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"running on parallel lines" [HOUN]

Someone asked me recently what I think about Guy Ritchie’s Sherlock Holmes movies – do I really like them, even though their resemblance to Conan Doyle’s original is so little? My answer was not specifically about those two movies, but rather the whole genre of Sherlock Holmes adaptations.

A Tale of Two Holmeses

My way of seeing this is that there are two kinds of Holmes. There is the original Holmes – and there is the parallel Holmes. The parallel Holmes has existed almost since the beginning (the first parody came just a few months after the first Sherlock Holmes short story in 1891), and is a version of Holmes that other persons have formed, rather than Conan Doyle.

For many people this parallel Holmes is often more true than the original version. Without parallel Holmes, the detective would lack many of his most characteristic features: the deerstalker, the curved pipe and the line "Elementary, my dear Watson." The deerstalker was of course put there by Sidney Paget – and that’s definitely connected to the original Holmes – but without William Gillette’s use of it, Holmes would have had no characteristic hat, and his easily recognizable silhouette would be less easily recognizable.

When Gillette’s play toured America and all around Europe at the turn of the century, more people had seen this Sherlock Holmes on stage than had ever read a book about Conan Doyle’s detective. [Is this true? Even with subscriptions of The Strand (in which Paget's drawings existed) soaring? -Ed.] Even if Gillette’s Holmes had lines and plot taken from original Holmes, and even if Conan Doyle had said okay to the manuscript, it was nevertheless a parallel Holmes – Gillette’s own view of the detective. Gillette’s Holmes play showed generations to come what could be done with the detective (e.g. his emotions towards Alice Faulkner) and how far away from original Holmes he could be taken – while still being able to call him Sherlock Holmes.

But Gillette’s Holmes wasn’t the only forefather of future parallel Holmes. The parodies of the 1890s had done as much to create that parallel Holmes. They had sped up the plots and made Holmes’s deductions faster and more impossible – and, of course, sometimes entirely wrong, since they were parodies. They had given Holmes even sharper features and more insane personality. And they had spread and further established Sherlock Holmes’s increasingly famous name among the readers.

1 + 1 = ∞ ?

These two early sorts of parallel Holmes melted into one big category, and formed what was to become the popular icon Sherlock Holmes. Parallel Holmes was – and still is – the Holmes that most people know about. Much fewer have read the original stories. Original Holmes was the origin of parallel Holmes, but parallel Holmes was the origin of popular icon Holmes.

Parallel Holmes can be almost anything, and it can be boring and it can be fun. The most boring examples are often the ones that painstakingly want to be original Holmes, but are made with such lack of love that they entirely miss the goal. They are mainly just constructed mystery plots with an investigating cliché duo in the middle. However, when parallel Holmes is made with love and genius, and when it comes really close to original Holmes, it’s just a pleasure to consume, e.g. some of the best episodes of the Granada series with Jeremy Brett, Lyndsay Faye’s novel Dust and Shadow, or Nicholas Meyer's The Seven-Per-Cent Solution. 

Many of the most interesting parallel Holmes productions are the ones where the creators are doing something totally different. They move away from Conan Doyle, and their foundations are sometimes to be found in other genres, not necessarily crime fiction related. They want to tell something else, and they often demand more of the reader/viewer. To look upon such productions as detective stories can be risky – in their cores they often hold a vibrating packet full of emotions.

These creators are not just satisfied with playing the game, but are instead constantly adding to it, evolving it. Mitch Cullin’s novel A Slight Trick of the Mind (which became the film Mr. Holmes) is one modern illustration of this. And Billy Wilder’s movie The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes and Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss’s TV series are other examples. They don't just play the game, they keep changing it.

It is sometimes the case that when parallel Holmes gets even further away from original Holmes, great entertainment is to be extracted. I love the film Without a Clue – it's definitely not original Holmes, but it's fun. I also like such a thing as the short rap version of The Hound of the Baskervilles.

And many other crazy things that have been made. And I like the Guy Ritchie movies – not because they are good adaptations of original Holmes, but because they are good versions of parallel Holmes. They effectively make use of the popular icon Holmes and make something new out of that and something that can attract a lot of people that prefer to watch a film with a super hero rather than a film with a serious thinker.

And since Warner Bros have succeeded in making these films that people want to see, I have no trouble at all with this not being close to the original Holmes. Because I love parallel Holmes as much as I love original Holmes.