Sherlock Holmes: A comparison between the stories and the movie

Hausarbeit, 2013
22 Seiten




1. Introduction

2. Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes
2.1 The Canon
2.2 The main characters
2.2.1 Sherlock Holmes
2.2.2 Dr. John Watson

3. Adaptations and their fidelity

4. A comparison between the stories and the movie
4.1 Sherlock Holmes reinvented
4.2 The characters
4.2.1 The modern Sherlock Holmes
4.2.2 The new Watson and his ‘bromance’ with Holmes

5. Conclusion

6. Bibliography

1. Introduction

With Sherlock Holmes, “the character whose adventures revolutionized crime writing, setting the template for generations of fictional sleuths, […] The character whose ‘death’ caused grief-stricken readers on the streets of London to wear black armbands” (Billingham xiii), Doyle created a detective who became one of the most famous characters in crime fiction. The world loved the stories about the genius detective and although Arthur Conan Doyle died, had a continuing demand for them. Many authors tried to fulfill this needs and a lot of pastiches, parodies and adaptations were produced until today, reaching from book form, movies, TV-series, over video games, up to graphic novels (Poore 1).

The different adaptations vary in a great degree in how faithful they are to the source text and how far they differ from it. This paper will concentrate on a twenty-first-century adaptation, namely Guy Ritchie’s movie Sherlock Holmes from 2009, and its fidelity to the source will be examined. How did Ritchie put the character of Sherlock Holmes and all his trappings into a modern context? Which details out of Conan Doyle’s version were borrowed and in which way do they appear in the movie? And does he succeed in appealing a modern, twenty-first-century audience, although staying true with the source text?

Some general information about Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s stories, as well an analysis of the main characters Sherlock Holmes and Dr. John Watson, will serve as a basis for the comparison. The next important foundation will be laid by the explanation of adaptation theory, examining the notion of fidelity, and answering the questions if a strict fidelity is possible and even appropriate and how it can be put into practice. Then the comparison between the stories and the movie will be drawn, focusing on the plans the filmmakers had, and how they were applied, on details borrowed from the source and changes made, especially watching the characters of Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson. Finally a conclusion will be drawn and the most important points will be summarized.

2. Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes

2.1 The Canon

Over a period of forty years, from 1887 to 1927, Arthur Conan Doyle wrote the stories of Sherlock Holmes and created a “completely new type of lead character: a private, consulting detective who produced amazing results through the application of a keen, analytical mind to the careful observation of clues available” (Weller 11). With this character Doyle satisfied the needs of a Victorian audience. He followed the rules of melodrama, he equipped Holmes with qualities that were recognized as masculine in this culture, science, reason, system and principle, he presents codes of class, gender and ethnicity the readers can rely on, and with Holmes preaching a new understanding of the world, he “was writing to fulfill a need for a new man for a new age” (Poore 3-4).

The setting of the stories is the late Victorian and early Edwardian England, from 1881 to 1904. Doyle exactly reflected the general concerns and everyday details of his period in his writings. (Redmond 101) Nearly all of Holmes’ cases are set in England and the majority of them in London, which Watson describes as the “great cesspool into which all the loungers and idlers of the Empire are irresistibly drained” (Doyle The Novels 14). At this time London was the greatest city in the world and it expanded between 1810 and 1900. The expansion brought also a growth of building, especially railroad terminals, museums, theatres, public buildings, parks, colleges, grand hotels, stores, churches, and private houses, and with them a lot of diseases and poverty. (Klinger xxi)

The stories became known as the ‘Canon’ and include four novels and 56 short stories. Sherlock Holmes had his first appearance in A Study in Scarlet, which was the first of the four novels. The story brought him no financial success and Doyle never regarded his stories as great literature. (Weller 11-12)

In 1890 the second novel The Sign of Four appeared, followed by The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, a volume containing twelve short stories, many of them being the most popular ones. The stories appeared in the Strand magazine from 1891 to 1892. The next collection of another twelve short stories called The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes appeared in the Strand magazine from 1892 to 1893. This collection included the story The Final Problem in which Doyle killed the character of Sherlock Holmes because of a lack of literary achievement. (Redmond 10-18)

