don’t know of any other adaptation of anything that has done this to the same extent. They work by their randomness, and their subtlety. It’s not about adapting chunks of story, but more about passing mentions, blink and you’ll miss them. What they ‘indicate’ is that the writers have a deep familiarity with the canon, even though they don’t try to produce sustained adaptations of individual stories, diverging very far from ‘faithful’ adaptations. They buy the makers of Sherlock good will from the Sherlockian (not to mention Holmesian), effectively saying: ‘Yes, we’re making odd choices, nothing like Doyle, but you can trust us. See how well we know the stories!’ Or, in other words, their infidelity is not arrived at through ignorance, but is the considered choice of experts in the original stories. If these indicators fade into the background of the story without drawing attention to themselves (as the Hound reference above failed to do) and reveal themselves only to the eagle-eyed, or on second viewing, even better.

I haven’t theorized the term in any great depth, it was more an ad hoc coinage that seems to have particular reference to this series. I guess it’s a form of fanservice, ultimately. I was reminded of this by a quote I came across from Julie Sanders’ Adaptation and Appropriation (Routledge, 2007), as follows: ‘the political aspect of re-visionary writing should never occlude the simultaneously pleasurable aspects of reading into [adaptations] their intertextual and allusive relationships with other texts’ (7). This element of pleasure seems to me important, but I make this as an experiential rather than theoretical point. I enjoy these references. Is it an elitist pleasure? Is it because I know not everyone gets them? Possibly. But with so much silliness in Sherlock, these little pockets of enjoyment are important.

On Sherlock Season 3 – Get Back to Work, Sherlock!

*Contains spoilers for season 3 of Sherlock*

Now that season 3 of Sherlock is over – all 3 feature-length episodes of it – it’s time to try and separate it from the massive hype that surrounded it. Season 3 of Sherlock went down a lot of new avenues: Sherlock gets a girlfriend; John gets married; Sherlock is more understanding about the emotional role John plays in his life. You could say he’s “growing as a person” or “developing as a character”. There’s slightly less case-solving, particularly in the first two episodes, and more analysis of relationships and feelings. This is quite different from other Sherlocks, especially canon.

In the whole canon by Arthur Conan Doyle, 56 short stories, and 4 novels, there’s no story not revolving around a case where certain strange occurences are revealed by Holmes to belong to some design, usually criminal, and the architect of the occurences is unmasked. That’s what structures the stories, and very little room is given to exploring Holmes’ feelings. That’s kind of the point: he doesn’t think about emotions, he just gets really, really into his job, all his mind and body is on it:

His face flushed and darkened. His brows were drawn into two hard, black lines, while his eyes shone out from beneath them with a steely glitter. His face was bent downwards, his shoulders bowed, his lips compressed, and the veins stood out like whip-cord in his long, sinewy neck. His nostrils seemed to dilate with a purely animal lust for the chase, and his mind was so absolutely concentrated upon the matter before him, that a question or remark fell unheeded upon his ears, or at the most only provoked a quick, impatient snarl in reply.


Pretty intense. It’s maybe that total immersion in the work that’s so compelling; we’d all love to like our jobs that much. Of course there’s a lot of dialogue between Holmes and Watson not strictly on the case at hand. Usually, it’s Holmes’ theorizing on the nature of detection, on psychology, on knowledge or on life in general. Holmes’ theorizing or philosophizing to Watson often opens the stories, and sometimes the actual talk, serious but leavened with a certain bantering between the two, is actually the best part of the story – some of the plots are pretty forgettable, while some are unforgettable (“The Red-Headed League” is maybe my favourite). What he never talks about is himself, his background, his emotions, what made him what he is. He doesn’t feel the need to explain himself: why he is so different, and so obsessed by deduction. He doesn’t need to, he’s so zoned in on his work that he doesn’t question it or worry about his own unconventional personality.

In this respect of Holmes’ unselfconscious nature, Doyle is very consistent. Holmes is always himself, and never says or does anything that jars: I honestly can’t think of one Holmesian episode that’s implausible within the terms of his character set out in the beginning, in A Study in Scarlet (some of his knowledge is inconsistent with Watson’s description of his areas of expertise set out in that book, though). In other words, Holmes never jumps the shark. Jumping the shark involves stunt plot development and stunt character developments and occurs when a series’ premise is exhausted or the writer’ have lost touch with it. The opposite danger for a long running series is formulaism, and this Conan Doyle probably does fall into, with some story lines repeating earlier ones. “The Three Garridebs” is quite like the aforementioned “The Red-Headed League”, for example. But still, Holmes in T3G is still Holmes doing what Holmes does, and he hasn’t changed.

A caveat: I’m giving Doyle a pass on the killing off of Holmes in “The Reichenback Falls” and bringing him back in “The Empty House”, partly because almost ten years passed between them, so it obviously wasn’t his way of making things happen to ensure more stories; and partly because he did it in the first place to kill off Holmes, and it seems he did sincerely mean to kill him off, before the constant public calls for the Great Detective wore him down. That development was so out of character from the rest of the stories we can let it slide.

