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"Anti-Social Complete Jerk" Sherlock Holmes VS "Sentimental Nice Guy" Sherlock Holmes


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As we all know, Sherlock Holmes is one of the most portrayed characters in fiction (and the most portrayed human character in fiction) so with such a large list of actors ranging from stage, film, audio and television, it stands to reason that each incarnation has his own take on Conan Doyle's iconic Consulting Detective.

But lately, the most frequent incarnation we've seen in Sherlockian related media has been the anti-social, less emotional Sherlock popularized by the incarnation portrayed by Benedict Cumberbatch on BBC's Sherlock. While we had less emotional takes before like the iconic Basil Rathbone incarnation and Sherlock in Sir Conan Doyle's canon can be seen as somewhat anti-social, Cumberbatch takes it several steps further. For many modern viewers, Cumberbatch's take is seen as the definitive incarnation due to the fact Cumberbatch highlights the detective's anti-social and standoffish attitudes during cases as shown in the canon. The problem is that while a good performance, Cumberbatch's take on the character is an inaccurate over-exaggeration of Conan Doyle's character.

 

The original Holmes of Doyle's canon wasn’t like that at all. In fact, Conan Doyle’s Holmes was shown to have compassionate and generous side:

He received us in his quietly genial fashion, ordered fresh rashers and eggs, and joined us in a hearty meal. When it was concluded he settled our new acquaintance upon the sofa, placed a pillow beneath his head, and laid a glass of brandy and water within his reach.

“It is easy to see your experience has been no common one, Mr. Hatherley,” he said. “Pray, lie down there are make yourself absolutely at home. Tell us what you can, but stop when you are tired and keep up your strength with a little stimulant.”

– “The Adventure of the Engineer’s Thumb”

 

 

Holmes especially showed his compassionate side when with a frightened client:

“Good-morning, madam,” said Holmes cheerily. “My name is Sherlock Holmes. This is my intimate friend and associate, Dr. Watson, before who you can speak as freely as before myself. Ha! I am glad to see that Mrs. Hudson has had the good sense to light the fire. Pray draw up to it and I shall order you a cup of hot coffee, for I observe that you are shivering.”

“It is not cold which makes me shiver,” said the woman in a low voice, changing her seat as requested.

“What, then?”

“It is fear, Mr. Holmes. It is terror.” She raised her veil as she spoke, and we could see that she was indeed in a pitiable state of agitation, her face all drawn and gray, with restless, frightened eyes, like those of some hunted animal. Her features and figure were those of a woman of thirty, but her hair was shot with premature gray, and her expression was weary and haggard. Sherlock Holmes ran her over with one of his quick, all-comprehensive glances.

“You must not fear,” he said soothingly, bending forward and patting her forearm. “We shall soon set matters right, I have no doubt.”

– “The Adventure of the Speckled Band”

 

Now, it’s true that Holmes isn’t always so polite, but he is rarely outright rude. The only people to whom Holmes is actually mean are those who don’t take him seriously or question his methods. He prefers to have a little fun at his detractors’ expense, though, rather than berate them openly. Here Holmes reveals the true culprit in the death of a shady horse trainer to the horse’s owner, who had been dismissive of Holmes’s work:

"… You have done me a great service in recovering my horse,” [said Colonel Ross.] “You would do me a greater service still if you could lay your hands on the murderer of John Straker.”

“I have done so,” said Holmes quietly.

The colonel and I stared at him in amazement.

“You have got him! Where is he, then?”

“He is here.”

“Here! Where?”

“In my company at the present moment.”

The colonel flushed angrily. “I quite recognize that I am under obligations to you, Mr. Holmes,” said he, “but I must regard what you have just said as either a very bad joke or an insult.”

Sherlock Holmes laughed. “I assure I that have not associated you with the crime, Colonel,” said he. “The real murderer is standing immediately behind you.”

He stepped past and laid his hand upon the glossy neck of the thoroughbred.

“The horse!” cried both the colonel and myself.

“Yes, the horse. And it may lessen his guilt if I say that it was done in self-defence, and that John Straker was a man who was entirely unworthy of your confidence.”

– “Silver Blaze"

 

Whatever else the literary Holmes may be, he is still a gentleman.

People argue in defence of Cumberbatch's portrayal that it helped the character fit in modern times, I see it as doing a disservice to the original character.

However, there is an opposite albeit less exposed extreme take on the character, the sentimental, compassionate Sherlock. While this take has been seen from time to time, Henry Cavill's portrayal of the character in Netflix's Enola Holmes seems to be the one that has given this take enough exposure and positive response from viewers that there are rumored interests of a Sherlock Holmes project starring Cavill's incarnation. Other than Cavill, the other prominent incarnation of this take is Christopher Plummer's incarnation in 1979's Murder by Decree, where during the investigations into the infamous real life Whitechapel murders, we see a more sentimental and compassionate Sherlock Holmes, who's almost driven to tears by the events and tragic fates of the women of Whitechapel. Another example of this take is the animated anthropomorphic dog incarnation developed by Hayao Miyazaki in the Italian-Japanese produced animated series, Sherlock Hound.

The complete opposite of the Jerk Sherlock, the Nice-Guy Sherlock highlights the detective's more compassionate and sentimental side from the books, particularly in the Doyle stories published between 1923 and 1927. One of the reasons why we don't see this side of the detective compared to its opposite is because unlike the stories published between 1887 and 1922, the 1923-1927 stories are not in the public domain and any attempt to give Sherlock Holmes emotions is considered copyright infringement by the Conan Doyle estate, which lead to incidents like the lawsuit surrounding Enola Holmes.