The public was sad and angry about the death of Sherlock Holmes and in 1901he gave way to the pressures for more Holmes stories. The most popular and best-known of his stories, the novel The Hound of the Baskervilles appeared. In 1903 Doyle was offered a huge sum by Colliers Weekly to produce new Holmes stories and so Holmes was brought back to life in the collection The Return of Sherlock Holmes. Between 1914 and 1915 the fourth novel The Valley of Fear appeared, followed by the smaller collection of eight stories, called His Last Bow, 1917. The final collection The Case-Book of Sherlock Holmes was issued in 1927 and is regarded to be of lower quality than the other stories. (Redmond 1993: 18-29)

2.2 The main characters

2.2.1 Sherlock Holmes

Sherlock Holmes has his first appearance in A Study in Scarlet where he is introduced to Watson by his friend Stamford as strange and eccentric man, with a remarkable knowledge:

“[…] a little queer in his ideas – an enthusiast in some branches of science. As far as I know he is a decent fellow enough. […] His studies are very desultory and eccentric, but he has amassed a lot out-of-the-way knowledge which would astonish his professors. […] he is not a man that it is easy to draw out, though he can be communicative enough when the fancy seizes him” (Doyle The Novels 18).

Holmes outward appearance is described as tall and thin with sharp and piercing eyes, a hawk-like nose, a prominent and square chin and with hands blotted with ink and stained with chemicals (Doyle The Novels 29-30).

He disposes of a “cat-like love of personal cleanliness”, balanced by a “pack-rat love of clutter” and an “indifference to the proper places for household objects” (Redmond 34). Holmes himself explains some of his shortcomings, for example that he likes to smoke strong tobacco, that he works with chemicals and does experiments and that he “gets in the dumps at times, and doesn’t open his mouth for days on end” (Doyle The Novels 25).

Holmes is moody and shows alternating periods of energy, enthusiasm and enormous work and periods of tiredness, inactivity and depression, where he is lying at the sofa and doesn’t show a sign of life (Redmond 34). Watson explains that in A Scandal in Bohemia: “[…] while Holmes, […] remained in our lodgings in Baker-street, buried among his old books, and alternating from week to week between cocaine and ambition, the drowsiness of the drug , and the fierce energy for his own keen nature”, and later in a period of energy: “He was at work again. He had risen out of his drug-created dreams, and was hot upon the scent of some new problem” (Doyle Volume I 6).

His knowledge is remarkable, but he can also be very ignorant towards fields he is not interested in. For instance he is totally ignorant of the Copernican Theory and the composition of the solar system (Doyle The Novels 32). Watson observes Holmes’ knowledge and its limits and describes it as follows: Of contemporary literature, philosophy, astronomy and politics he knows nearly nothing. Concerning botany, he knows a lot of poisons, but nothing of practical gardening. Also his geological knowledge is limited, but he is able to tell which soil comes from which part of London. His knowledge of chemistry is profound and that of anatomy accurate but unsystematic. On the contrary to his nonexistent knowledge of contemporary literature, the one of sensational literature is immense, so that he knows nearly every detail of every crime committed in the century. Additionally he has a good practical knowledge of British law, plays the violin well and is an expert singlestick player, boxer and swordsman. (Doyle The Novels 34-35) Holmes justifies his incomplete knowledge by describing his brain as an empty attic, which has to be filled with tools which help him doing his work. For him “it is of the highest importance, therefore, not to have useless facts elbowing out the useful ones” (Doyle The Novels 32-33).

Sherlock Holmes is a private consulting detective who works for people out of the most different classes of society. He is able to solve cases with the help of his knowledge, in addition with deduction and observation which he demonstrates by explaining Watson how he could know that he had been in Afghanistan. He observed that Watson is “a gentleman of a medical type, but with the air of a military man” and therefore deduced that he must be an army doctor (Doyle The Novels 42). Watson’s dark face and fair wrists told him that the dark color was not his natural skin color and that he just came from the tropics. His haggard face and his injured left arm told Holmes that he has undergone hardships and sickness and that he had gone wounded and he finally deduced that this only could have happened in Afghanistan. (Doyle The Novels 42)

Holmes is aware of his talent and the fame it entails and this makes him kind of arrogant, as becomes clear when he says: “No man lives or has ever lived who has brought the same amount of study and of natural talent to the detection of crime which I have done.” (Doyle The Novels 43).


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Sherlock Holmes: A comparison between the stories and the movie
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Sherlock Holmes, Guy Ritchie
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Cindy Härcher (Autor), 2013, Sherlock Holmes: A comparison between the stories and the movie, München, GRIN Verlag,


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