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The Case Of The Immortal Detective: Sherlock Holmes And His Enduring Appeal

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By Liam Burke:

Sherlock Holmes has been the subject of more screen adaptations than any other literary character, with 75 different actors donning the deerstalker since 1900. But, as Benedict Cumberbatch prepares to return to 221B Baker Street for a Sherlock Christmas Special, the greatest mystery remains: what is the source of the detective’s enduring appeal?

In recent years Sherlock Holmes has headlined a blockbuster film series(2009/2011) starring Robert Downey Jr., a US police procedural TV show Elementary (2012-), the nostalgic drama Mr. Holmes (2015), and the modern day BBC miniseries Sherlock (2010-).

With Sherlock back on our screens next month for a Victorian era-set special, the show’s creators Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss were in Melbourne on Monday (23rd November) for the Sherlock: From Script to Screen fan event. The pair recounted how childhood encounters with the Hammer Horror adaptation of The Hound of the Baskervilles (1959) starring Peter Cushing sparked their early interest and how they are now “infected by Sherlock Holmes”.

Indeed, this infection has spread to all corners of media and entertainment; but the great detective’s purchase on popular culture was not always so assured.

Sherlock Holmes originally met his demise in 1893 when his arch-nemesis, Professor James Moriarty, cornered him above Switzerland’s Reichenbach Falls. The ensuing conflict sent hero and villain careening over the edge, disappointing the huge readership that the great detective and his stalwart sidekick Dr Watson had amassed since they first appeared in Beeton’s Christmas Annual in 1887.

However, Moriarty was merely the instrument of Holmes’ destruction; the real mastermind was the character’s creator Arthur Conan Doyle. The Edinburgh-born writer had grown to resent his popular creation, believing the character thwarted his literary ambitions.

In the decade following Holmes’ plunge from the Swiss Alps, Doyle resisted increasing fan pressure and financial incentives to bring back the detective, commenting in 1896:

If I had not killed him, he would certainly have killed me.

However, Doyle’s efforts were in vain. The indefatigable detective had already caught the public’s imagination to the point that he was beyond his creator’s control.

During these wilderness years the American playwright and actor William Gillette was tasked with adapting the deceased detective for the stage. Although the play, Sherlock Holmes, drew on a number of the hero’s adventures, it was primarily based on The Final Problem (1893) in which Holmes had his fateful scuffle with Moriarty, and A Scandal in Bohemia (1891) in which the resolute bachelor is outwitted by Irene Adler – the closest that Doyle came to offering a love interest for his “reasoning and observing machine”.

However, Gillette did more than bring the character to the stage: he enriched the mythos. It was Gillette who popularised Holmes’ curved pipe and deerstalker hat, which was never mentioned by Doyle and only occasionally hinted at by illustrator Sidney Paget.

He also introduced the pageboy Billy (who was played by a 13-year-old Charlie Chaplin during a 1901 production) with Doyle ultimately incorporating the character into the canon.

Perhaps Gillette’s most lasting contribution was coining the phrase, “Elementary, my dear Watson”. For many, Gillette was the definitive Holmes with Orson Welles commenting in 1938:

It’s too little to say that William Gillette resembles Sherlock Holmes; Sherlock Holmes looks exactly like William Gillette.

Holmes also made a turn-of-the-century appearance in the upstart medium of moving pictures with the 45-second film Sherlock Holmes Baffled (1900).


The Mutoscope movie was not only the first Holmes adaptation, but with a production date of 1900 it is quite likely the first detective film – even if the case amounted to little more than Holmes chasing a thief around his drawing room.

Although Doyle would eventually resurrect his hero on the page in 1903, in The Return of Sherlock Holmes, through adaptation the character had already begun to transcend his original form. In doing so Holmes joins other mythic characters such as Dracula, Tarzan, and Frankenstein, whose recognition dwarf their readership.

