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.

BBC’s Sherlock

By Joanna Swafford

Thanks to the witty, fast-paced BBC’s miniseries Sherlock, a new generation is becoming obsessed with the famous fictional detective (played by Benedict Cumberbatch) and his best friend and sidekick, John Watson (played by Martin Freeman). Sherlock, created and written by Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss, consists of 90-minute episodes that follow our hero in present-day London. This Sherlock is a self-described “sociopath” who cosherlockbbcnsiders “sentiment” and most other people (Watson excepted) beneath his notice and cares more about his cases than his clients. Watson, as in the books, is a veteran recently returned from fighting in Afghanistan, but in this version, he initially blogs about Sherlock’s adventures as part of his PTSD therapy. The series covers many of the pivotal plot points of the stories: Holmes and Watson meeting and becoming flatmates, the famous hiatus when Holmes fakes his own death, their reunion, and Watson’s marriage to Mary, as well as many cases.

The cases in Sherlock often have clear connections to the original stories, as even the titles demonstrate: for instance, A Study in Scarlet becomes “A Study in Pink,” “A Scandal in Bohemia” becomes “A Scandal in Belgravia,” and The Hound of the Baskervilles becomes “The Hounds of Baskerville.” The stories are also bursting with scattered, subtler nods to its source texts: “A Scandal in Belgravia” contains a brief montage of Holmes solving crimes, including the murder of a “speckled blond,” a quip that alludes to the much loved-story “The Speckled Band.” The series is particularly invested in making use of modern technology: its episodes hinge on smart phones, computer passwords, or rumors of incredibly powerful computer programs, and the show highlights its fascination with all things digital through dramatic floating word overlays when characters type, deduce, or text. The series also makes use of transmedia storytelling, as Watson’s blog actually exists and is updated in time with the show, often detailing cases that are not shown on screen, including “The Speckled Blond.”

While the show has a dedicated following, it also has a number of detractors, who are displeased with the show’s queerbaiting and representations of women (especially when compared to the stories) and people of color. These discussions can lead to lively discussion and a better understanding of both the adaptation and the original source material.

Questions for Discussion

How is the relationship between Sherlock and John characterized, and how is it similar to or different from the relationship in the stories? How does Sherlock treat John, and how does it relate to the stories?

What narrative, musical, and cinematographic strategies does the series use to show Sherlock’s intelligence and deductive abilities? How do those strategies relate to Conan Doyle’s strategies? What do the differences in strategies tell us about differences in media, genre, and audience?

The original Holmes stories have an international scope: they meet Irene Adler (an American), the King of Bohemia, and a man from the Andaman Islands, and they travel to the Reichenbach Falls in Switzerland, to name just a few examples. How and why does Sherlock echo or alter that geographic focus? How does the show’s portrayal of people from beyond England echo or alter the story’s own anxiety’s about Otherness and “foreign” influence?

Irene Adler in the stories is an American opera singer who outwits Holmes with her deductive abilities and skill at disguise—her cross-dressing even fools Holmes—and leaves town with her husband. Her brilliance causes Holmes to reevaluate his previously negative opinion of all women. Irene in Sherlock (in “Scandal in Belgravia” from Season 2, episodes 1) has a very different role. How is she represented? Do the changes to her character and fate alter the quasi-feminist message of the original? How do the changes to her character also alter the portrayal of Holmes?

Further Reading

Frankel, Valerie Estelle. Every Canon Reference You May Have Missed in BBC’s Series 1-3. LitCrit Press, 2014.

Porter, Lynette. Sherlock Holmes for the 21st Century: Essays on New Adaptations. Jefferson NC: McFarland, 2012.

Primorac, Antonija. “The Naked Truth: Postfeminist Afterlives of Irene Alder.” Neo-Victorian Studies 6.2 (2013): 89-113.

Stein, Louisa Ellen and Kristina Busse, eds. Sherlock and Transmedia Fandom: Essays on the BBC Series. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2012.

Vanacker, Sabine and Catherine Vynne, eds. Sherlock Holmes and Conan Doyle: Multi-Media Afterlives. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013.


Mr. Holmes

By Victoria Ford Smith

Recent television shows, movies, and novels have transported Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s famous detective, Sherlock Holmes, from the end of the nineteenth century to all manner of places and times, and director Bill Condon’s 2015 Mr. Holmes is no exception. The film begins in 1947, and the audience finds Holmes (played by Ian posterMcKellen) aged, troubled by a failing memory, and retired to a country house in Sussex. There he tends bees, pesters his housekeeper (Laura Linney), and befriends her young son Roger (Milo Parker). However, his country house idyll is disrupted by memories of an unresolved case: the death of a woman mourning two devastating miscarriages. Holmes has located a rare Japanese plant to help restore his memory, but when that remedy fails him, he attempts to untangle the case’s details by calling on his own fragmented recollections and the help of Roger, whose love and knowledge of Holmes’ methods makes him a convenient assistant.

The movie—itself an adaptation of Mitch Cullin’s 2005 novel A Slight Trick of the Mind—is an adaptation preoccupied with the pleasures and troubles of adaptation. The plot hinges on Holmes’ ability (or inability) to tell his own story amid other voices trying to tell it for him, and the movie includes sometimes-humorous asides to the misalignment of popular images of Holmes and his identity in the stories themselves. For example, McKellen’s Holmes chuckles at melodramatic film adaptations of his cases, and more than one character wonders aloud about the aged detective’s missing pipe and deerstalker hat. Condon’s movie, then, is an excellent resource for teachers looking to introduce questions of Conan Doyle’s creation as a cultural icon and issues of adaptation and fidelity. While perhaps too long to show during a single class meeting, as it runs just over an hour and 40 minutes, it would be a useful addition as an out-of-class screening or as material for students interested in researching the afterlife of Sherlock.

Questions for Discussion

How does Sherlock Holmes exist as a person, a character, and a legend in Conan Doyle’s original stories and in Condon’s movie? Where do these identities overlap? What are the consequences of defining Holmes in one way or another?

Some would argue that Holmes’ reputation as a detective relies on his attention to detail and his ability to access the truth through observation. How does Mr. Holmes reinforce or trouble those assumptions?

What strategies (narrative, filmic, etc.) does Condon use to represent Holmes’ astute observations, his failing memory, his emotional state? Are these techniques parallels of strategies Doyle uses in his stories?

Japan plays a vital role in Mr. Holmes. For example, the movie references throughout the devastations of WWII. How does the film represent Japan and Japanese characters? Do you see these representations as departures from or reiterations of representations of “the East” in Doyle and other Victorian literature and culture?

Further Reading

Cunningham, Henry. “Sherlock Holmes and the Case of Race.” The Journal of Popular Culture 28.2 (Fall 1994): 113-25.

Leitch, Thomas. “The Hero with a Hundred Faces.” Film Adaptation and Its Discontents. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Univ. Press, 2007. 207-35.

Meslow, Scott. “Film’s 111-Year Obsession with Sherlock Holmes.” The Atlantic (16 December 2011). Web. 30 July 2015.

Porter, Lynette. Sherlock Holmes for the 21st Century: Essays on New Adaptations. Jefferson NC: McFarland, 2012.

Vrettos, Athena. “Displaced Memories in Victorian Fiction and Psychology.” Victorian Studies 49.2 (2007): 99-107.