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A Study in Sherlock Holmes: Representations of Sherlock Holmes in the 21st Century
and their appeal
If the character of Sherlock Holmes has been awarded the title for “most portrayed literary
human character in film &TV” by the Guinness World Records, it is not a coincidence. Even
though the detective’s first appearance in A Study in Scarlet in 1887, nearly went unnoticed, the
rest of his stories did not. The character invented by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle soon became one
of the most famous literary character, won the admiration of many readers, whom some became
enthusiasts, and chose to call themselves “Holmesians” in the United Kingdom and
“Sherlockians” in the United States. Since the first story, the popularity of Sherlock Holmes
has been a worldwide phenomenon.
The day after the publication of “The Final Problem”, in which Conan Doyle decided to kill off
his character during a final confrontation of his arch-nemesis and most famous villain Professor
James Moriarty, many Londoners wore a black armband to display their mourning. Many did
think the character was not fictional, but a man of flesh and blood, having been created with
such a complex personality. Letters still arrive to this day to the 221B Baker Street Museum
where the characters of Holmes and Watson were said to live, an address which, at the time,
was entirely fictional too. The extreme popularity of the character, the pattern of the stories,
and their regularity at the dawn of popular fiction might be an explanation of why the character
is still so popular nowadays.1
The 21st century is particularly prolific in terms of new adaptations of the adventures of the
detective and his sidekick. Three interesting versions would be: Sherlock starring Benedict
Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman, Elementary starring Jonny Lee Miller and Lucy Liu and
Miss Sherlock starring Yūko Takeuchi and Shihori Kanjiya, as they show visions of the
detective and his stories from three different parts of the world: the United Kingdom, the United
There are, of course, many more reasons to the popularity of Sherlock Holmes, yet I won’t be able to address
them in this essay, as they deserve their own work.
States and Japan and the influences that different cultures may have on the same character. That
is why we decided to choose those TV series to study the new visions of Sherlock Holmes
worldwide and how a British Victorian character can still be so popular more than a century
later. We will study four main characteristics of those versions in relation to the canon: the
context of creation and evolution, the characters themselves, the main themes of the
investigations and the aesthetics, which is a crucial part in the study of visual documents.
The Victorian Era saw the creation of many characters and stories that are still extremely
popular, think about Alice in Wonderland, Dorian Gray, Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, Dracula, Peter
Pan and many others, it was definitely a time of prolific literary fiction. Sir Arthur Conan, born
in 1859, was originally a physician specialised in ophthalmology, who grew up in Edinburgh
in a family where arts and fiction were part of everyday life. The little Arthur Conan Doyle
grew close to his mother who told him stories about their ancestors and legends. He listened to
them all and showed a real interest in literature, devouring every book that crossed his path. But
he knew he could not make a living out of this and so he decided to study medicine. He studied
at the University of Edinburgh where, in 1877, he met the Dr. Joseph Bell, who was a lecturer
there. Dr. Bell was known for his extraordinary powers of diagnosis; he was capable, when
seeing a stranger for the first time, to deduce their occupation and recent activities by simply
looking at them. He often demonstrated this to prove the importance of paying attention to
details while examining a patient and establishing a diagnosis. He was to be the most important
inspiration to Doyle’s later creation: Sherlock Holmes. Scotland Yard had been created 1829
but the force of detectives only in 1842, which means it was still quite recent at the debuts of
the consulting-detective. Their tasks were to investigate on crimes and arrest criminals, but they
were not really efficient as they were lacking the methods and means to do their job. The fact
that most crimes were committed by the working-class and that there was a real problem of
trust towards the police lead to major difficulties in regards of cooperation and crime and
disorder continued to rise in the city of London which was experiencing an important growth
due to industrialisation and the rural exodus it brought along with it. There was a need of an
efficient hero on whom the population could count to fight crimes and find the right perpetrator.
In 1841 Edgar Allan Poe created the first figure of the detective with his character of Le
Chevalier C. Auguste Dupin (Veselská, 8), which could have been an inspiration for the
detective force of Scotland Yard and most certainly for the character of Sherlock Holmes who
appeared less than fifty years later.
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle based his character on these different influences. He gave him useful
skills for a detective, making him both scientific knowledge to allow him to analyse his clues
but also artistic skills that would help him during his investigations. He is a master in disguise,
which helps him to infiltrate criminal circles to get more pieces of information on his suspects.