Commenting on another heavily adapted character, Don Quixote, the French film critic André Bazin observed in his 1948 article Adaptation, or the Cinema as Digest:

with time, we do see the ghost of famous characters rise far above the great novels from which they emanate.

Image source: Wikimedia Commons

Indeed Holmes has become part of cultural mythology, whether it is in faithful adaptations such as the films of Basil Rathbone or the Jeremy Brett television series; or in looser adaptations that imagine the hero as a school boy sleuth (Young Sherlock Holmes, 1985), an anthropomorphic dog (Sherlock Hound, 1984–, originally directed by anime legend Hayao Miyazaki), or solving crimes on the Holodeck of the Starship Enterprise, as seen in the Star Trek: The Next Generation episode Elementary, Dear Data (1988).

For the Sherlock showrunners it is the relationship between Holmes and Watson that is central to the character’s success with Mark Gatiss noting at the recent Sherlock: From Script to Screen fan event:

it shouldn’t work at all, Sherlock is a sociopath, but Watson makes the unbearable bearable.

Furthermore, the original Doyle stories, riddled with continuity errors and spare on backstory, allow adapters enormous latitude, with Gatiss’ fellow Sherlock showrunner Steven Moffat noting,

We are every bit as reverent as Doyle was to Holmes, which is not much at all.

François Truffaut described adaptation as a barometer for the age, in that we can tell a lot about a time and a place by looking at the adaptations that were produced. Holmesian levels of deduction are not necessary to identify the attitudes and interests that shape today’s adaptations.

The Robert Downey Jr. films, which portray Holmes’ deductive reasoning as a superpower, tap into our penchant for comic-book movies, while primetime show Elementary introduces female versions of Watson and Moriarty (Lucy Liu and Natalie Dormer), thereby allowing the network show to pick up on the implied eroticism in their relationships with the detective without worrying middle America.

American show Elementary. Image source: WordPress
American show Elementary. Image source: WordPress

Undoubtedly it is the BBC’s Sherlock that has most firmly brought 221B into the 21C with Benedict Cumberbatch more likely to reach for his smartphone than a magnifying glass.

Such is the success with which Gatiss and Moffat have modernised the character that, while promoting their upcoming Victorian era special, journalists questioned, “How can Sherlock exist in a world without iPhones?”

An explanation for the character’s enduring appeal was offered by one of the first adaptations to modernise Holmes in order to reflect a contemporary concern: the 1942 Basil Rathbone film Sherlock Holmes and the Voice of Terror in which Holmes and Watson join the war effort to uncover a Lord Haw-Haw-style spy.

In justifying the second world war setting, the film opens on a simple yet eloquent card:

Sherlock Holmes, the immortal character of fiction created by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, is ageless, invincible and unchanging. In solving significant problems of the present day he remains – as ever – the supreme master of deductive reasoning.

Liam Burke is Media Studies Lecturer at Swinburne University of Technology.

This post was originally published here on The Conversation.

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An ambassador and trained facilitator under Eco Femme (a social enterprise working towards menstrual health in south India), Sanjina is also an active member of the MHM Collective- India and Menstrual Health Alliance- India. She has conducted Menstrual Health sessions in multiple government schools adopted by Rotary District 3240 as part of their WinS project in rural Bengal. She has also delivered training of trainers on SRHR, gender, sexuality and Menstruation for Tomorrow’s Foundation, Vikramshila Education Resource Society, Nirdhan trust and Micro Finance, Tollygunj Women In Need, Paint It Red in Kolkata.

Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

Saurabh has been associated with YKA as a user and has consistently been writing on the issue MHM and its intersectionality with other issues in the society. Now as an MHM Fellow with YKA, he’s launched the Right to Period campaign, which aims to ensure proper execution of MHM guidelines in Delhi’s schools.

The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

Read more about his campaign.

Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

Her campaign #MeriMarzi aims to promote menstrual health and wellness, hygiene and facilities for female sex workers in UP. She says, “Knowledge about natural body processes is a very basic human right. And for individuals whose occupation is providing sexual services, it becomes even more important.”

