In Context: SHERLOCK HOLMES IN POP CULTURE
AUTHOR: Chloe Loos, Artistic Intern
ATC’s Holmes and Watson carries on a long and storied tradition of reimagining the canon (which refers to the short stories and novels written by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle), characters, situations, and even time or location of the famous detective. Why has he survived – thrived, rather – for over one hundred years? The answer is, at least significantly, due to the fans.
In 1893, Doyle’s infamous The Final Problem was published, in which he pushed Sherlock Holmes off a cliff to his demise due to his own exhaustion with the character. The public did not react well. Over 20,000 subscriptions of The Strand – the magazine the character was published in – were canceled, and the magazine became the target of aggressive letters. Despite a popular myth (with no evidence) that Victorian readers wore black mourning bands, the public reaction to the fictional event was still strikingly strong and shows a very early example of pop culture fans and thus contemporary fandom. “Fandom” refers to a group of fans of with an investment of time and energy far greater than that of an average fan. The term is often used to refer to media, but it can also relate to other interests; the word originally referred to sports fans. Examples of participating in fandom include visiting online message boards or dressing up like the character (“cosplaying”). Even though it took years, Doyle brought Holmes back to life in 1903’s The Adventure of the Empty House, much to the happiness of the fans.
An NPR article, “The Enduring Popularity of Sherlock Holmes,” posits the popularity is due to the ease at which Holmes is relatable to contemporary times. This would seem to be true, since the character has been adapted constantly since the novels were first published: in film, television, radio, and even comic books and games. According to the Guinness Book of World Records, Holmes is the most widely portrayed literary human in film and television; the portrayals run the gamut from Holmes’ solving mysteries in his youth to the critically acclaimed Mr. Holmes (penned by Holmes and Watson playwright Jeffery Hatcher), which observes a retired Holmes. Sometimes Holmes stays in Victorian-era London, but sometimes he is seen in contemporary London (Sherlock) and in the contemporary United States (Elementary), and even in the future (Sherlock Holmes in the 22nd Century).
This contemporary updating isn’t just a 21st century trope; most of Basil Rathbone’s films, which are arguably the most famous portrayal of the detective, were set a time period contemporary to when they were made in the 1940s. Adaptations of Doyle’s stories aren’t just relegated to somewhat accurate portrayals of plot or characters. Holmes’s influence has been seen in very unique ways since. For example, Disney’s The Great Mouse Detective follows Basil, a mouse-Holmes, and the character often appears or is referenced on other television shows or in other media. The character’s influence is also seen in smaller ways, such as affecting the depiction of characters such as Gregory House (House) or Shawn Spencer (Psych).
Another enduring aspect of the character is the way in which he is written with different skills, which allows unique facets to be explored in each variation. For example, Robert Downey Jr.’s Sherlock Holmes is a crime-fighting action hero, which related to mentions in the canon about Holmes’ proficiency in combat; Johnny Lee Miller’s Sherlock is a recovering drug addict; and Benedict Cumberbatch’s perfectly exemplifies the cold and distant relationships to others.
Thus, the character has – and seems likely to remain – a fixture in the pop culture and media landscape of the world we inhabit. Doyle’s characters are enduring icons of the Western world, from accurate adaptations to minor references. The intelligent yet damaged and possibly dangerous crime-solver will always be around – as long as there are fans to fight for him.
For more on Sherlock Holmes fandom, click here.