The choice of his name also showed the expectations and inspirations of Conan Doyle. His first
idea was to call him Sherringford or Sherrinford -- a name later used in many adaptations to
call different places or characters, for example it is the high security prison in which his sister
Eurus is incarcerated in the TV series Sherlock. Sherlock was actually the surname of people
encountered by the writer, a cricket player, a famous violin player and a doctor (Lombard. 72).
Interestingly, those are features that resonate with the characterisation of the detective.
An additional interesting point about the canon is that its stories were published in The Strand,
a magazine which published short stories and articles. This episodic publication is part of the
explanation of why the stories adapt so well in the TV series format.
But how can the character be adapted to the 21st century? The first lead to answer this question
would be to look for an adaptation in the same country. The TV series Sherlock created in 2010
by Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss greatly inspired the renewal of the detective and the new
golden age era of Sherlock Holmes in which we are finding ourselves.
The United Kingdom has always loved mysteries and detective stories that became an important
part of their culture, murders at tea parties becoming somewhat ordinary in the collective
imagination, thanks notably to Agatha Christie and her famous detectives. The revival started
in the 1980s thanks to the portrayal of Jeremy Brett who masterfully brought back to life the
sleuth. TV series and films whose protagonists were tormented detectives and inspectors
became popular ever since and the nowadays popularity of escape rooms and games show that
the detective is settled as a dream occupation for many who are adventurous at heart.
Another interesting fact is the appeal of our society for the vintage and the attachment to the
feeling of nostalgy that it conveys, for many Sherlock Holmes was a figure they encountered
on one form or another in their childhood. The creators of Sherlock were fans of the canon and
the adaptation of Jeremy Brett and they naturally wanted to work on something they loved,
leading to a very accurate yet modernised version of their hero. Their creation allowed people
who only knew it by name to discover his character and the stories in which he appears and
those who, like them, knew the character to discover another version of him or rediscover the
things they loved about him.
Since the middle of the twentieth century, we had mainly witnessed heroes counting on their
physical abilities to fight against their enemies and it seems that this view is shifting, leading to
the appreciation of the characters through their mental abilities since the end of the century. As
Irene Adler said in her own words in the first episode of the second series of Sherlock “A
Scandal in Belgravia": “Brainy is the new sexy.”.
There is still a high rate of criminality in London nowadays and in a world that seems to be
more and more complicated by each passing day, the idea of a person that has the answers and
gets how the world and the people inhabiting work seems somehow reassuring, even though
Sherlock depicts this complexity and the interconnection of events and relationships, along with
the flaws and weaknesses of the detective. Sherlock Holmes has always been an innovative and
modern character with a computer-like brain, analysing and processing data at a pace normally
humanly impossible (as shown during the same episode when he solves a problem under eight
seconds based only on a series of number) and his theory of the brain capacity saying that it
works better with only useful and precise information and would otherwise been slowed down
by the clutter accumulated over the years. He also seems to have some sort of database that he
calls his mind palace where he can access other useful pieces of information he would not use
on a daily basis.
The second contemporary version under study here is the Columbia Broadcasting System’s
Elementary that first aired in 2012 and which last series is to be aired at the end of the year or
early 2020. Jonny Lee Miller has taken up the role of the consulting detective and Lucy Liu
portrays the Dr. Joan Watson, a female version of Dr. Watson. The show starting point is the
dark side of Holmes: drug addiction. Sherlock has been sent to a rehabilitation centre in NewYork and Joan has been employed by his father to become his sober companion. As soon as he
is out of the centre, he reconnects with Inspector Gregson who works for the NYPD and who
worked with him on a case with Scotland Yard. This version presents the most differences with
the canon and was very well adapted to the American over-present crime shows on television.
This version even if it has some mind-twisting cases mainly focuses on murders, which was to
be expected of an American TV show. American culture is fascinated by everything related to
murder and they prove their interest in Sherlock Holmes early, creating their fan club of the
detective a year prior to the British as mentioned earlier. The character suits well this culture,
at least, in a part, because of its cult to entertainment and show. They are taking the
entertainment business seriously and Holmes, who is a showman himself, who disguises
himself and reveals few of the magical tricks he uses to find the solution to an enigma and
amazes Watson and the reader at each of his revelation to “what happened previously” suits
this environment and the requirements well. His dark side is also an appeal to the American
viewers who like eccentric and psychologically unstable characters, to which you find countless
examples. The fanfiction is also especially important in America and benefits from a particular
status. The rewriting of fiction characters and the adapted version of their adventures is deeply
connected to the way society works, also explaining the popularity and diversity of TV series
with countless episodes in the country.
