Let’s Talk Sherlock Holmes

I’ve always loved the books and the late 80’s tv show (starring the incomparable Jeremy Brett), but it had been quite awhile since I’d really given the great detective much thought.  And then I FINALLY saw the 2009 Guy Ritchie-directed movie.  Due to grad school, time constraints, one thing or another, I was never able to see the movie in theatres, but I finally bought the dvd.  So now, of course, my love has been re-kindled, and I am re-reading the books with great enthusiasm, and watching the 80’s tv show (which I do, of course, have on dvd).  I’ve watched the movie three times in two weeks.  Suffice it to say, I definitely have Holmes on the brain.  (And, in fact, I’m watching it again right now as I finish writing this.)

There are many things I could say about Sherlock Holmes, in any of his incarnations.  But let’s focus on the movie for the moment.  I’ve been trying to keep track of news about the sequel, and I discovered (long after that fact, admittedly) that back in January Robert Downy Jr. (perhaps half-jokingly) made some comments on the Late Show with David Letterman about the possibility of a “homoerotic subtext” in the sequel – at which point the woman in charge of the U.S. copyrights for Sherlock Holmes threatened the pull the plug on the sequel.  Here’s the brief article I found on the subject:

The Escapist : News : Sherlock Holmes Sequel Threatened by “Homoerotic Subtext”.

Let me begin by saying that it is definitely, unabashedly, unapologetically, a reimagining of the characters.  These characters are not quite the same as they were in the books – Holmes is just a little bit scruffier and more sarcastic; Watson is a bit more aggressive and, frankly, cool.  But we all knew going in that this would be something alittle different.  Ritchie was completely upfront about his intentions to reinterpret the story from the get-go; one can only assume that Andrea Plunket knew exactly what she was getting into.  And let’s face it, literature as and/or more famous than Sherlock Holmes has been reimagined, reinterpreted, and adapted over the years.  Shakespeare has been presented in more ways than I could begin to name – including one version of Macbeth (in Greenwich village) with the witches performing vaudeville songs, and another version (in London) that included machine guns and a helicopter.  Authors have dropped zombies and vampires into the middle of Jane Austen novels, and turned Anna Karenina into an android.  Andrew Lloyd Webber made the Passion of the Christ psychedelic and disco.  And the 2008 movie Beowulf told us that Beowulf did not, in fact, kill Grendel’s mother (horrifying and despicable though she was), but instead had sex with her and gave her a new son – the dragon who would be Beowulf’s downfall.  This all should be some indication that no narrative is sacred and untouchable, and that everything is (and SHOULD be) up for reinterpretation.  And NEVER has any reimagining, reinterpretation, adaptation, etc EVER hurt, defile, or in anyway diminish the original.  EVER.  In fact, all such things have ever done is bring the original to a newer, wider, more diverse audience.

Besides which, I’ve got news for you Andrea Plunket.  The subtext was ALREADY THERE.  And I don’t just mean in the first movie – though it was definitely there as well.  I’m talking about the books as well.  Perhaps Doyle had no intentions of implying (or even imagining in the back of his head) that there was anything more than friendship between Holmes and Watson.  After all, “sodomy” was still extremely illegal at the time (though that certainly didn’t stop Oscar Wilde).  But an author’s intentions are not the sole, or even the most important, basis for the interpretation of a text.  And the books  (intentionally or not) leave PLENTY of room for a subtly homoerotic interpretation, such as the one Ritchie may (or may not, after all, all we have to go on are a few half-joking comments from Downy, Jr. to go) have had in mind.  I’m not going to enumerate the places that leave open such a reading here – it would take far too long – just read the books with an open-mind willing to see the possibility and maybe, just maybe, you’ll see what I mean.  But just consider a few of the major facts of the books: Watson is not only Holmes’s best friend, but essentially the ONLY person Holmes has any respect or affection for; despite efforts to make Irene Adler Holmes’ love interest, she is only in ONE story and Holmes only ever displays a professional admiration for her; the only time Holmes’s shows more than a modicum of emotion is when he believes Watson has been hurt.  Etc.  And obviously, others have noticed the possibility of subtext as well: I’ve done some “research” and found that fanfiction.net includes quite a few Holmes/Watson slash fics: many based on or inspired by the first movie, but also quite a few that were written long before the movie came out.  Even my mother (who is not exactly the most comfortable with homosexuality) said to me YEARS ago when we were discussing “A Scandal in Bohemia”: “Of course, you realize Holmes was most likely a homosexual.”  Straight-faced as you can be.  And when I directed her to the article about Andrea Plunket, she announced that the woman was obviously an idiot and a prude (an hilarious accusation coming from my mother).  If even my mother thinks it’s a legitimate, and in fact quite LIKELY, interpretation of the relationship between Holmes and Watson, then it can’t be that far-fetched.

