Sherlock Holmes: A Study in Contrasts

I don’t know that I ever posted about seeing Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows just before Christmas. I ranted about it on Yahoo groups instead. Basically I thought it was fun, with some lovely explosions and much to recommend it to lovers of big guns, but I felt it would have been much improved if it hadn’t been sold as Sherlock Holmes, because they have taken away almost everything that makes Holmes Holmes and Watson Watson.

I should hurry to clarify that it’s not that I don’t believe Holmes and Watson could handle themselves in a fight. Of course they could. Holmes bending a fire-poker into a circle as a demonstration of strength is one of the lasting impressions I have of the stories, and I remember that he was trained in some (possibly made up) form of martial arts. But he rarely had to use either of these things, because the stories were about his ability to solve crimes by intelligence, observation and the deductive method. None of which was really in evidence in the film.

It’s not so much the overwhelming action-heroness that makes me feel film!Holmes is OOC, though. It’s mainly that book!Holmes was neither a slob nor a flirt. Possibly film!Holmes is both of these in order to appear manly for an American audience which is already inclined to find Englishmen effeminate. But if that’s so you wouldn’t expect the film makers to then put him into a dress.

Or perhaps they only felt they could get away with putting him into a dress if it was played for laughs? I have to say that I found the whole “LOL! Holmes is in a dress and he and Watson look like they’re having sex in a train carriage, the fangirls will love this!” episode acutely annoying.  For crying out loud, this is 2012. Subtext that you then go out of your way to disprove is no longer daring. You want to suggest they might be gay, go ahead and actually make it text. Deal with it like it’s a real thing and not a joke. Otherwise you look like you’re sniggering behind your hand at something that isn’t funny. Why is a man in a dress funny? Why is it a joke that Holmes and Watson could actually be a couple? It isn’t, and it annoys me no end to see it treated that way.

The film also pissed me off in the matter of Irene Adler. I didn’t like the fact that she was made out to be (a) Holmes’ girlfriend and (b) a damsel in distress in the first film, but I didn’t like even more her being treated as disposable in the second film and replaceable by another typical, cloned spunky female sidekick. She was special, damn it. A Victorian author wrote her as a female character who out-clevered Sherlock Holmes and who Holmes admired and maybe even revered for her brain. How is it that a Victorian author can have more respect for his female characters than a modern film maker? That’s rather sad.

TL/DR – I enjoyed the film as a semi-steampunk romp with original characters, but disliked it intensely as a representation of Sherlock Holmes.

Fortunately, my ruffled feathers were almost immediately soothed by the new series of the BBC’s Sherlock.

I’d been worried about this, because I’d been told that they were doing Irene Adler as well, and teaser trailers had been seen that implied she and Sherlock were in some kind of sexual relationship. I should come clean and say that I have always, always seen Sherlock Holmes as someone who was simply not interested in sex at all. My position on the “is he with Watson, or is he with Irene Adler” question is “No.” And that’s always been very important to me (possibly for reasons related to my “things I realised during 2011” post.)  In my mind, if done right, Sherlock Holmes is not a sexual being, and I was all prepared to be sad and disappointed by this episode if they had dropped the ball and decided that he couldn’t be a real man without shagging someone.

But they didn’t, thank God. Instead they did an almost perfect blend of genuine intellectual fascination, a tiny bit of maybe, possibly romantic interest and a great deal of the same thing he did when he met Watson – showing off in order to dazzle an appreciative audience. Of course she fascinates and attracts him on a mental level, so does Moriarty – they’re dangerous and clever and a fun challenge, and they stop him getting bored.

I didn’t particularly like her being in love with him. Canonically, she’s deeply in love with someone else when they meet. Which is only sensible, because Holmes is not the right kind of person to be in love with. (Poor Molly from the hospital. But on the other hand, grow some self-respect, girl, and stop setting yourself up for this.) OTOH, Irene Adler is a sexual being and Sherlock’s got all the same qualities of intellectual fascination and is quite attractive, so I don’t mind that too much. (But what? Didn’t she say she was gay? Does that mean we’re supposed to accept that he’s just so gorgeous that even lesbians fall for him? Hm… I don’t see it, myself.)

