Sherlock Holmes Does Not Have Time For Girls

Posted: December 7, 2010 in Jeff Holland, sherlock holmes, Threat Quality
Tags: , , , , ,

At what point did Sherlock Holmes become an arrested adolescent?

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.

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.

  1. braak says:

    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?

    This one, I think. Part of it is that the original stories actually aren’t that interested in relationships–really of any kind. They’re “dry”, metaphorically speaking, from the emotional standpoint. But that’s kind of unacceptable in the modern context (which I am okay with; I actually find early Sherlock Holmes stories kind of boring), so we need to layer on a level of emotional relationship between the two beyond what Watson periodically lets drop in the stories.

    Thinking about it, just mechanically you’d have to do that, because in the stories Watson’s primary role is as narrator, which would be a total waste of an actor in a movie or on TV.

    Anyway, once you’ve established that Holmes and Watson have to have an actual relationship beyond Victorian bonhomie, and (in order to sustain a TV series) have to have a relationship that periodically causes conflict, then the “bickering gay couple/jealous ex boyfriend” route starts to look like a pretty strong choice.

    Moreover, Holmes is kind of a creepy character if he isn’t emotionally arrested–if Holmes is kind of childish, then he can be at least funny, and his overwhelming perspicacity is less intimidating.

  2. Moff says:

    Also (especially in regard to your note about Irene Adler in the Ritchie movie), maybe a “Women are the one thing he can’t figure out” thing going on?

  3. deb says:

    If you go back to the original stories, this idea may be in there, albeit subtly. (You’ve got an unreliable narrator, after all.) The adventure itself was the focus of the stories for Victorians, though, so any conflict between Holmes and Watson was really unnecessary to keep the reader coming back, unlike modern films and TV.

    Also, you might consider Holmes’ obsession with Irene Adler in here — kind of fits, right? He’s not going to get involved with STUPID GIRLS ever again after getting burned BIG TIME by that chick! Yet he can’t stop thinking about her in “that way;” and his experience with her colors his opinion of ALL girls, so he also doesn’t want to see his best (only?) friend get burned, too.

    Certainly in contemporary adaptations, it provides a neat and ongoing source of conflict over and above solving the mystery. The Asperger’s notion is, I think, an interesting modern twist that adds an extra layer of dimension to Holmes’ character and the challenges Watson (or anyone else) has in dealing with him.

    (OMG – I just re-read this comment and realized it sounds like what an English teacher would write on an essay. Old habits die hard. Sorry!)

  4. Jeff Holland says:

    We need to get more English teachers to this site.

  5. Jeff Holland says:

    “Moreover, Holmes is kind of a creepy character if he isn’t emotionally arrested–if Holmes is kind of childish, then he can be at least funny, and his overwhelming perspicacity is less intimidating.”

    That’s a good point – and makes me want to see a modern adaptation that actually makes Holmes a more intimidating presence. Less a character, more an intellectual weapon. Not sure how this would go, though.

    Or maybe I just want to see someone adapt Warren Ellis’s “Simon Spectre” character.

  6. Melissa says:

    Maybe (read: certainly) I’m weird, but when I was obsessed with Sherlock Holmes as a young teenager (books only, hated all screen adaptations), it was mostly because I was in love with him. That unattainable brain was a sexy beast. I wanted to shoot cocaine and play string duets with him. Naked.

    Anyway, I went on to date a series of gay men and engineers when I hit college, so I suppose your theory holds.

  7. SB7 says:

    ““Moreover, Holmes is kind of a creepy character if he isn’t emotionally arrested–if Holmes is kind of childish, then he can be at least funny, and his overwhelming perspicacity is less intimidating.”

    That’s a good point – and makes me want to see a modern adaptation that actually makes Holmes a more intimidating presence.”

    That was my thought reading braak’s comment as well. I’d love to see a Holmes that was flat out menacing, maybe even nightmarish. I want him to be weird in a “don’t want to turn my back on this guy” way. That probably wouldn’t make for a very good main character, but luckily I’ve also always wanted to see some adaptations centering on Mycroft, so maybe someone could put those two things together.

  8. Gabe Valdez says:

    You mention the drug use as a contrast to the childish portrayal of Holmes, but I think the answer lies in the drugs’ effects.

    Conan Doyle’s Holmes was a cocaine and morphine addict. Heavy use of either severely decreases sex drive and inhibits the ability to perform. As a highly trained physician, Doyle would have known these effects. (Later portrayals would shift the cocaine/morphine addiction to opium, which doesn’t make nearly as much sense for someone who wanted to keep his mind sharp, but also decreases sex drive.)