I do not mean to say that this interpretation is the RIGHT one, or the ONLY one.  There is nothing saying everyone MUST believe the characters had a more-than-friendly relationship, and even if you’re willing to entertain that idea, that doesn’t mean you must believe their “more-than” relationship necessarily involved a physical relationship (it was, after all, highly illegal, and even if two men could admit to feelings for each other, that doesn’t necessarily mean they would have acted on them).  However, I DO mean to say that this interpretation is just as valid as any other, and should not be ignored or erased.

No, I don’t think the Ritchie sequel will have much homoerotic subtext in it (at least not anymore than was there in the first movie).  There hasn’t been a whisper on the subject since that article in January.  And no doubt Ritchie is not willing to risk losing his rights to the make the movie just to make a point.  But I think it would be very interesting if Ritchie DID push the line as far as I can without getting into too much trouble.


7 thoughts on “Let’s Talk Sherlock Holmes

  1. First, let me say I really hadn’t intended to write quite so much… but, of course, once I get started I have a hard time stopping. Second, I have no clue why the post is in two different font sizes… *shrug*

  2. Lol…Yami? Stop writing? May it never happen.

    As for the rest of it….eh. When it comes right down to it, nobody owns the rights to Shakespeare anymore. But as long as Ms. Plunket does control the rights to Doyle’s characters, she’s the one who determines how they are portrayed. Doesn’t really matter what her agenda is. She could just as easily ordain that the two had to be a couple if anything new was to be made of them. (Or could she? I have no idea actually what kind of control is written into his estate/will/whatever ). Point being, I don’t know what she’s founding her decision on, and whether or not it’s in keeping with Doyle’s wishes…but it is what it is. And I’m not saying other interpretations can’t be explored. But there’s a big difference between fanfiction.net and the silver screen.

    Granted, I don’t know how I feel about having someone who isn’t the author making those kind of decisions. But…at the same time, if I ever get famously published…I’d probably be grateful for the opportunity to set up an estate for my writings after I’m gone. Just to protect some of the themes and things in my works that I value.

    And I certainly don’t think things have to be limited to a single telling. If my stories ever sell as movies during my lifetime….I am SO writing the script myself. Just so I can do something completely different with it. BUT…all that while still staying true to the characters.

    For example…even if it never occurs in the stories…
    JoeyxLucas fanfiction – heck yes. I’ll probably even write some myself.
    JoeyxEtherea fanfiction – um, no. I don’t care how close and how touchy-feely we are….to do that would disrespect not only what I try to show by their relationship, but would disrespect them as the characters they are and the values they hold true for themselves. And there probably are some undertones there. I could probably even find them myself. But it’s not who those characters are at their core.
    Now take someone else like Shinji…at his core, he probably would latch on to quite a variety of people…male or female. As the author, I may not agree with everything he does…but that’s just the way he is. And doesn’t mean I have to present everything he does as right either. I may have the final say in how I portray or spin things. But I won’t force my characters to be anything other than what they are.
    But as the author, I also know him a thousand times better than anybody else who may write about him. I don’t mind other people giving it a shot. And I know that things I may not agree with may happen to my characters. But I also put my soul into them. I can’t force people to respect that. But it does hurt when they don’t. Literature can be reimaged until it’s black and blue and gold and white. But stories…those should still belong to the characters themselves.

