Column: Troubles in modernizing Holmes

By Lou Schumaker

For whatever reason, we have become obsessed again with the enigmatic detective who lives at 221B Baker Street, otherwise known as Sherlock Holmes. Between the Guy Ritchie films, the popular BBC show “Sherlock,” and CBS’ upcoming show “Elementary,” Holmes is being updated and modernized faster than his author ever could have imagined. And with all these competing visions of the character, there has erupted more than a little outrage.

Most recently, CBS has come under fire from the BBC for allegedly copying the show “Sherlock,” Additionally, the faceless masses of the Internet have begun criticizing CBS’ decision to cast Lucy Liu, an Asian-American woman, as Holmes’ sidekick Watson.

Now, I won’t touch on the legality of the CBS adaptation, except to say that while it certainly seems like CBS got the idea from the BBC, it’s hard to call it a “rip-off” since the character is in public domain and has remained relatively unchanged over the past century. The second controversy, the one over Lucy Liu, however, does bother me.

Even ignoring arguments about gender roles and the lack of women on TV, what bothers me most about the complaints against Liu is that they suggest that CBS is somehow betraying the essence of Watson. Let me be clear: Watson is one of the most underdeveloped characters to ever become a household name.

Do you know what Watson does in the Sherlock Holmes stories? Almost nothing. The only thing he’s really good for is to compliment Sherlock Holmes and propose wildly inaccurate theories at crime scenes. He’s boring and slow and lifeless and famous.

For reasons utterly beyond my comprehension, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle chose to take the fun and interesting Sherlock Holmes and force readers to experience him through the exceedingly dull Watson. I read “The Hound of the Baskervilles” earlier this year and enjoyed it up until Sherlock left halfway through the story and I was forced to watch Watson stumble his way around the moor.

I really feel that anyone who’s upset with Lucy Liu playing Watson cannot have possibly read the original stories or else they would know that the only way it betrays the character is that it adds a personality.

Maybe I’m biased, though. I tend to like any given adaptation of the Sherlock stories more than I like the stories themselves. Spurred by a love of detective fiction and a desire to read the story where Moriarty shows up and kills Sherlock (after which, Doyle revived him), I read the first three novels and twenty-five short stories in the Sherlock Holmes canon and really at no point enjoyed myself.

After reading a series of poorly-plotted and unexciting mysteries, I came to the conclusion that Sherlock Holmes’ legacy is not due to Doyle’s decidedly limited writing ability, but to the ease and talent with which Holmes is adapted for each new generation. Because each writer is able to take the basics of Holmes and mold it to his or her own vision, the detective is able to stay alive much longer than his fellow fictional detectives.

Given CBS’ track record, the new Sherlock show probably won’t be good, but at least we’ll know the good detective will always survive. And even if he doesn’t, we’ll always have “The Great Mouse Detective.”

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