I loved Irene Adler as a character – I thought the dominatrix thing was a good way to update the whole element of sexual scandal (because, like it or not, if a young female royal was found to be visiting a professional domme there would be a scandal, even nowadays.)  She was such a powerful presence physically as well as mentally and it was lovely to see her make mincemeat of Sherlock both ways. She needs her own series.

I rather resented the fact that they changed the end to allow him to end up triumphing over and finally rescuing her. That didn’t happen in the book. (See above about Victorian authors and sad things.)

I also really loved the perplexed reactions of everyone around Sherlock as they all tried to figure out how this relationship worked and what it meant, using models that just didn’t fit. In the story, Watson sounds puzzled and slightly disbelieving about the way Sherlock is not interested in women but nevertheless regards Irene as THE woman, and the same disconnect was wonderfully shown here.

Other things that made me squee – Sherlock’s reaction to Mrs. Hudson being manhandled by the CIA man. Defenestration was too good for him. Mrs. Hudson also continues to be unexpectedly awesome in a frail old lady way. The Flight of the Dead. Mycroft being all BAMF!big-brotherly. Sherlock in a sheet being infantile in return. That brief moment where Sherlock and Mycroft reassure each other that there’s nothing wrong with being cold bastards set slightly apart from the rest of the human race. Low Tar sympathy for short term relationships. John, who could have been overshadowed this episode, somehow managing to be even more awesome (and awesomely put-upon) than usual.

And I like the fact that everyone assumes John and Sherlock are a couple. Of course they do – they look like a couple, they behave like a couple, so naturally everyone assumes they are together. No sniggering or subtext required, even if it does exasperate John, who is blithely unaware that he’s in the closest thing Sherlock will ever have to an intimate relationship. (Though John’s newly-ex-girlfriend clearly knows the score.)

TL/DR – there were some things I wasn’t sure of, but on the whole it was delightful. Funny, insightful, clever and right. I can’t wait for the next episode.


Comments (4)

Dianne T.January 2nd, 2012 at 7:05 pm

Thank you for the insights Alex!!. I have not seen either of the Sherlock Holmes movies with RDJ – just not interested at all based on the trailers. The attempt at humor in the dress scene that you describe has me groaning (in a bad way). I did however, LOVE series one of BBC Sherlock and have the second series on pre-order from Amazon UK. They are making trailers for this series available to oversees audiences though, which is great to see. :-D The Sherlock FB page has over 20,000 fans!

Alex BeecroftJanuary 2nd, 2012 at 11:08 pm

*g* No problem, Dianne! I’m a big Holmes fan, (book first, then Jeremy Brett, then BBC Sherlock) so I had to go and see the films, but I found I could only enjoy them by pretending they were films about some other pair of pseudo-Victorian adventurers in a sort of Indiana Jones tradition. As long as I didn’t think of them as having anything to do with Sherlock Holmes, I found them to be good entertainment, if a little cliched. But the first BBC series was a thing of beauty and it looks as though the second one will be equally good. I think it really shows that the creators of the series are enormous fans themselves. They seem to ‘get it’ in the way the films just don’t.

Will they not be showing on BBC America sooner than having to buy the DVDs?

SaraApril 30th, 2012 at 10:53 pm

I’m a huge BBC Sherlock fan. Such a great show. Every episode is basically a series of highlights. There are no lulls.

Despite all the “Johnlock” fan fiction I’ve read & enjoyed, I’m with you. I don’t think Sherlock is interested. Re Irene, as a dominatrix she works with men as well as women (there were several of whom she said “I know what he likes”). So though she described herself as gay she’s been with men. I think she saw Sherlock as a challenge and wanted to be the one to initiate him. I don’t think it’s his looks alone. It’s his unique self that has both Irene & John attracted to someone they wouldn’t expect. I also don’t think he triumphed exactly. She used and humiliated him. He, in turn, brought her low, but the flights are over.

Alex BeecroftMay 2nd, 2012 at 2:49 pm

I wasn’t too sure about the second episode of the first series – the Chinese one. That was a nod to a kind of Victorian story that didn’t really modernise happily, but I loved all the rest of them. As an Ace myself, it’s kind of important to me that Sherlock is asexual – he’s pretty much the only fictional representative we’ve got, so I hate it when they mess with that. I see your point about Irene though – lables are always a little too cut and dried when applied to real people who are generally a bag of exceptions.

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