Etan Cohen’s Holmes & Watson

James Hynes, Lancaster University

The figures of Sherlock Holmes and John Watson have seeped into popular consciousness since their creation at the end of the Victorian era, and with 21stcentury adaptations such as Guy Ritchie’s films (2009, 2011) and Steven Moffat’s BBC series (2010-17), the Great Detective is arguably more prevalent in popular culture than ever before. For Holmes, mass popularity has always invoked satirical reinterpretation. The first Holmes adaptation is Sherlock Holmes Baffled (1900), a short film in which the detective is outsmarted by a thief who can appear and disappear at will. More recently, Etan Cohen’s Holmes & Watson (2018) reimagines the adventures of the eponymous duo as a comedy, poking fun at their image and legacy. The movie follows Holmes (Will Ferrell) and Watson (John C. Reilly) as they attempt to prevent an assassination attempt on Queen Victoria (Pam Ferris) by a mysterious figure copying the murder style of Professor James Moriarty (Ralph Fiennes). It draws on several Arthur Conan Doyle stories, most notably The Adventure of the Final Problem (1893) and The Valley of Fear (1915), in which Moriarty poses an omnipresent threat. The star-studded comedy was a critical and commercial failure – with a budget of $42 million, it made only $41.9 million. However, the film contains a resonant exploration of Holmes as an adaptative icon, using a satirical slant to examine contemporary perceptions of the great detective.

A significant focus of Holmes & Watson is public image and the legacy that stems from it. Holmes is fixated on preserving the perception of the “great detective,” shunning Watson’s contributions publicly to further his own social standing and spending time choosing a hat for which people will remember him. This contrasts with Doyle’s Holmes, who avoids publicity and allows others to take credit, becoming famous only through Watson’s writings. Landlady Mrs. Hudson (Kelly Macdonald), reimagined here as the antagonistic daughter of Moriarty, also speaks of getting her family name in the history books so that people will forget Holmes. Themes of legacy become more potent when we consider how Sherlock, a fictional character, has remained a household name since his creation over a century ago. The film exhibits awareness of its origins in a literary text and probes how adaptations feed cultural legacy. For example, in Cohen’s adaptation Hudson forces Watson to write a slanderous account of Holmes, leveraging the power of Watson as narrator to create legacy. The implication is that Holmes’s popularity stems from how he is portrayed in the texts narrated by Watson and written by Doyle. Holmes & Watsontherefore compounds the character’s legacy to show how Holmes has transitioned from Conan Doyle’s character to a cultural icon.

As with most Holmes adaptations, the film dramatizes Watson’s writing. However, the film’s comedic tone adds a new dimension to the distancing created when Watson is removed as narrator. In Doyle’s stories, the reader views Holmes through Watson’s perspective; Watson has immense respect for the Great Detective and is in awe of his intellect. In the film, removing Watson’s homodiegetic narrative constructs a more narcissistic and fallible Holmes. He is almost late to Moriarty’s trial because he is practicing the perfect entrance. Similarly, Holmes trying to pick a hat for which people will remember him pokes fun at the superficiality of his public persona. While the deerstalker is an icon widely associated with Holmes, it never featured in Conan Doyle’s texts. Bosc-01.jpgThe same can be said for Holmes’ brash arrogance, as while he demonstrates a remarkable intellect, in Doyle’s stories he often lets others take the credit. In this adaptation, other characters’ awe at his intellect only fuels Holmes’ ego. Cohen spotlights not only the inherent bias in Watson’s writing, but also how adaptations over time add new dimensions to characters that were not specified in the original text. Holmes & Watson doesn’t only participate in the legacy of Conan Doyle’s stories; it also invokes their legacy to show how cultural icons evolve over time.  

Questions for Discussion

Holmes & Watson reimagines the detective story as a comedy. How is a text affected when its genre is changed? Imagine how the scene where Holmes and Watson discover a dead body in Queen Victoria’s cake would be portrayed in a different genre. What elements would change and what would remain the same?

Hassenger (2018) claims “[Will] Ferrell seems particularly drawn to buddy comedies.” How would you define “buddy comedy,” and to what extent can Conan Doyle’s stories be considered a “buddy comedy”? Compare them to other buddy comedies and discuss how representations of male companionship have changed since the Victorian era.

Sherlock is concerned with which hat will perpetuate his image and cult status. The deerstalker, seen in the image above, has its origin outside the literary text, first appearing in a Sidney Paget illustration for The Boscombe Valley Mystery (1891). What does this image’s legacy in popular culture say about the importance of visual representation outside of a literary text?

Further Reading

Conan Doyle, A. “The Adventure of the Final Problem”. The Gunston Trust, Baltimore, Maryland, 2018.

—— “The Valley of Fear”. William Collins, London, 2016.

Hassenger, J. “Holmes & Watson’s failure shows how the world is changing for cinematic comedy” The Verge. Accessed 7thAugust 2019.