    The original Holmes wasn’t socially incapable like the modern ones. He’d go into deep trips and depressions, true, but when the moment called for him to fit in, he could run circles around any social situation. When he bombed a social occasion, it wasn’t due to incapability as much as it was due to choice, and his not seeing a need to play along. He felt much more at home in the lower classes. This is one of the things that made Holmes most interesting and so truly Victorian – he came from the middle classes, fit in best with the lower classes, but his talent gave him unfettered access and importance to the upper class and even royalty. The original Holmes was able to bring forth a high degree of charm when he deigned to do so and wasn’t so much socially incapable as he was socially disinterested. I think the Moffat BBC version does an exceptional job of Holmes knowing full well just how enticing he can be, but only using it when it helps to solve a problem.

    The camp of “Holmes as incapable” is just plain wrong, albeit terribly amusing in the hands of someone like Downey, Jr. The camp of “Holmes as couldn’t-give-a-damn” is more on the money.

    I think the modern shift to a more childish Holmes is more political correctness than anything else. Since Holmes is now family fare more often than not, it doesn’t do to portray his heavy drug use as a replacement for the things socializing brings the rest of us. We need other excuses to fill in why Holmes is so Holmesian. The childish or Aspergian Holmes allows us to have, more or less, the same calculating, but disconnected, Holmes we’ve always enjoyed while skirting the drug issue or, at best, referencing it as brief comedic relief.

    As far as I’m concerned, the only canon excuse for Holmes’s behavior is the addiction. I think he’d be just as easily addicted to sex did it not require fundamentally sacrificing his ability to maintain a continuous and objective observation of people (like a science experiment, the very minute you put a hand into it, your results are worthless).

    By the way, the most canon of all Holmes, and an interpretation I highly, highly recommend, is BBC’s early-90s “The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes” starring the best Holmes that has ever been, Jeremy Brett.

  9. Jeff Holland says:

    Jeremy Brett does get a lot of love. I’ll add it to the Netflix queueueueue.

  10. Gabe Valdez says:

    Sorry to double-post, but I noticed the comments about wanting Holmes to be an intimidating, even menacing, character. May I reiterate that everyone should watch “The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes” starring Jeremy Brett. The filmmaking was stagey, but you fall into it in short order and the storytelling was so spot on. An example of just how good Brett was:

  11. deb says:

    Jeremy Brett is the definitive version of Conan Doyle’s Holmes, hands down.

  12. Lindsay says:

    “The good Watson had at the time deserted me for a wife, the only selfish action which I can recall in our association.” – The Adventure of the Lion’s Mane.

    It is not one of the best stories (and the only one narrated by Holmes), but it’s silly to say that it’s a new idea that Holmes would resent anything separating him from his closest friend.

    The friendship between Holmes and Watson is woven through the stories. If the characters, and their relationship, had not been compelling, no amount of adventure would have made the series as popular as it was and is. Watson convinces Holmes to give up cocaine. Watson’s wife often understands when he needs to help his friend, and after she dies, Holmes expresses his condolences. Watson tries to play matchmaker for Holmes at least once, but it doesn’t work out. Watson literally faints when he realizes Holmes isn’t dead. Holmes is usually quiet about his affection for Watson, but his trust in and reliance on the good doctor comes up again and again. (And then there’s the end of The Three Garridebs, which I think of as the scene which launched a thousand fanfics.)

    Oh, and let’s not forget that often Watson’s primary role in the stories is as the muscle. This is the biggest thing that the movie from last year got right.

    (As a side note: I also have strong feelings about Irene Adler: I dislike when they are paired romantically, but I am very particular about Holmes. There is NO MOPING ABOUT IRENE NORTON, NEE ADLER.)

    In the stories, Holmes is fairly asexual. Able to understand relationships from the outside, able to be perfectly courteous to ladies, able to flirt in order to get information, but unable to consider pursuing a relationship.

    Oh, one more thing: Yes to Sherlock, lots of fun. House is fine, but is its own thing by now. RDJ’s is a fun steampunk movie but just a okay Holmes. The Zero Effect is a really fun film, but is based more on fictional detective Nero Wolfe (postulated by fans to be the son of Holmes).

    And Brett is Holmes. No questions, no arguments.

  13. braak says:


    1) “Muscle” isn’t a character function. It’s barely even a plot function, considering that its role can be fulfilled by a shotgun or a rottweiler, so it’d be equally a waste of an actor.

    2) I’m not sure “depth of character” or “depth of relationships” is actually required for popularity; admittedly, it’s a hard gauge, since Holmes is the second-most-adapted character in literature, but it’s not as though there haven’t been adaptations that let the relationship between Watson and Holmes fall by the wayside, and it’s not as though there haven’t been popular characters–even wildly popular characters–with dry emotional or relational content.

