The Sherlock Holmes you know and love is a lousy character.
He’s a misogynist, a drug addict, a condescending and ignorant man. But even that whole mess isn’t enough to make him actually interesting.
No offense to Benedict Cumberbatch—who brought his dashing good looks and overwhelming sexual charisma to the character—but there’s just not that much you can do with the famous master of deduction (who almost exclusively used inductive reasoning—shout out to the pedants in the audience). He’s got some impressive speeches and some flashy tricks, but he’s seemingly devoid of an internal life.
Get your mind out of the gutter
And that’s honestly fine for most purposes. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was busy pioneering the genre of detective stories with only Edgar Allen Poe’s Dupin stories to rip off. He wasn’t focused on developing a character with rich emotional content.
Sherlock Holmes was a conduit for clever reveals and intriguing twists. He was there to guide the other characters and the reader through an otherwise impenetrable mystery, and that was the fun that made these stories so wildly popular.
Even Conan Doyle himself got bored of the character and tried to kill him off in The Final Problem in 1893. It was only the ravenous appetite of his readers that eventually convinced him to bring Holmes back ten years later—at which point he at least tried to make Holmes a little more interesting.
But should audiences still be satisfied with watching an emotionless “deduction” machine solving interesting riddles? That was fine when the concept of detective stories was new, but now the formula is familiar, and there’s no shortage of sources for that kind of thing.
More than that, if audiences really want that experience from Sherlock Holmes, they can go watch any of a hundred previous adaptations. Even if he was a good character at one point, he’s been done and redone so many times it’s like trying to chew the last bit of flavor out of day-old gum. If a new rendition of Sherlock Holmes wants to entice us to tune in, it has to offer something more.
In Guy Ritchie’s Sherlock Holmes movies, that meant Robert Downey Jr. engaging in explosive bullet-time action sequences. And in the case of BBC’s Sherlock, it was all about visually flashy production and the raw animal magnetism exuded from the lower half of Benedict Cumberbatch’s face.
But Millie Bobby Brown’s new Netflix movie Enola Holmes—which premiered this week—tried to bring two new elements to the world of Sherlock Holmes, and managed to get themselves sued.
In addition to introducing the Stranger Things actor as a teenage sister who shares the detectives aptitude for observation and problem solving—though not his blatant sexism—the movie also attempted to give Sherlock Holmes some psychological depth.
With Henry Cavill playing Sherlock, it would have been a shame to restrict the character to his usual dull robotic form. Especially with a younger, more interesting detective on the scene, Sherlock would have been relegated to the status of a handsome piece of set dressing (not Benedict Cumberbatch-handsome, but decent eye candy overall). So they made the bold move of allowing him to emote…and they ended up in a lawsuit.
The issue is that, while the first 50 of the Sherlock Holmes stories are considered public domain—meaning anyone is allowed to make new Sherlock Holmes content—there are still six later Sherlock Holmes stories that have yet to meet the 95-year copyright cutoff. As a result, any elements of the Sherlock Holmes characters that were introduced only in those later stories is still considered the intellectual property of the Conan Doyle Estate—AKA the authors distant relatives.
As it turns out, one of those character elements introduced in the later stories was…emotions. In other words, if you want to make an original or adapted Sherlock Holmes story, and don’t want to pay a licensing fee to the author’s step great grandson and the children of his nephew—more than 90 years after Conan Doyle’s death—he’d better not have an inner life!
If Netflix had simply given Henry Cavill a coke habit, a personality disorder, and a robotic limb (not in the early stories but also not in the later ones) they would have been fine. But no, they wanted to make the most obvious step in character growth by allowing the emotionally closed-off character to express some feelings.
Enola Holmes | Make Noise
And because Sir Arthur Conan Doyle managed to write 50 Sherlock Holmes stories before that possibility occurred to him—no wonder he got bored of the character—Netflix is now being sued. In June of 2020, the Conan Doyle estate issued a statement on Enola Holmes, taking on a self-righteous air as a defender of all authors everywhere, saying “if ten copyrighted short stories by one of the world’s most original authors can be copied without consequence, no writer’s work is safe.”
Leaving aside the fact that it’s actually just six stories as of January 1st, that the copyright is only in effect in the U.S., and the fact that the author has been dead since 1930, it remains to be seen whether such a simple and obvious modification of a character will be ruled to violate the copyright, or whether the estate’s claim will be rejected as overly litigious—as happened with their previous lawsuit in 2014.
Whatever the case, even American copyrights don’t last forever—as much as Disney has tried. The cash cow that Conan Doyle’s distant relatives have been milking for decades is finally set to run out in 2023—at which point Sherlock Holmes will be allowed to have emotions, and might actually turn out to be a halfway decent character.
Until then, we can all just keep re-watching Doctor Strange and Patrick melrose.