Leitch, T. Adaptation and Its Discontents: From Gone with the Wind To Passion of the Christ. The John Hopkins University Press, Baltimore, Maryland, 2009, pp. 207-235.

Meslow, S. “Film’s 111-Year Obsession with Sherlock Holmes”. The Atlantic. Accessed 9thAugust 2019.

Nicol, B. “Sherlock Holmes and Conan Doyle: Multi Media Afterlives”. Palgrave Macmillan, Hampshire, 2013, pp. 124-139.

South Park’s “Pip”

By Robert Sirabian, University of Wisconsin Stevens Point[1]

In a central scene in South Park’s “Pip” episode (2000), when Pip asks Miss Havisham why she makes Estella “hurt people,” she tells Pip, “Wuh-hy? Well that’s simple. Because I need the tears of broken-hearted men to use in my Genesis device. You see, my foolish child, I am growing very old. But tonight, I will fuse my soul into Estella’s once and for all. And then I can go on breaking men’s hearts for another generation.”

Miss Havisham plans, in essence, to adapt herself. She will exist in Estella, even though she will not be recognizable in her original form, while Estella will look the same but house Miss Havisham, who will ostensibly motivate Estella’s impulses, thoughts, and feelings. Miss Havisham’s Genesis device denotes both origin and generation, signaling that adaptations do not focus on a final product.

In parallel fashion, “Pip” houses Charles’s Dickens’s Great Expectations but in a provocative twist becomes a metatextual commentary on adaptation as it highlights the interdependency of multiple adapted texts and the novel. As Phyllis Frus and Christy Williams explain, “An adaptation is a text that has been changed to suit a new purpose or environment.” They add that “the new text is recognizable as a relation of the earlier text” (3; my emphasis). As a relation of Dickens’s Great Expectations (1860-61), South Park’s “Pip” reveals an astute understanding of Great Expectation’s structure and content as well as the intellectual and commercial stakes when adapting great books.

Created by Trey Parker and Matt Stone, South Park is an animated sitcom that follows the shenanigans of four fourth-grade boys: Stan Marsh, Eric Cartman, Kyle Broflovski, and Kenny McCormick. Like The Simpsons, it is fueled by adolescent humor and social satire, often addressing contemporary issues. Pip is a character who makes brief appearances in South Park, relating the Great Expectations adaptation to other South Park episodes. Yet “Pip” is far from being a simplistic, crude parody of classic literature aimed at adolescent boys who do not like to read long, boring books. What makes this episode an engaging adaptation is that it lampoons itself and the process of adaptation. This metatextual commentary effectively makes references to contemporary and popular culture, satirizing Great Expectations along with a highbrow culture that idolizes classic literature. In fact, the episode’s intertexuality creates its humor. Yet as a relation of Great Expectations, it acknowledges universal themes in its creative, streamlined, humorous retelling of the story.

While poking fun at itself, “Pip” lampoons the process of adaptation, particularly literary adaptations that aim for fidelity and authenticity. The narrator (Malcolm McDowell) announces, against a background of classical music, à la Masterpiece Theater’s Alistair Cooke, “Hello, I’m a British person,” and then he claims, “Indeed, after watching this show, you’ll know the timeless classic as if you’d . . . read the Cliff Notes themselves.” In addition, the narrator’s jibes at Britishness, Dickens, and the literati signify the problem with adaptation as a form of commercial reproduction promoted, the current Masterpiece advertising campaign reminds us, as food for the mind.

Rather than aiming for fidelity to Great Expectations, “Pip” self-consciously plays with its differences from Dickens’s novel, for example its narrative, plot structure, tone, and characterization, creating an “original” show that twenty-first century viewers can relate to while they remain cognizant of the novel and its historical and cultural context. Its anachronistic and ill-informed references (e.g., Tony Blair is the king of England) as well as its bathroom humor comment on and spoof Victorian propriety and manners as well as our own cultural crassness. The use of animation, which makes London look like a Dickens village found on mantle pieces during Christmas, and recognizable cartoon characters freed from realism suggest that we should think of adaptation as biological mutation in a cultural context.

Sounding like an impromptu book report given by a high school student who never finished Great Expectations, “Pip” returns viewers to other texts it references as well as to the novel. Jeffrey Scone notes that “[s]trangely, beneath the satire, sarcasm, calculated anachronisms, and random potshots at the Brits, there is in ‘Pip’ a rather sincere attempt to come to terms with the ‘spirit’ of the novel” (185). In a pivotal, early scene from “Pip,” which introduces the themes of play, class consciousness, and romantic desire and love, Pip first visits the jilted Miss Havisham, who seeks revenge by raising Estella to break men’s hearts. She states, almost verbatim from the novel, “I sometimes have sick fancies. And I have a fancy I should like to see someone play. So, play. Play.” In Great Expectations, Pip’s confusion results because he is not given any structure for play, which he also desires in his life and finds more readily in a competitive Victorian sports culture as well as through social codes and conventions that falsely define what it means to be a gentleman. Self-conscious and disoriented by Estella, Miss Havisham’s strange appearance, and his strange surroundings, Pip plays poorly.