    And…..I think the amaretto is definitely kicking in, because I don’t know where else I was going with that. Oh well….good night. ^^

    • I do agree that as an author we have a right to protect our characters and the integrity of our creations, at least to an extent. But I still disagree with Ms. Plunket’s attitude for a couple reasons. A) She is not the author, not related to the author, and was most likely simply hired by the company in charge of Doyle’s estate to keep an eye on the business-end of things in the U.S. B) She claims she isn’t hostile toward homosexuals, but I have a hard time believing it when she threatened to the pull the plug based on nothing but a few half-joking remarks by Downey, Jr., when Ritchie himself hadn’t made any comments on the matter. C) Discussions about the probability of Holmes’s homosexuality (if not Watson’s) have been considered almost-canon for some time, and many of the things Ritchie has done with the story are actually MUCH closer to the books than a lot of the older movies/shows were doing. So he’s actually keeping CLOSER to the spirit of the books, not farther.

      *shrug* Oh well, we’ll just chalk it up to one of the things we disagree about.

  3. Okay, first, I would just like to say: I never realized that the recently released Sherlock Holmes movie was directed by Guy Ritchie, and now that I know this, there is not a force in the verse that can stop me from seeing it as soon as humanly possible.

    Second, I do understand what you’re saying regarding open interpretation of characters, and I think it’s refreshing to hear that point of view from an author. Granted, it’s still a bit scary to have your characters out there in the world being depicted in ways you may not have originally intended, but the way I see it, it’s unavoidable. There’s nothing in the world that can harness and rein in the human imagination, and it’s far easier to set your ideas free to be seen however people want to see them than to obsessively coddle them like an overprotective mother.

    Sometimes, some really good things come of these re-imaginings. Then again, there have been some atrocities born of this also. If I recall, you didn’t care much for ‘Across the Universe’. ^_^

  4. Lol. No, I think ‘Across the Universe’ was fairly idiotic. But, unlike my mom, I believe in their right to make it. Mom thinks people ought to be forbidden to do covers of Beatles songs for fear they’ll ruin them. But sometimes the cover (while never AS good) can be really interesting, and there’s no harm in wanting to pay tribute by adding your own style to something you love and admire.

    And yes, you absolutely NEED to see the Sherlock Holmes movie. I didn’t know you didn’t know (hah) it was directed by Guy Ritchie, or I would’ve told you sooner. You will LOVE it!

  5. Lol…sorry…I so forgot to keep up lately. >_<

    Anyway…as I had meant to say…
    That's where I have to admit my lack of knowledge about the particular situation with Holmes and rights and all that. I don't know the details of the story, so it's hard to really judge. And if Doyle did want to put homosexual tones in there…while I may not agree with the subject matter as a whole, I don't have a problem with simply the portrayal of the characters and such. And I don't even have an automatic problem with re-interpretation. I mean…I'll agree it's fun, though there can be a fine line between re-interpreting something out of fascination for the story or characters or wanting to dig deeper into undertones or meaning or context or whatever…..and re-interpreting in order to put a personal agenda on top of something, or to please the masses.

    I think, no matter what, if you do something out of love and respect for the original, it's probably going to turn out okay. It's just different from acting on obsession or pride or other such not-so-virtuous motives. And I do think relationships are a big part of it. It's the relationships between the characters that people are most attached to. And most offended by. People don't get quite as up-in-arms if the setting for a story does a 180. At least not compared to when you mess with the relationships between the characters, or with the nature of the characters themselves.

    But anyway…as I was trying to say…I don't really know enough to take a side in the Holmes debate. It more just got me to thinking about the idea in general of the re-interpretation/re-creating/etc. as we said. XD

    • Well, I’m not saying Doyle intended there to be any homosexual undertones. No one could convincingly make that argument. Not really. However, I’m not saying its not within the boundaries of possibility either. And I’d like to say that while the new movie was a new interpretation, I don’t think I made it significantly clear that it isn’t a RADICAL change. The characters are still entirely recognizable and within the boundaries of their book characterizations, simply with a plethora of details and a few twists that come from interpretation – and there is a different between interpreting something and simply adding something or actually changing the original, which I don’t think Ritchie or the screenwriters could be accused of.

      And anyway, this is all just speculation and ideas. Nothing wrong with a good debate on the nature of creation and interpretation. ^___^

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