If there’s one commonality among the three modern Sherlock Holmes adaptations – Fox’s “House,” BBC’s “Sherlock,” and the Guy Ritchie movie(s) – it’s the characterization of Holmes as basically refusing of adult relationships and bonds, and a pettiness when his primary companion, Watson, has the audacity to seek out such relationships himself.
In each scenario, the relationship is of Holmes as a kid who’s best buddy just discovered girls and didn’t have time to play detective anymore. But when did this subtext creep into the Holmes stories, and what does it say about how we view Holmes as a pop-culture figure?
Watch as I don’t answer either of those questions, but at least point out…
Exhibit A: “House”
Dr. Gregory House behaves somewhere between a petulant 10-year-old and a rebellious teen in every non-medical part of his life, but his relationship with his best friend Wilson is particularly silly. He subjects Wilson to slumber-party practical jokes and attempts to sabotage any new romantic entanglement, rationalizing that he’s protecting his friend. But in every case, it’s clear he simply doesn’t want to share his friend with girls.
(House’s romantic relationships are even more bizarre, most recently culminating in a relationship with his boss Cuddy that has some alarming mother-issues, but that’s probably another post for another time.)
Exhibit B: “Sherlock”
Since Holmes is more anti-social and asexual in this instance, his interference with Watson’s social life is less “No girls allowed” than “Wait…there are girls? I hadn’t noticed.” But Holmes manipulating Watson’s first date (even going so far as to invite himself along) to help him solve a case again point to a need to keep playing a game with his friend, a game that cannot stand interruption by such trivial matters as, well, wanting to get laid.
Exhibit C: Sherlock Holmes
This one adds an additional “bickering gay couple” subtext. Though, can you call it subtext when it’s laid on with a trowel? Everything Holmes does to Watson – who’s preparing to get married, move out, and leave his friend on his own – reads more as “annoyed ex-boyfriend” as anything else. (Watson’s complaints that Holmes “steals [his] clothes” and “experiments on [his] dog” are met with “We have an agreement,” and “It’s OUR dog,” putting a pretty fine point on the bickering-couple template.)
But Robert Downey Holmes’ silly attempts to keep Watson playing along (including my favorite bit, when he hires a “psychic” to predict the horrors of married life, including doilies and warts – “Are the warts EXTENSIVE?”) fall in line with the Holmes-as-jilted-kid theme, too.
And when this Holmes is confronted with Irene Adler, representing the threat and confusion of an adult relationship and, well, sex, he reverts to stunningly childish behavior, refusing to meet her gaze, bickering semantics, and fiddling with his violin, before following her by hiding and playing dress-up to learn her motives.
BONUS EXHIBIT D: Zero Effect
Uhh…something something Zero Effect. I don’t really recall a lot of details of the movie. It was like 12 years ago. But I do remember the Bill Pullman Holmes analogue giving engaged Ben Stiller a lot of grief there, too.
Now, I’m not necessarily complaining. I like all three adaptations for what they do well (though yes, “House” has been a bit iffy the last few years), and building the Holmes-Watson relationship as an immature-guy/guy-who’s-trying-to-grow-up thing, I imagine, resonates with modern audiences (as a guy entering his 30s and watching friends get married and have kids, I too have suffered the pangs of “C’mon, let’s go out, do guy stuff!” I get it, at least) and provides the writers with a foundation they can work with.
(Funnily enough, the component that would really sell the “We’re not kids anymore and can’t behave as such” thing is Holmes’ drug use, but only “House” has really bothered to make that a plot point, and even that has been brushed aside in recent years, which is kind of a shame since the “House is going through withdrawal” episodes always had a nice edge to them, reminding me of Hunter Thompson’s “You can turn your back on a man, but never turn your back on the drug” advice; meanwhile, my favorite part of the BBC “Sherlock” series is the scene where the police ransack 221B Baker Street for drugs, and when Watson dismisses the idea as absurd, Holmes gives him a “…Errr, actually…” look that’s just priceless.)
But when did this become the standard idea? And what does it say about how we view detective-work? As a childish pursuit, a nerdy kid’s hobby that gets put away when one discovers girls? (This may strike a little close to home, sure, since I wanted to be a detective since I was like 4 years old.)
Or is it because a Sherlock Holmes character, with his freakish interest in details and shitty social skills, more and more reads as an early literary example of Asperger’s, and we have to reconcile that behavior somehow?
Food for thought, for the next time HBO runs Sherlock Holmes, which I’m assuming will be in like three hours or so.