Meri Marzi aims to ensure sensitised, non-discriminatory health workers for the needs of female sex workers in the Suraksha Clinics under the UPSACS (Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society) program by creating more dialogues and garnering public support for the cause of sex workers’ menstrual rights. The campaign will also ensure interventions with sex workers to clear misconceptions around overall hygiene management to ensure that results flow both ways.

Read more about her campaign.

MH Fellow Sabna comes with significant experience working with a range of development issues. A co-founder of Project Sakhi Saheli, which aims to combat period poverty and break menstrual taboos, Sabna has, in the past, worked on the issue of menstruation in urban slums of Delhi with women and adolescent girls. She and her team also released MenstraBook, with menstrastories and organised Menstra Tlk in the Delhi School of Social Work to create more conversations on menstruation.

With YKA MHM Fellow Vineet, Sabna launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society. As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

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A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Find out more about the campaign here.

A native of Bhagalpur district – Bihar, Shalini Jha believes in equal rights for all genders and wants to work for a gender-equal and just society. In the past she’s had a year-long association as a community leader with Haiyya: Organise for Action’s Health Over Stigma campaign. She’s pursuing a Master’s in Literature with Ambedkar University, Delhi and as an MHM Fellow with YKA, recently launched ‘Project अल्हड़ (Alharh)’.

She says, “Bihar is ranked the lowest in India’s SDG Index 2019 for India. Hygienic and comfortable menstruation is a basic human right and sustainable development cannot be ensured if menstruators are deprived of their basic rights.” Project अल्हड़ (Alharh) aims to create a robust sensitised community in Bhagalpur to collectively spread awareness, break the taboo, debunk myths and initiate fearless conversations around menstruation. The campaign aims to reach at least 6000 adolescent girls from government and private schools in Baghalpur district in 2020.

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A psychologist and co-founder of a mental health NGO called Customize Cognition, Ritika forayed into the space of menstrual health and hygiene, sexual and reproductive healthcare and rights and gender equality as an MHM Fellow with YKA. She says, “The experience of working on MHM/SRHR and gender equality has been an enriching and eye-opening experience. I have learned what’s beneath the surface of the issue, be it awareness, lack of resources or disregard for trans men, who also menstruate.”

The Transmen-ses campaign aims to tackle the issue of silence and disregard for trans men’s menstruation needs, by mobilising gender sensitive health professionals and gender neutral restrooms in Lucknow.

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A Computer Science engineer by education, Nitisha started her career in the corporate sector, before realising she wanted to work in the development and social justice space. Since then, she has worked with Teach For India and Care India and is from the founding batch of Indian School of Development Management (ISDM), a one of its kind organisation creating leaders for the development sector through its experiential learning post graduate program.

As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

A Gender Rights Activist working with the tribal and marginalized communities in india, Srilekha is a PhD scholar working on understanding body and sexuality among tribal girls, to fill the gaps in research around indigenous women and their stories. Srilekha has worked extensively at the grassroots level with community based organisations, through several advocacy initiatives around Gender, Mental Health, Menstrual Hygiene and Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) for the indigenous in Jharkhand, over the last 6 years.

Srilekha has also contributed to sustainable livelihood projects and legal aid programs for survivors of sex trafficking. She has been conducting research based programs on maternal health, mental health, gender based violence, sex and sexuality. Her interest lies in conducting workshops for young people on life skills, feminism, gender and sexuality, trauma, resilience and interpersonal relationships.

A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform, demanding that the Government of Assam install
biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

Bidisha was selected in’s flagship program ‘She Creates Change’ having run successful online advocacy
campaigns, which were widely recognised. Through the #BleedwithDignity campaign; she organised and celebrated World Menstrual Hygiene Day, 2019 in Guwahati, Assam by hosting a wall mural by collaborating with local organisations. The initiative was widely covered by national and local media, and the mural was later inaugurated by the event’s chief guest Commissioner of Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC) Debeswar Malakar, IAS.

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