The South Park episode recreates this play scene as a source of humor through intertextual references that reinforce Pip as a clueless sap abused by Estella and Miss Havisham, but it also reveals important, universal themes: abuse of various kinds, social class, childhood innocence, and relationships and love. Estella suggests that she and Pip play smack-the-blond-boy-in-the-head-with-a-large-log, which he plays with his sister, a humorous substitute for the novel’s more sedate, symbolically class-based game beggar-thy-neighbor, the only card game Pip knows. The recipient of physical and verbal abuse, South Park’s Pip plays too readily, particularly evident from the looks of disbelief from Miss Havisham and Estella. Rather than acknowledging shame and guilt in a retrospective narrative, the cartoon Pip, invoking MTV’s Jackass series (2000-2002), receives physical pain without injury in a reckless attempt to achieve identity and control. Because he is used to abuse and wants what he cannot have, he is still attracted to a girl who dislikes him, a phenomenon teen viewers will understand. This phenomenon, however, also presents the novel’s linkage of abuse, pain, and love. Miss Havisham, explaining her own pain and humiliation, tells Pip, again verbatim from the novel, that true love is “blind devotion, unquestioning self-humiliation, utter submission, trust and belief against yourself and against the whole world.” This scene, through ironic distance, reflects Victorian and contemporary sensibilities.

As Miss Havisham tells South Park’s Pip, “Things are not always what they seem,” whether they concern love or one’s great expectations, but she also gives readers a key insight into adaptation as “(re)interpretation and then (re)creation” (Hutcheon 8). In the episode’s penultimate scene, which viewers familiar with the novel will particularly appreciate since it relies on numerous intertextual connections, Pip wakes up at the forge after barely escaping Miss Havisham’s robot monkeys. He finally realizes Miss Havisham is not his benefactor and that Estella does not love him. From Joe’s example he learns a basic lesson removed from novel’s more complexly interconnected issues—that being a gentleman means being a gentle man. But determined to stop Miss Havisham, contemporary movie action hero Pip then announces, “Let’s go KICK HER ARSE!” Pip, Joe, Pocket, and Magwitch (who is killed) defeat the diabolical Miss Havisham and her robot monkeys before she can complete her transformation, a leveling of classic literature invoking The Wizard of Oz and Frankenstein as well as other Gothic, horror, action-adventure, and sci-fi films, reminding us Dickens too was aware of readers’ cultural knowledge and expectations.

Even though it was the lowest-rated South Park episode, “Pip’s” success results not only because it prevents a Victorian novel from aging but also because it showcases the genesis of adaptation. We can laugh at Miss Havisham’s plan to adapt herself—what the episode does to the novel—while appreciating that adaptation’s intertextual features are “about understanding relationships and their effects—how they work together and why they differ when they do” (Frus and Williams 12).

Discussion Questions

If you had to write a twenty-two-minute adaptation of Great Expectations (or of another Dickens novel), what scenes would you choose to adapt? Explain your choices, including the similarities to and differences from scenes in Dickens’s Great Expectations as well as in South Park’s “Pip.”

Discuss the narrator’s roles in “Pip” of telling the story while poking fun at British culture, classic literature, and the process of adaptation. How does this change the first-person narration of the novel?

South Park’s “Pip” highlights two key themes or issues that are central in Great Expectations: Miss Havisham’s pain and desire for revenge after being jilted and Pip’s class consciousness. How are gender and social class represented in the nineteenth century and today?

Discuss the role of humor in “Pip” and Great Expectations.

Further Reading

Dickens, Charles. Great Expectations. 1860-61. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1996.

Bluestone, George. Novels into Film: The Metamorphosis of Fiction into Cinema. 1957. Berkeley: U of California P, 1971. Print.

Frus, Phyllis, and Christy Williams, eds. Beyond Adaptation: Essays on Radical Transformations of Original Works. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2010. Print.

Hutcheon, Linda (with Siobhan O’Flynn). A Theory of Adaptation. 2nd ed. London: Routledge, 2013. Print.

Parker, Trey. “Pip.” South Park. Season 4, Episode 14. Television.
Sconce, Jeffrey. “Dickens, Selznick, and Southpark.” Dickens on Screen. Ed. John Glavin. Cambridge, 2003. 171-87. Print.

[1] I would like to thank my colleagues who participated in the 2007 NEH Summer Seminar: “Adaptation and Revision: The Example of Great Expectations” (Directors Paul K. Saint-Amour and Hilary Schor) for the wonderful discussions that helped shaped my thinking about adaptation.