Interestingly and yet predictably, Sherlock is going to stay in New-York. Even though the
character is deeply associated to London, he recreates a home similar to the 221B Baker Street
flat, in one of the most damaged building owned by his father. We then have the character of
an immigrated Holmes, who came to America to find salvation, here freedom from his addiction
(and an escape from his past and a relationship that ended sadly with a certain Irene Adler), a
theme that is deeply connected to the history of America, a country founded by immigrants.
Another huge change is the sexuality of the character. Sherlock Holmes is generally seen as an
asexual character, who only sees relationships as a distraction from his life purpose and there
is a controversial homosexual tension in the duet Holmes-Watson and a fascination for the
Woman, Irene Adler. As would simply state Watson on the fact in A Scandal in Bohemia:
To Sherlock Holmes she is always the woman. I have seldom heard him mention
her under any other name. In his eyes she eclipses and predominates the whole of
her sex. It was not that he felt any emotion akin to love for Irene Adler. All
emotions, and that one particularly, were abhorrent to his cold, precise but
admirably balanced mind. He was, I take it, the most perfect reasoning and
observing machine that the world has seen, but as a lover he would have placed
himself in a false position.
Yet, here, we have a character that is sexualised and has a past history with Irene Adler, who
shows clear signs of attraction to Joan Watson (maybe the choice of a woman character becomes
more apparent here, as it is still easier to represent heterosexual tension inside a duet than into
an homosexual duet, at least in 2012) and who is even nearly represented having sex with a
prostitute on the very first five minutes of the first episode of the show, the explanation given
by Sherlock to Joan : “I actually find sex repellent. All those fluids and all the sounds, but my
brain and my body require it to function at optimum levels, so I feed them as needed.”. This is
then the explanation chosen so they can keep Holmes sexually active for the sake of their plot
The third adaptation under study is Miss Sherlock produced by HBO Japan in collaboration
with Hulu Asia that aired in 2018. It is the first version presenting the duet as both female
characters. The place of women in Japan is quite paradoxical. Women enjoy more and more
independence and yet the society is still very conservative, and women are expected to put a
stop on their career to raise their children and take care of their home. Yet there is a clear decline
in marriages as young people are more and more interested to succeed at their work.
Japan is a country that greatly encourages hard work, independence, and knowledge as many
other Asian countries, such as South Korea, India, or China. So much so that children are used
to commuting alone to their school from a very young age and that employees are living for
their work, skipping meals to finish the assignments they were given and sleeping on the
subway, exhausted. This can be linked to the obsession of Sherlock for his work and the fact
that he never eats or sleeps during a case, at least according to Watson. The character is living
for his work, something that seem to resonate with the Japanese people.
The figure of the lonely genius detective is also very popular in Japan, and detective in general
are highly praised. They embody a sense of mystery and eccentricity that seems in complete
opposition with the Japanese standardised society. Sherlock in this version does not care much
for manners and customs, she often enters a house while keeping her shoes, which is a
disrespectful behaviour in Japan, and when asked to take them off, leaves the building without
them. She talks very frankfully and does not care about the repercussions and consequences of
her words, often hurting the people she is speaking too, something that seem to be a common
feature of all the representations of Sherlock Holmes who have trouble with social standards,
something that was not as present in the canon.
Japan is a two-faced country that shares both a strong attachment to their past oriental culture
and commits to a more westernised way of living, leading to a very aesthetically mixed society.
They are also very fond of everything linked to the Victorian England and their fashion style
and customs that are nearly completely forgotten nowadays such as mourning jewellery, as used
in the first episode of Miss Sherlock, and presented as a style fashionable trend in England.
Concerning drug use, the attitude of Japan towards it is more than despiteful. Tattoos and drugs
are signs of delinquency and are very taboo in Japan. There is no mention whatsoever that
Sherlock ever used drugs and even more so the famous 7% solution of cocaine used by Holmes
in the canon when he is lacking proper intellectual activity and is bored. The closest clue we
could find would be the fact that she recognises the token given by the rehabilitation centre to
a former drug addict and dealer in the first episode “The First Case”. Is it basic knowledge she
found useful to keep or is it a sign she was herself a drug addict? One can only guess.