    3) You’re still not really describing the kind of dysfunctional relationship that we’re seeing in modern interpretations of the character, and I think this is, principally, a quality of Victorian literature: that in stories like these, relationship are basically straightforward and above all functional. There’s no secret resentments or homoerotic undercurrents, no ambiguity or jealousy, none of the things that we rely on as the core of sustainable drama in a continuing television series. Just regular old, two Victorian gentlemen who are quite good friends, and if we aren’t always showing it, well, one of us is usually preoccupied with his own brilliance.

  14. Lindsay says:

    3) I wasn’t trying to. I was saying that the roots of the conflict described in the original post (Watson likes the ladies, Holmes disdains romance) ARE in the text. Of course modern adaptations go in lots of different directions from there.

  15. braak says:

    Oh. I guess I was cottoning more onto Holland’s idea of Holmes refusing adult relationships, and his pettiness about Watson’s, which pettiness I had considered is what Holland is saying was new.

  16. Maureen says:

    See, I’ve always thought of Holmes’s celibacy as an artifact of a time when it was thought that sexual activity was mentally draining — there are references to French poets mourning an ejaculation as the loss of another poem.* So Holmes, total brainiac that he is, must either have no sex drive or be extraordinarily good at diverting whatever biological imperative he has into his work.

    Nerds of the twenty-first century no longer think this way – how could we, when faced with the evidence of Einstein’s mistresses and Feynman’s Barney Stinson-esque pickup skills? Hell, we believe regular sexual release is beneficial –think about the bits in Cryptonomicon where it’s mentioned Lawrence has difficulty in deciphering codes if he hasn’t ejaculated in the past few days. So there’s a counter-impetus, when doing a Holmes adaptation, to at least explore the possibility of sexuality. So in House we have House’s ex-girlfriend, his attempts to pick up women, hooker references, and Internet porn. In Sherlock Holmes we have suggestions that Holmes desires Watson but doesn’t dare do anything because, hello, illegal. (It doesn’t hurt that Downey and Law are two of the few A-list stars who have played more than one gay role.) Only in Sherlock do we have more of a nod towards asexuality – and it’s not clarified if Sherlock is asexual by nature or if he’s chosen to be celibate because of various issues that tend to kill relationships, like the whole “endangers own life upon regular basis” thing.

    The above are still incomplete solutions. The true unifying solution – the “why Holmes wants to sabotage Watson’s love life” solution that actually makes sense for twenty-first century audiences that does not depend upon Holmes being emotionally eight years old- is the shipper solution. This requires either a) making Holmes or Watson female or b) a gay relationship. X-Files and Bones did/are doing the former; studios and network executives are scared to do the latter.

    *Similarly, brain work was supposed to cause women’s uteruses to atrophy. Bad Victorian science is awesome.

  17. braak says:

    I don’t know, I always figured the celibacy was related to the drug use which, as Gabe points out with the clip, is actually not the product of addiction per se–rather, it’s more that drug use and celibacy are descended from the same cause: it’s Holmes’ prodigous intellect that is his defining characteristic. He uses cocaine because he’s bored, and his problem with sex (and presumably romance–especially Victorian romance, with its pointless formalities, its trivial artificialities; and probably doubly-especially Victorian women, too often raised as delicate and protected flowers) is that he doesn’t find any of it particularly interesting.

    Which I had always thought was the point of Irene Adler; it was less that he was sexually attracted to her (Holmes, on more than one occasion, appears to specifically disdain the needs of his body), and more that she was one of the only women he’d ever found who was actually interesting.

  18. danu says:

    Very interesting discussion. I tend to agree that Holmes asexual nature stems more from the Victorian sensibilities and limited view of women and their role in society. Men were rational beings and women were emotional ionalaccording to the views when Doyle wrote his works. So as a being who craves rational thought and disdains emtion women and their emotional nature would be viewed as a great distractor. Also for the stories to work Holmes has to be able to dash out and do what he wants, when he wants. He can’t be tied down to conventional life-which would preclude him having a normal Victorian family life. Also he is described as being a bohemenian in nature which also wouldn’t square with a wife and kiddies. So partly it is ;a writing convention of the time — women drag you down with their conventional, emotional demands. So the only woman for him, the woman as Holmes calls her is of “questionable and dubious memory” according to the more conventional Watson. I also agree that Holmes is very attractive to women. I too, when I read the stories as a teenager thought about playing duets with him? I think Irene Adler wouldn’t have just let him go. ~Also I hope t

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