Over the past few days, I’ve watched a lot of Sherlock Holmes. The entire second series of BBC’s Sherlock, along with the season premiere of the second season of Elementary, CBS’s Holmes adaptation. Sherlock is a unique character. And, of course, it’s my nature to wonder why.
Sherlock notices things. He makes connections where previously, connections did not exist. He puts two and two together to make four while the first two was buried under a landslide twelve years ago and the second two was in disguise, living under an assumed name in Tibet. He beats himself up over getting tiny details wrong, then forgets the order of the solar system. He cares nothing for the emotions of other people and sees his own emotions as weakness.
He is insane on so many levels. And yet, we love him. Why?
“Because that’s what people DO!”
No, Moriarty. You’re wrong.
There’s something about Sherlock that makes him completely unique, able to solve every problem the universe throws at him, and still not care. Many others have tried to duplicate this feat. Most of them have failed.
Think of kid detectives everywhere. Adult detectives everywhere. Why can’t NCIS cases be solved in thirty seconds, eh? Why take an entire hour? Why can there only be one Sherlock?
The original reason was simple– exactly what makes him weird. He’s a genius. And he’s insane. When we see him insult someone so callously with the intimate details of their failing marriage, we decide that it’s because he is uninhibited by emotion that he can think so quickly and remember so much. We agree with him; average people are crippled by their emotions. There’s no reason to believe that. I like my emotions just fine, thank you very much. The only reason is that he’s smarter. And the only reason we think he’s smarter is because he’s unhindered by emotions.
If you’ve followed me this far, I think you can tell this is circular reasoning. Holmes believes that emotions are bad, which makes him smarter than us– and because he’s smarter than us, he believes emotions are bad. That’s not logic. It’s just delivered so quickly we can’t see it.
Is he a genius because he’s insane, or insane because he’s a genius?
So why can’t we proclaim a few more of our favorite detectives insane, so they can pull conclusions out of thin air? Why can’t every author write a Sherlock Holmes? Why must all our best detective stories be adaptations of the same story?
Let me tell you, Holmes’s success in modern times is not completely due to his genius insanity. Not completely. It was enough to gain fame when the first Holmes stories were published, but since then his public image has changed immensely. That is good news for the adaptations.
See, the good adaptations rely on a little bit of bias and foreknowledge on the audience’s part. Take, for instance, that line in Sherlock season one episode one, A Study in Pink: “She’s German. ‘Rache.’ German for ‘revenge.'” Pushing aside the fact that Anderson wouldn’t logically jump to any such conclusion unless he was actually German, this was actually a hint at the original story A Study in Scarlet, when someone claims “Rache” is short for “Rachel” and Sherlock says it’s German. Yes, it was clumsy, but it was a parallel that only fans of the book would pick up on.
Now, it doesn’t stop there, because who needs little jokes to interest them in a character like this? No, indeed, this requires something more powerful. Such as a bias.
What do you think of when I mention Sherlock Holmes? Who else has that name? You think of the character and only the character, because Sherlock Holmes only means the character. There’s no reason to think anything different. And the character… the character could only be one thing, one person, one type of person. The famous detective who can pull serial killers out of a hat.
The adaptations feed on that. They take your idea of Holmes and use it to craft detective stories no other character could pull off. Who can really do what Sherlock does? There is not a human alive who could do it. Sherlock wasn’t modeled after someone. He’s hardly even possible, let alone human. It’s fiction, as fiction as you get. And thus, we allow it.
It’s what we expect, nothing more, nothing less. Sherlock Holmes is the greatest detective ever. Who cares if no one could actually know the difference between the mud from this part of London versus that part of London? He’s the greatest detective ever! We let him get away with highway robbery.
If Sherlock Holmes didn’t have the reputation he has now, we wouldn’t like any of those adaptations. We’d see them for what they really are, just reruns of the same characters, same story, over and over and over again. Without his insanity, we would actually see the plot holes– there is more than one reason for a stain in that area of the shirt. And honestly, as brilliant as Holmes is, sometimes I wish he wasn’t so popular.