While as much as an inaccurate over-exaggeration, if I were given a choice between the two extremes, I personally prefer the "nice guy" Holmes to "complete jerk" Holmes.
 


 
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7 hours ago, BBally1981 said:

The complete opposite of the Jerk Sherlock, the Nice-Guy Sherlock highlights the detective's more compassionate and sentimental side from the books, particularly in the Doyle stories published between 1923 and 1927. One of the reasons why we don't see this side of the detective compared to its opposite is because unlike the stories published between 1887 and 1922, the 1923-1927 stories are not in the public domain and any attempt to give Sherlock Holmes emotions is considered copyright infringement by the Conan Doyle estate, which lead to incidents like the lawsuit surrounding Enola Holmes.


I hadn't thought of that, but yeah, the Estate has recently been going to ludicrous lengths to demand royalty payments, presumably because their last shred of justification for them has either expired recently or is just about to do so (I've read that the applicable copyrights have a term of 90 years, but I've also read that it's 95 years -- meaning that the last story's copyright either expired in 2017 or will do so in 2022, or according to this article, in 2023).  The 2020 case you referred to was apparently settled out of court, so unfortunately it does not set a precedent.

I suspect there's an additional factor at work with Sherlock, though, namely that Moffat and Gatiss were intending to show Sherlock Holmes in his early days as a detective.  At the end of Series 4, they said he's now ready to be the classic Holmes -- so assuming there's a Series 5, you may be much happier with the portrayal!

 

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  • 3 weeks later...

BBally,

It could be successfully argued, I think, that when "Complete Jerk Holmes" makes an appearance in Canon, it is usually only to Watson, since it is with Watson that Holmes can completely let down his hair.  There are moments of biting acerbity/put-downs to the oft-abused Inspector Lestrade and other hapless members of the official police force . . and Holmes rarely bothers to disguise his disdain for members of the noble classes who have displayed their callous disregard for those they consider 'lesser' than themselves.  IN his turn, SH makes plain how much above this kind of aristocratic boor he places himself.  What struck me the most during my first really thorough reading of the Canon is how solicitous toward members of the so-called 'lower classes' and most especially women Holmes is.  In "A Case of Identity", Watson has to physically restrain his flatmate from beating a two-timing man senseless with a riding crop in defense of a lady's honor.  This is really a far cry from the condescending, misogynistic Holmes of popular reputation.  I think most people have not in fact read all the stories, so their conception of Holmes is derived from 'other' treatments of him in popular culture, or from a line here or there taken out of the context of the whole.  Under the facade of scientific detachment  built up by decades of rigorous self-discipline, which can make him *seem* like little more than a deducing machine at times to more ordinary humans like Dr. Watson, Sherlock Holmes is actually a very passionate and deep-feeling man, I find.  He has schooled himself not to *show* his feelings very often, but he does have them, and one supposes that he feels even 'more' than a more outwardly expressive individual.  Dr. Watson did his friend a disservice by promoting the idea that Holmes dislikes and distrusts women.  There may be some lines SH says that can be interpreted thusly, especially by a close associate who thinks of the fair sex far more often than he seems to think about his medical practice.  I have also concluded that sometimes SH's more shocking or off-putting pronouncements, which his Boswell transcribes verbatim without gleaning the underlying puckishness are Holmes being contrary on purpose to wind up his flatmate.

I don't see Jeremy Brett mentioned in your opening piece, but I think Mr. Brett embodied these two sides of Holmes very well.  Of course, when Mr. Brett embarked on the part, both he and his Watson were nearly 50 years old and were portraying the established middle-aged versions of these characters which are the default settings in the popular mind.  When we first meet up with Holmes and Watson and they with each other, Holmes is still shy of his 27th birthday and Watson is a year or so older.  Significantly younger than either of our BBC pair were when they 'met'.  Though truthfully I was shocked to learn that Ben was 34 years old; I'd thought him a decade younger and a recent drama school graduate.  His Holmes is definitely written as the 'snotty antisocial Millennial Holmes' even though Ben was already getting a bit long in the tooth to be considered strictly a young up-and-comer.  People matured faster in the Victorian era out of necessity, even Sherlock Holmes.  There is very little evidence in the text that Sherlock was ever so rude to Mrs. Hudson, for example and ACD's Holmes is nothing but effusive towards his elder brother--admiring and suitably humble  in the presence of an even greater brain-power.  But if we consider the glimmers of the undergraduate Holmes and the 'nascent consulting detective around town' who hadn't actually engaged any clients yet which we get in Canon, Holmes' knack for rubbing people the wrong way, especially those in authority, was definitely less polished down when he was younger.

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  • 3 weeks later...

I wonder whether we take original Holmes to be more polite than he really was because of the differences between Victorian culture and our own. 

BBC Sherlock certainly isn't the most faithful portrayal of the character in the Doyle stories but I think it's a very interesting and far from implausible interpretation. 

Besides, original Holmes' characterization is inconsistent imho. Like so much in those stories. You can tell they were written over a long period of time and mostly to make money. That's my impression, anyway. 

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15 hours ago, T.o.b.y said:

I wonder whether we take original Holmes to be more polite than he really was because of the differences between Victorian culture and our own. 

That's a very interesting point.  In some cases it's pretty clear from context and/or explicit statements just how polite he's being. But yeah, at other times we may be overestimating his politeness level.

 

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