Do we really need a Sherlock Holmes cinematic universe?
The new wave of cinematic adaptations is also taking new liberties, it would seem. Sherlock Holmes detective stories get adapted with depressing regularity but the extended sub-genre of the crime mystery created in his name is cause for concern.
The consulting detective, created by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle in 1887, has inspired innumerable adaptations for films, stage plays and television. The Guinness Book of World Record says Sherlock Holmes is the most portrayed literary character in film and television history. Now, the character’s superhuman deduction skills have incubated a sub-genre.
“When it comes to Sherlock, I remember when three to four iterations of the character were going on at the same time (during early 2010s). You had the film series with Robert Downey Jr., the BBC TV series with Benedict Cumberbatch, and Elementary — a modern American enactment of the same,” says Shubang Gautam, a media student from Guru Gobind Singh Indraprastha University, Delhi, who has several short films to his name.
The latest arrival in the Sherlock pool of brand extensions is the mystery film Enola Holmes (2020). Distributed by Netflix, the film is based on the detective series The Enola Holmes Mysteries by Nancy Springer. Enola is the sister and a younger version of Sherlock Holmes. The film attempts an adaptation of an indirect extension.
Here, the mystery of Sherlock’s character is extended to the creation of his fictional siblings. They are not part of the Conan Doyle canon and have been created by the imagination of other writers. Eurus Holmes, Enola Holmes, and Sherrinford Holmes are random additions to Sherlock’s family tree that, seemingly innocent, question the idea of originality.
Do these extensions allow the creative freedom to alter even the original characterization? The estate of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle argues that they don’t. They sued Netflix and Springer over the movie’s depiction of Sherlock Holmes. In previous cases, the estate argued that without full copyright protection, there would be “multiple personalities” of the character.
Certainly, profiteering is inspiration enough and the laws of copyright offer some protection of intellectual property. But the question Enola poses goes deeper. How far can classic works of literature, even after the expiration of copyright, be used (or abused) without destroying the worth of the original?
“These extensions seem like a cash grab, to be honest,” says Shubang. “It’s the result of a successful creation of a brand name, like say Marvel Cinematic Universe. Even if it is the same story with slightly different points of views, it works because it’s connected to the world it resides in. But that isn’t necessarily a bad thing either. If anything, the continuous addition to the brand name opens many doors for representation.”
Mansi Draboo, an MA student at Department of English, DU, agrees. “The literary world has always been male-dominated, and that includes gender representation in mainstream narratives,” she says. “I see stories like Enola as a sort of writing back to the canon, a feminist rewriting.”
But then, what of artistic integrity and the value of the original idea? Can Sherlock next be cast as an inquisitive dog?
“Artistic integrity and ethics come into play when somebody compromises the source material in any form,” says Vaibhav Gupta, a Delhi-based independent filmmaker. “Being inspired and exploring an already established work is acceptable but changing the integrity of the work is not.”
“Moreover, when there are big established names being used for adaptations like Sherlock Holmes, the point moves from just an adaptation or extension to using the well-established formula to generate safe success. One can always choose to not compromise the integrity of the source material,” he adds.
(originally published on December 17, 2020 )