Sidney Paget illustration from first publication of "The Musgrave Ritual"

Sidney Paget illustration from first publication of “The Musgrave Ritual”

But series 3 of Sherlock has seen a lot of Sherlock and everyone behaving oddly. There’s a very thin line between developing a character, and falling back on generic plot developments like marriages, new relationships, and the ultimate shark-jumper, returns from the dead. Remember that episode of The Simpsons where Marge is watching a really dumb daytime soap and it has a priest rush in the door:

WOMAN Father McGrath, I thought you were dead!

FATHER MCGRATH I was!

In other words someone coming back from the dead is lame, the paradigmatic instance of shark-jumping. But Sherlock S3 did it not only with Holmes himself (and without Doyle’s extenuating circumstances; they always meant to bring him back – the “death” was specifically for suspense purposes), but, it turned out, with Moriarty as well. We saw Moriarty shoot himself in the head in S2! How can he come back from that? If it turns out they had this planned and have a good explanation I’ll recant, but I have a suspicion that it was a post-facto decision, necessitated by the need to introduce a cliffhanger at S3’s end. Here we see how Doyle was helped avoid jumping the shark by the structure of the detective story: no need for cliffhangers; entirely self-contained. I wish the makers of Sherlock had allowed themselves dispense with the cliffhanger, but modern serials demand it. I can imagine the corporate types insist on it, as a means of keeping the great bovine public talking about the series during the fallow period. The cliffhanger, though, is not a good artistic technique, and doesn’t help neat, well-structured, self-contained storytelling.

Doyle always used to complain about the difficulty making up a detective plot, and the writers of Sherlock seem to have discovered the same, maybe explaining why S3 was so character-driven. Episode 1 managed to escape having an overarching detection plot by dealing with Sherlock’s return and John’s reaction. Episode 2 went further again, and devoted itself mostly to the lead-up to John’s wedding and the event itself. Sherlock is best man, and consequently rather than detecting, observing and  deducing his way  through  the episode, he’s going on a stag-night, preparing a speech, etc. The wedding itself takes up much of the episode, eventually including a murder mystery, but ending on another meditation of Sherlock’s loneliness after John’s marriage. Then there’s all this talk of “redbeard”. Who or what is “redbeard”? Evidently some sort of emotional trigger for Sherlock, some clue to why he is as he is, taking its cue from Citizen Kane’s “rosebud” or maybe even James Bond’s “Skyfall”. Again this points to the psychoanalyzing focus of the series. What is this need to establish one single point from which a personality such as Holmes is built? My view of Holmes is that for the character to work best his unselfconsciousness needs to be accepted, as does the idea that his methods and their results justify themselves – they don’t need to be traced back to childhood trauma. And even if they did the idea of a single incident creating Sherlock, and the single word that represents it, is too pat, and a bit of a cliché, as the examples above illustrate.

Overall if you break down the episodes into their constituent functions, working out the functional and indicial content of every piece of dialogue, every camera angle, those with reference to Sherlock and John’s characters, relationships and (in Sherlock’s case) personal backgrounds would surely prevail over those related to detection (I’m not going to do it, though). The problem with this is, if it’s about character, as the series go on:

Things will have to happen to the characters.

This is a problem. That will lead to boring repetition because the things that happen to people are limited and trivial – witness any long-running serial drama: marriages, affairs, divorces and romantic relationships in all their forms are the staple. All of which fits quite awkwardly with Holmes. It has to come down to the detection, and to interesting things happening, and Holmes involving himself with them, rather than interesting things happening directly to Holmes (which is unsustainable).

But even Holmes detection skills let him down in the last episode of S3. He can’t find anything on arch-villain Magnusson, such is the fiendish cunning of the man, so he shoots him in the head, killing him. That’s not clever at all! Yes, it’s a dramatic gasp-inducing ending. But at what cost to the character? Holmes loses his uniqueness when he’s reduced to shooting people. Even worse, when something this dramatic happens, the writers will feel the need to “top” it for the end of the next series. Sherlock has died (S2), killed – basically in cold blood (S3), so where is left to go on the personal drama scale? But I’d imagine the benefits of this development in plotting for the writers was twofold: it’s dramatic, as I said; and it’s easier to write than a detection-style denouement, which relies on a moment where Holmes reveals an observation that simultaneously obvious (when pointed out) and unpredictable. A tough trick.

So it’s easier to focus on Holmes’ character and to give him inherently dramatic actions. There’s a whole army of generic drama tropes to be called on. It’s just that these standard plot developments can’t be reconciled with Holmes. Drama doesn’t happen to him; he stands above the drama, observing, deducing and ultimately judging. That’s why I love Holmes; he can step outside of all the normal relationshippy things and live a life of total engagement with his great work, something we can all envy. Once he and his writers get selfconscious about that, he’s lost his thing: he’s just an awkward guy doing something rubbish like looking for love or trying to find his place in the world. He doesn’t need to find it. He’s already exactly where he needs to be, doing exactly what he’s good at doing. So, Holmes, my message for you is: stop trying to be like everybody else, and get back to bloody work!

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