It doesn’t take Sherlock Holmes to deduce why modernizing his character could be a totally disastrous idea.
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes is tailored to his times, so wresting him from his Victorian-era flat to a modern 221B Baker Street is a tall order. Not to mention that the larger-than-life personality has undergone numerous adaptations through the years—both good and bad, true to the canon and very loosely based on Doyle’s character.
So when I first heard of Steven Moffat’s BBC series, Sherlock, starring Benedict Cumberbatch as the hero and Martin Freeman as his estimable sidekick, Dr. Watson, I was skeptical of how well it would succeed at what it was trying to do. But if you’ve been watching the show, the only mystery is how we’ve gone this long without a Sherlock for our own time.
Perhaps the strength of Moffat’s adaptation is how all-in he is for respecting the source material even within the context of a new millennium. There are liberties taken, certainly. (Sherlock’s brother, Mycroft, and his nemesis, James Moriarty, both get more screen time than they ever did when Holmes was first making his way across the pages of The Strand magazine.) But offenses of extrapolation like this stretch back to the Basil Rathbone era of Sherlock adaptations. There are enough witty asides and references to Doyle’s original stories to keep devoted purists ready to forgive that kind of thing.
The third season of the show wrapped up Sunday night, but the “novelty” of a Sherlock Holmes who shops at H&M still hasn’t worn off. The show keeps impressing with the strength of its writing, cinematography and stellar performances. Cumberbatch and Freeman’s chemistry is electric, and the same goes for the rest of the cast around them.
After the first episode, you get used to all the idiosyncrasies of the modernization while the freshness of the concept never gets boring. Watson keeps an avidly followed blog, Holmes’ brain is regularly compared to a computer and the high-tech graphics and intercuts showing his thought process always come as a delight even if they’re no longer a surprise.
Sherlock proves Holmes can fit into any era, from Doyle to current affairs. The modernization is fancy, stylish and cool but the most important point it makes is the character’s timelessness as an archetype.
It may sound oddly specific, but if you think “immensely resourceful, intelligent, misanthropic detective with a sidekick,” you have the template for other pop culture icons such as Batman and Dr. Gregory House. Doyle did it first (well, Poe did technically, but let’s not mince words) and we’ve been updating this kind of character to fit our needs ever since.
So what is it that draws us post-Victorians to keep repeating the Holmesian mythos with different actors and, now, time periods? It could be our hunger for a demigod walking among us. But, then again, that’s the very thing that makes Holmes so compelling—far from being a god, his computerized brain and unmatched skill is paired with light sociopathy and problems with addiction. On the outside, he looks unredemptive—Sherlock’s friends are forever fretting about how he’ll come across to a public who doesn’t know him like they do.
Because, for all his faults, he does have friends. And these are friends willing to look past the many things that make Sherlock a difficult person and see that he not only needs saving, but that he can be saved.
For all of Watson’s constant help and kindness, Holmes does little to show his gratitude or appreciation. Cumberbatch, in particular, is a master at displaying the great detective’s impatient and detached side. He doesn’t engage in his cases for the sake of benevolence but because, without them, he would go insane. His brain needs constant stimulation.
The man is an anti-hero at best. Indeed, Moffatt’s story arc involving Sherlock and Moriarty over seasons one and two seemed eerily familiar to anyone with even a passing knowledge of The Dark Knight. Like the Joker, Moriarty is keen on reminding Sherlock of how similar they both are. Moriarty creates the cases, Sherlock solves them, and they both do so with scientific precision. Their battle isn’t to prove whether good or evil will prevail but, rather, who’s the most ordinary, banal one, after all. Both of them aren’t so different, just men in need of puzzles to solve.
Except, Sherlock is different.
At the center of the Holmes mythos is a beating and hidden sacrificial heart beneath a cold and icy exterior. Moffatt manages to hint at it in all the ways Doyle did: Holmes’ affection for the brilliant Irene Adler, his loyalty to his landlady, Mrs. Hudson, the few moments where, through admission or action, his love for Watson becomes visible and, most apparently, his sacrificial death for his friends. This is why we like Sherlock. He reminds us of our own complexities. Not one of us is past the point of saving. We all need some friends to see that and, at times, bring it out in us.
The same goes for Batman and House too, just to round out the archetype.
Holmes keeps resurrecting in every sense of the word because he has a soul to bring back to life. Moriarty is wrong about him. We keep clamoring after Sherlock Holmes because we see just enough of ourselves in him to keep us around. He is a man supernatural in his talents, a pure think tank without much room for empathy. But it makes the moments where his heart beats as loudly as his thought processes that things get truly great.
Sherlock gets you interested because it modernizes Holmes so well, but you end up staying around because your old friend hasn’t really changed or aged a day in over 100 years.
Mack Hayden is a budding writer and college student. He blogs at Biola's Culture Context. And there's plenty of tweeting going on over at @unionmack.