"Anti-Social Complete Jerk" Sherlock Holmes
VS "Sentimental Nice Guy" Sherlock Holmes
Author: Badre El Amir Bally
As we all know, Sherlock Holmes is one of the most portrayed characters in fiction (and the most portrayed human character in fiction) so with such a large list of actors ranging from stage, film, audio and television, it stands to reason that each incarnation has his own take on Conan Doyle's iconic Consulting Detective.
But lately, the most frequent incarnation we've seen in Sherlockian related media has been the anti-social, less emotional Sherlock popularized by the incarnation portrayed by Benedict Cumberbatch on BBC's Sherlock. While we had less emotional takes before like the iconic Basil Rathbone incarnation and Sherlock in Sir Conan Doyle's canon can be seen as somewhat anti-social, Cumberbatch takes it several steps further. For many modern viewers, Cumberbatch's take is seen as the definitive incarnation due to the fact Cumberbatch highlights the detective's anti-social and standoffish attitudes during cases as shown in the canon. The problem is that while a good performance, Cumberbatch's take on the character is an inaccurate over-exaggeration of Conan Doyle's character.
The original Holmes of Doyle's canon wasn’t like that at all. In fact, Conan Doyle’s Holmes was shown to have compassionate and generous side:
He received us in his quietly genial fashion, ordered fresh rashers and eggs, and joined us in a hearty meal. When it was concluded he settled our new acquaintance upon the sofa, placed a pillow beneath his head, and laid a glass of brandy and water within his reach.
“It is easy to see your experience has been no common one, Mr. Hatherley,” he said. “Pray, lie down there are make yourself absolutely at home. Tell us what you can, but stop when you are tired and keep up your strength with a little stimulant.”
– “The Adventure of the Engineer’s Thumb”
Holmes especially showed his compassionate side when with a frightened client:
“Good-morning, madam,” said Holmes cheerily. “My name is Sherlock Holmes. This is my intimate friend and associate, Dr. Watson, before who you can speak as freely as before myself. Ha! I am glad to see that Mrs. Hudson has had the good sense to light the fire. Pray draw up to it and I shall order you a cup of hot coffee, for I observe that you are shivering.”
“It is not cold which makes me shiver,” said the woman in a low voice, changing her seat as requested.
“It is fear, Mr. Holmes. It is terror.” She raised her veil as she spoke, and we could see that she was indeed in a pitiable state of agitation, her face all drawn and gray, with restless, frightened eyes, like those of some hunted animal. Her features and figure were those of a woman of thirty, but her hair was shot with premature gray, and her expression was weary and haggard. Sherlock Holmes ran her over with one of his quick, all-comprehensive glances.
“You must not fear,” he said soothingly, bending forward and patting her forearm. “We shall soon set matters right, I have no doubt.”
– “The Adventure of the Speckled Band”
Now, it’s true that Holmes isn’t always so polite, but he is rarely outright rude. The only people to whom Holmes is actually mean are those who don’t take him seriously or question his methods. He prefers to have a little fun at his detractors’ expense, though, rather than berate them openly. Here Holmes reveals the true culprit in the death of a shady horse trainer to the horse’s owner, who had been dismissive of Holmes’s work:
"… You have done me a great service in recovering my horse,” [said Colonel Ross.] “You would do me a greater service still if you could lay your hands on the murderer of John Straker.”
“I have done so,” said Holmes quietly.
The colonel and I stared at him in amazement.
“You have got him! Where is he, then?”
“He is here.”
“In my company at the present moment.”
The colonel flushed angrily. “I quite recognize that I am under obligations to you, Mr. Holmes,” said he, “but I must regard what you have just said as either a very bad joke or an insult.”
Sherlock Holmes laughed. “I assure I that have not associated you with the crime, Colonel,” said he. “The real murderer is standing immediately behind you.”
He stepped past and laid his hand upon the glossy neck of the thoroughbred.
“The horse!” cried both the colonel and myself.
“Yes, the horse. And it may lessen his guilt if I say that it was done in self-defence, and that John Straker was a man who was entirely unworthy of your confidence.”
– “The Adventure of Silver Blaze"
Whatever else the literary Holmes may be, he is still a gentleman.
People argue in defence of Cumberbatch's portrayal that it helped the character fit in modern times, I see it as doing a disservice to the original character. People argue in defense of Cumberbatch's portrayal that it helped the character fit in modern times, I see it as doing a disservice to the original character. By comparison, Elementary's incarnation played by Jonny Lee Miller does a fantastic job of providing a true modernized interpretation of the literary Sherlock Holmes that I feel is a bit more faithful to the original Doyle canon than Cumberbatch's version.
However, there is an opposite albeit less exposed extreme take on the character, the sentimental, compassionate Sherlock. While this take has been seen from time to time, Henry Cavill's portrayal of the character in Netflix's Enola Holmes seems to be the one that has given this take enough exposure and positive response from viewers that there are rumored interests of a Sherlock Holmes project starring Cavill's incarnation. Other than Cavill, the other prominent incarnation of this take is Christopher Plummer's incarnation in 1979's Murder by Decree, where during the investigations into the infamous real life Whitechapel murders, we see a more sentimental and compassionate Sherlock Holmes, who's almost driven to tears by the events and tragic fates of the women of Whitechapel. Another example of this take is the animated anthropomorphic dog incarnation developed by Hayao Miyazaki in the Italian-Japanese produced animated series, Sherlock Hound.
The complete opposite of the Jerk Sherlock, the Nice-Guy Sherlock highlights the detective's more compassionate and sentimental side from the books, particularly in the Doyle stories published between 1923 and 1927. One of the reasons why we don't see this side of the detective compared to its opposite is because unlike the stories published between 1887 and 1922, the 1923-1927 stories are not in the public domain and any attempt to give Sherlock Holmes emotions is considered copyright infringement by the Conan Doyle estate, which lead to incidents like the lawsuit surrounding Enola Holmes.
Thank you very much for this article Badre El Amir Bally.
While as much as an inaccurate over-exaggeration, if I were given a choice between the two extremes, I personally prefer the "nice guy" Holmes to "complete jerk" Holmes.
The compassionate detective
Sherlock Holmes, the Victorian gentleman