Features and Columns

Culture Warrior: Why is Sherlock Back?

By  · Published on February 8th, 2011

For whatever reason, Sherlock Holmes has seen something of an unexpected cultural resurgence recently. Of course, one could argue that the pipe-smoking gumshoe is ubiquitously present in some form or another as his image resonates well beyond the pages in which Arthur Conan Doyle originally encapsulated and explored his identity decade in and decade out; it seems merely a matter, instead, of how present he is in mainstream forms of popular culture at any given moment. That Sherlock Holmes is an object of the public domain only provides greater opportunities for his likeness to arise in myriad ways across media. But what’s unique about the recent incarnations of Holmes is the great variety of forms he takes within a variety of representational modes: the various Holmses we’ve seen recently are not only very different, but distinct in a way that function in conversation, and even in conflict, with each other.

The only certainty that arises out of this variety of Holmes characters is that there is no one certain, dominant interpretation of the character, but rather many that audiences can choose from. That several incarnations of Holmes have arisen in popular media almost simultaneously does not point to a broad need in our culture relating to some intrinsic notion of who Holmes is “supposed to be.” Instead these examples are, to varying degrees, different niche versions of the character, each interpretation responding to some specific need.

Sherlock Holmes (2009; sequel due in December)

Guy Ritchie and Robert Downey Jr.’s Sherlock is easily the most evident and pervasive of the character’s currently dominant iterations as Ritchie and company have tapped into the character’s ubiquitous nature for populist box-office appeal. While the film seemed to satisfy audiences greatly, it is still the occasional subject of contention within some circles. Perhaps the range of opinion on this film at large can be illustrated by the opinions on this very site: Rob Hunter considers the film a great piece of entertainment, while Cole Abaius finds it incredibly boring. I find myself somewhere awkwardly in the middle.

While one can’t deduce audience consensus (if such a thing even exists) through overheard conversation, I did at several points during the film’s release reluctantly overhear strangers in public places go on about how turning Sherlock Holmes into an action star was a “creative” and “inventive” move. One man’s invention is another man’s reduction. This switch to a more action-oriented Holmes I felt came at the expense of constructing a clever and engrossing mystery, which seems to be, at least historically, the center of the character’s appeal.

However, for the purpose of cultural reflection, what’s important here is not the supposed “fidelity’ of a character who has had an even greater variety of adapted interpretations before this, but the fact that Holmes was reconfigured as an action star in a way that spoke to moviegoing culture. by these means, Holmes was not reinvented as a resourceful, Batman-esque superhero (after all, both are great detectives), but is instead posited here, cultural legacy in tow, as the original superhero. The fact that he is played by an actor who recently entered mega-moviestardom through portraying a superhero a year and a half earlier only further cements this association. And this reinvention was a necessary step in transforming Holmes into an icon adaptable to current Hollywood franchise-making strategies.

“Sherlock” (BBC series, 2010-present)

Despite the fact that the Guy Ritchie films maintain the original setting of the source material, this 21st-century-set television show is likely a better venue for Doyle purists as all of its entries are slight but loyal reworkings of many of Doyle’s short stories, evidencing that the subject matter may lend itself better to television (albeit in mini-movie length 90-minute episodes) rather than feature films.

But what’s most interesting about this Sherlock are the derivations from the source material in the interest of updating it to contemporary London. One would think Holmes’s now-antiquated modes of detection wouldn’t be adaptable to the era of Wikileaks and “CSI,” but this series re-situates the original Holmes as one of the first technophiles of the Industrial Age and, through this lens, makes him a technophile of the Information Age. In an era that is supposedly so overloaded with media content that truth is elusive and objectivity a myth, Benedict Cumberbatch’s Sherlock is a detective who uses the tools available in the Information Era to actually, y’know, gather information.

While Holmes’s apartment is littered with random objects of years past, he relies heavily on modern devices (especially cell phones, which the creators envisioned as today’s equivalent of Holmes’s original use of telegrams) to solve mysteries. One particularly interesting moment occurs in the first episode when Holmes tracks (on foot) a cab driving quickly around the narrow Victorian streets and we “see” his subjective point-of-view as a Google-form Internet map, through which he is able to catch the culprit. The contemporary Holmes’s understanding of the world, then, is not overwhelmed by technology, but determined by it. “Sherlock” is at once a closely adapted update of the original character as it is a vision of a Holmes of the future: in being able to mine information overload, he essentially becomes a cyborg.

Cold Weather (2010)

By the time a mumblecore version of Sherlock Holmes arrives, you know you have a pervasive cultural trend. While Holmes here operates (for the character and the filmmaker) more as a location for inspiration rather than a straightforward adaptation, minimalist DIY filmmaker Aaron Katz essentially makes what might be the first gumshoe-gazer in cinema. Cold Weather is a surprisingly engrossing film considering how unassuming it is in tone, and it represents something of a diametric opposition to Ritchie’s Holmes, trading action for mystery rather than the other way around.

The scope of the mystery at the center of the film would never fit a Hollywood paradigm, but the stripped-down nature of it all is exactly the point. Cold Weather also uses the Holmes framework to inscribe genre heavily into an independent form that was otherwise engaging in bare-bones filmmaking in implicit reaction to genre, and as a result shows how starved real mystery has been in cinema for quite some time. Just as Katz is a DIY filmmaker, his protagonist is a DIY detective, using the limited resources at his disposal to do whatever he can – and in detection, just as in filmmaking, limitations yield inspiration.

In this way the film, despite its contemporary setting, represents something of an antithesis to Sherlock as well: technology here interferes (e.g., missed phone calls) with the case instead of forming it, so this new Holmes relies instead on older, more tested forms of information-gathering from simple old-fashioned detection to the public library. The film features several interchangeable “Watsons” as well, but the protagonist’s partners, while helpful, aren’t there so much for assistance as they’re there out of an anxious need for adventure in life.

These three versions of Sherlock Holmes barely scratch the surface compared to the long history of (direct or indirect) Doyle adaptations, but revisitations of a ubiquitous literary figure throughout a variety of media forms yields new ways of assessing how times have changed and how the character is readily adapted to the needs of a given audience with each new interpretation.

Put more Culture Warrior in your pipe and smoke it

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