The question of mental health issues is also a taboo and even sometimes considered a disgrace
by Japanese people, seeing a psychotherapist being a sign of weakness, even though the country
has one of the highest suicide rates in the world. The vision is slightly changing but it is far
from being recognised as medical help. The closest thing related to psychological issues would
then be a diagnosis of autism for Sherlock, which is not a disease but a condition ant that would
explain a lot about her behaviour, as the organisation Autism Speaks states, the condition is
characterized on different levels by : “challenges with social skills, repetitive behaviours,
speech and nonverbal communication”. It also includes the sensitivity to noises that Sherlock
is clearly demonstrating, withdrawing to herself, her hands on her ears every time there is a
louder noise or someone shouts. On the other hand, Wato-san, the Japanese version of Watson
is suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, from her recent experience of volunteering
medical aid in Syria. She is herself seeing a shrink, Dr Mariko Irikawa, who later appears to be
the mastermind behind the organisation Stella Maris and literally brainwashes Wato-san to
create a weapon to get to Sherlock and kill her. She is obviously the Japanese version of
Professor James Moriarty, and the fact that she uses Wato-san weaknesses against Sherlock and
that the duo does not share the same intimacy as the classic duet is quite strange. There isn’t the
same dynamic between Sherlock and Wato-san, both often stating that they are not friends,
living together because they have to. The only thing that brings them together is the fact that
Wato-san turns against her and that Sherlock feels guilty because she did not see it coming, so
she tries to help Wato-san to recover.
In the canon, the most probable psychological diagnosis that could be given to Holmes would
be the bipolar disorder, it would explain his sudden shifts of mood, his extensive periods of
sadness and withdrawal into himself and the sudden bursts of joy when a case come in.
Depression could also be mentioned but the characteristics of it apply to the bipolar disorder as
well, the down part being close to a depression state. The choice of the creators of Sherlock was
claiming he is a high-functioning sociopath, meaning that he “lacks empathy”, is “antisocial”
and “ignore the rules and laws of society so they can live by their own norms” and appears as
“cold, callus, and calculating” (Healthy Place). It can describe some aspects of the character,
but his evolution clearly shows the diagnosis to be wrong.
Finally, as we could assume, technology is an important part of the plot of the cases and is a
mean for Sherlock and Watson to investigate, communicate with each other and share their
stories. Through the media of blogs, phones, computers, and other small devices such as liquid
bombs in connected pills, USB devices containing top secret plans, supposedly smart glasses
connected to a secret database, technology is omnipresent. Even in the representations of the
thinking process of Sherlock Holmes, we find informatic related visuals, especially in Sherlock,
where the thinking process of Sherlock is shown in real time through images and white writings
on the screen.
So after exploring all these leads, and even though there are many more that could be found
interesting, such as the use of the folklore, the psychology and background story of the villains,
the renewal of the characters and their shift from male to female characters, an extensive study
of visual aesthetics to represent the mechanisms of the thought process etc., we can already find
some explanations on why the character of Sherlock Holmes is still so popular in the 21st
century and worldwide.
First, British, and more generally anglophone culture, is very globalised and appealing to many
other cultures and the rise of popular culture as the new standardised entertainment leads to the
propagation of some mythical fictional figures. The characters in themselves are profoundly
complex and unique, and more importantly, they have been anchored in their time while being
extremely modern and innovative at the same time, always questioning what was happening
around them. The psychological aspect of the stories and the characters that was already present
in the canon have been emphasised on those new versions to suit our contemporary taste for the
mysteries of the brain, the new land we have yet to explore.
Rewritings and fanfictions have always been popular, and the passion shown by the creators
have easily been spread to the viewers who themselves became enthusiasts.
But there is something more to the character of Sherlock Holmes, something nearly magical
about his creation and his stories, something that makes him unforgettable and appealing. He
has become more than a character, he is an idea, a vision of the world and he inspired
generations to be true to themselves, regardless of what others might think and to put the best
version of themselves out there, to give their best and enjoy what they are doing. But most
importantly, he made us realise that if a fictional character can contaminate real life to such a
point, it must mean that “Life is infinitely stranger than anything which the mind of man can
Elementary. 2012- . Creat. Robert Doherty. Perf. Jonny Lee Miller, Lucy Liu. Columbia
Sherlock. 2010-2017. Creat. Mark Gatiss and Steven Moffat. Perf. Benedict
Cumberbatch, Martin Freeman. British Broadcasting Corporation.
Miss Sherlock. 2018. Creat. Junichi Mori. Perf. Yuko Takeuchi, Shihori Kanjiya. HBO
(Home Box Office) Asia and Hulu Japan.
“Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)”. Mayo Clinic. Web. Consulted on the 15th of
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“What Is Autism? - There is not one type of autism, but many”. Autism Speaks. Web.
Consulted on the 28th of February 2019.
“Bipolar Disorder”. National Institute of Mental Health. Web. Consulted on the 18th
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