Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s detective stories about Sherlock Holmes were first published in 1887, but adaptations, such as the Sherlock Holmes movies starring Robert Downey Jr. and the British TV show Sherlock, are still popular over a century later. Most recently, the television series Elementary placed the stories in a modern setting, with the character of Watson reinterpreted as a woman. Peter Goldstein, professor of English, gives his thoughts on the recent adaptations of the Sherlock Holmes stories:
Q: Why is Sherlock Holmes such a lasting character?
A: Lots of reasons, but I think there are two that are major. One is that he’s really smart and has this unique ability to deduce stuff. We think that’s really cool because we wish we could do that, and he’s sort of an ideal character in that way, using deduction to come to these incredible conclusions. The other thing is that he is a human being; he’s not just a machine. Although he’s very much a creature of the late Victorian era, he’s got quirks and all sorts of interesting personality features that can be adapted to a number of settings.
Q: How has Sherlock Holmes as a series influenced society?
A: It has certainly influenced the detective story, although Conan Doyle didn’t invent the detective story. Edgar Alan Poe really is the person who invented it, and if you look at Poe’s detective stories and Conan Doyle’s detective stories, you see that really Conan Doyle didn’t do anything that Poe didn’t do first. So it has influenced literature a lot, and it certainly has been a template for many detective stories since then. I don’t know about society, other than the fact that the stories have provided us with all sorts of entertainment.
Q: How do you think Sir Arthur Conan Doyle would feel about these adaptations?
A: I suspect several of them he wouldn’t care much for, and several of them he would like. When Conan Doyle did Sherlock Holmes, he eventually got tired of writing it and tried to kill Holmes off, but public demand required that he keep writing the stories. He saw himself as a writer of other things; he didn’t think that the Sherlock Holmes stories were the most important things he wrote. He might be a bit scared, I suspect, by the way it has become such a cultural feature. There have always been Sherlock Holmes adaptations, but there have been three significant new ones, in English anyway, in the last few years, and I can’t tell you why that is. You’ve got the Robert Downey Jr. movie, you’ve got Benedict Cumberbatch in England, and now you’ve got the new one on CBS. Maybe it’s escapism, or maybe it’s the sense that the world is in a pretty bad way. Sherlock Holmes is a pretty good hero in a way, who both embodies all of this great ability, and at the same time is a human being rather than a super person.
Q: What do you think of the modern-day adaptations of Sherlock Holmes?
A: I like the Benedict Cumberbatch Sherlock, I think that it’s done very tastefully. I like a Sherlock Holmes who is very quirky and not the kind of person you would meet next door. I like him to be a little bit strange and off-putting, because I think that’s truer to the way the original books were written. And my wife loves the Robert Downey Jr.ones, but I don’t particularly care for them. I think they’re a bit too loud and a bit too in-your-face, and it’s sort of like Sherlock Holmes as an action hero. He does do action-hero-type things at times in the books, but making him into a sort of action hero type is just not my thing. And I haven’t seen the newest version, although I think having a female Watson is a very interesting idea.
Q: Any other Holmesian thoughts?
A: I love Sherlock Holmes. There have been a lot of pastiches written, and a pastiche is essentially a glorified version of fan fiction, which is where you take your favorite characters and write a story about them. And there have been lots of very good pastiches written about Sherlock Holmes; there’ve been more pastiches written about Sherlock Holmes than about any other fictional character. So there’s not only the original Sherlock Holmes stories out there. I mean, you should go immediately to the originals and read them because they’re wonderful, but then try some of the more modern versions that have been written. There’s lots of good reading to be done there as well. And Sherlock Holmes is cool! It’s astonishing when you read about how wide his reach is. I mean, the Sherlock Holmes character is probably the single most recognizable fictional character in the history of literature.
~Laura Bitely ’14, Juniata Online Journalist