Why don’t Sherlock Holmes adaptations like Sherlock Holmes?

young sherlock holmes

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s detective is the most adapted character for the screen – but are creators forgetting what made him work in the first place?

When The Irregulars appeared on Netflix at the end of March this year, the series promised to be about a gang of ‘troubled street teens’ who are manipulated into solving crimes for John Watson and Sherlock Holmes. Based on the name Holmes gave to the urchins who provided him with invaluable information about London’s streets (‘The Baker Street Irregulars’), it could barely have been a more obvious addition to the ever-expanding Sherlock Holmes universe.

And yet.

Not only did Sherlock Holmes not appear until almost four hours of the series had elapsed, but when he did, he bore little resemblance to the character in Arthur Conan Doyle’s stories. Rather than being brilliantly rational, he was an emotional wreck and a drug addict, torn apart by love.

Most importantly, there was precious little evidence that he solved any crimes, which sticklers would argue was quite important for a detective. 

Instead, we were asked to believe that it was the Irregulars doing most of the heavy lifting. Holmes was relegated to the sidelines as a sort of emo junkie, as the teenagers investigated the paranormal. As Louisa Mellor points out in this piece for Den of Geek, Holmes might as well have been someone else. And this is the point about the character in most modern adaptations: he might as well be someone else. 



Was The Irregulars an interesting twist on the Holmes canon? Or was it just an excuse to make an entirely different show and cash in on the franchise? I could write Sherl8ck H8lme5, a show that reimagined Sherlock Holmes as a sexy robot who killed baddies with his laser legs, but I think it might lack a certain amount of integrity. This isn’t something I’d suggest that troubles those making film and television today.

How did we get here? Needless to say, as literature’s most famous detective, Sherlock Holmes has been depicted countless times in countless media. He is, says the Guinness Book of Records, the most frequently portrayed literary character in history. So much been made of so little. (Conan Doyle published four novels and five short story collections.)

Every conceivable liberty has been taken with the man: he has fought aliens, been depicted as a dog, been resurrected, been a Japanese woman, and even been married. Furthermore, the third film with Robert Downey Jr as the great detective is said to be back in development. 

In short: ever since he appeared for the first time on screen in 1900, people have wanted to show Sherlock Holmes to the world.

Changing times

The shift has been gradual. If in 1901 Holmes had been depicted as a shrieking opium addict whose cases were solved by tweens, the person responsible would have come in for what could politely be described as ‘some pushback’. But, inch by inch, the character has drifted away from the brilliantly distinct creation he once was. As Claire McNear wrote for The Ringer, “the problem with telling and retelling Sherlock Holmes stories for 134 years is that at some point you run out of angles. Which is how you get to Sherlock Holmes being a loser.”

Imagining Sherlock Holmes in a different era is interesting, as the BBC’s gigantic hit Sherlock proved. Imagining that Sherlock Holmes as a different person is not. The reason that Sherlock was so brilliant (to begin with at least) was that its premise was simple: what if Sherlock Holmes was alive today? His corpse didn’t need to be reanimated; he didn’t need to exist in the body of a raccoon; he could simply be plopped into the 21st century and asked to get on with it. Riffing on the way that Twitter would have reacted to Holmes was at least amusing, perhaps even thought-provoking.

Other iterations (it would take months simply to list them) have imagined new crimes for Holmes to solve, or new adversaries for him to do battle with. But these feel distinct from the cynical modern shift, driven not by a love for the character but a financial dependence on him. 

In Enola Holmes, the Netflix film adaptation inspired by the 2006-2010 books for younger readers, the focus is Holmes’ 14-year-old sister (who never existed in the books). Why make her his sister at all, if not to suggest that she depends on him for the stories to work? 

As with The Irregulars the film has little to do with Sherlock Holmes and, rather than eating their cake and having it too, the filmmakers have the worst of both worlds: the finished productions are too tied to Holmes to be considered their own creation but too unmoored from him to be interesting interpretations of the character.

One of the things on which Conan Doyle could barely have been clearer was the fact that Holmes went about his life with a sociopathic detachment. “But love is an emotional thing, and whatever is emotional is opposed to that true cold reason which I place above all things,” the detective said in Sign of the Four. Modern treatments of Holmes – The Irregulars, Elementary, and, most famously, Sherlock – have looked at this and seem to have thought: ‘How fascinating. What a fascinating character. What if he was…not like that?’


This is how we got the latter stages of Sherlock. Instead of creating cases for Holmes to solve, the writers used the screen time analysing Holmes’ psyche, the emotional bond between him and Watson, and Holmes’ family history. Why? There is a very good chance that it was something to do with the soaring fame of Benedict Cumberbatch. Many who watched the show would arguably have been more interested in Cumberbatch than crime. I’d argue that by the end its creators fell into this category as well. Holmes’ strength lies in his unknowability. Like any mystery, he is at his least interesting when he is solved.

Clearly, we must allow for multiple interpretations of iconic characters. But interpretation quickly becomes opportunism. How many of the people adapting Holmes for the screen are doing so because they loved Conan Doyle’s stories, and how many are doing so because they know that their Sherlock Holmes script (‘This is Sherlock Holmes meets Fast and Furious – in space’) will be greenlit before their own passion project?

The answer, of course, is not that the Conan Doyle estate – or anyone else for that matter – should be given the power to veto the bizarre new adaptations that emerge. Instead, as always, it is that film and television should be taking more risks on material that does not come attached to an intellectual property – let alone one that has been relentlessly flogged for over a century. 

If all else fails, however, I’m happy to put my Sherl8ck H8lme5 script in the hands of any executives who might like it. It’s Sherlock Holmes – but as you’ve never seen him before. You should see what he does with those laser legs! Kapow!

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