Mr Holmes banner

Reimagining a Fictional Hero through Adaptation: Mr. Holmes and the Humanisation of the Great Detective By Bonnie van den Bergh

A stern and authoritative looking Sir Ian McKellen graces the official poster of the 2015 film Mr. Holmes, in which he portrays the world-famous sleuth. Smartly dressed and with a focused gaze it is not hard to imagine McKellen as a detective. After all, many detective figures known from TV and film seem to adhere to these outward characteristics. However, it might be questioned whether we would have recognised McKellen as Holmes, had the title not given it away. As one of the most iconic fictional characters, Holmes has been visualised very distinctly since he was first drawn by Sidney Paget for the original publications of Doyle’s stories in the Strand Magazine. InMr. Holmes, the iconic look of the detective is challenged. The film, which vows to investigate “the man beyond the myth”, delivers a wildly different Holmes than most viewers are used to.[1] Looking at the more personal side of this famous character, the film tackles the fictionality of Sherlock Holmes ‘the icon’. The visual representation of Holmes plays a big part in this. Shying away from the iconography which has come to exist in our collective consciousness, Mr. Holmes becomes a powerful tool for rewriting our perceptions of one of the most recognisable figures of fiction.

The Beekeeper

Directed by Bill Conden, Mr. Holmes is an adaptation of the novel A Slight Trick of the Mind, written by Mitch Cullin. Like the novel, the film follows an aging Holmes in the years after the Second World War. Holmes has retired to the Sussex countryside, where he lives with his housekeeper and her young son. While he spends most of his days tending to his bees, Holmes is also seen trying to solve one last mystery: the last case he worked on. However, he is burdened by his failing health and an even more fragile memory, which makes it difficult for him to recall the particulars of the case which ended his career. Desperate for answers, Holmes is even seen returning from a recent trip to Japan, where he went in search of a herbal remedy—the enticing sounding “prickly ash”—in the hope that it would help stimulate his memory.

Mr Holmes beekeeping

Holmes tending to his bees.

This story of an elderly Holmes is miles away from the original stories of the great detective, and the heaps of (semi-)faithful adaptations that followed them. The bustling,urban setting of Victorian London has been swapped for the outstretched countryside of past-war Britain. Gloomy, dimly-lit streets have made way for acres of sunny, green fields and white cliffs. There are no thrilling chases, no tales of intrigue and murder, and no elaborate criminal schemes set out by villainous Londoners. Even the flashbacks to Holmes’ last case do not grant viewers such an indulgence. As it turns out, the mystery behind this final investigation called less for the use of astute logic, and more for a profound understanding of human nature and emotion. As such, it proved to be the biggest challenge of the detective’s career.

A Hero Created by Fiction

The updated setting and slower pace of the film already set the tone for a different approach to a character who is often seen as nothing short of a hero. Indeed, Conden’s feeble, ailing Holmes stands in marked opposition to the sharp minded and able character invented by Doyle. This is not to say that the detective has become completely unrecognisable. For example, Holmes gets a chance to briefly display his proficiency in the art of deduction in the opening scenes of the film, as well as during the flashbacks to his final case. However, his fading memory, incapability to walk without a stick, and tendency to fall over all show that this particular Holmes is but a shadow of preceding imaginations of his younger self.

Mr Holmes investigation

In a flashback scene Holmes is seen investigating his last case.

In line with the film’s project to show “the man beyond the myth”, Mr. Holmes aims to deconstruct the image of Holmes as the larger-than-life, heroic detective.[2] Visualising him as a man of ailing health and memory goes a long way to accomplish this goal. However, the film does more to humanise him. Most importantly, it emphases how the Sherlock Holmes—the great detective as we know him—was largely a persona, brought to life by the imagination of John Watson. The film makes a distinction between the real Holmes—the one put forward by the film—and the fake Holmes—the one known from popular culture. Debunking the myth of the heroic detective, Holmes talks about his final case, and Watson’s fictionalisation of the events. He says:

I told him about the case, everything in great detail. […] And then Watson wrote the story. […] He made me the hero. He knew no other manner in which to write the character he had created. After all those years, John didn’t know me at all.[3]

Visualising a Different Holmes

The rejection of the iconic perception of Holmesforged by popular culture plays a crucial role in the film’s rewriting of the famous detective. The dismissal of the visual iconography traditionally linked to Holmes plays an important part in this. Investigating Sherlock Holmes’ presence in advertising, Amanda J. Field discusses the character in terms of a brand.[4] She mentions a number of recurring visual attributes which are commonly used to identify the detective.[5] These consist most famously of attire such as the deerstalker hat, the Inverness cape, and a magnifying glass or pipe.[6] As Field mentions, these visual trademarks are not just hollow characteristics, but have a deeper meaning that is intrinsically linked to the perception of Holmes as a brave and knowledgeable crimefighter.[7] She explains:

            The deerstalker implies someone who will patiently ‘hunt down’ their quarry; the pipe indicates a man given to thoughtful contemplation; the magnifying glass represents someone for whom close observation is a key skill.[8]

Employing these visual clues to represent Holmes does thus not just function as a way of making him recognisable to audiences, it also gives a clue as to the detective’s nature and capabilities. However, it is important to note that while these outward characteristics have the capacity to add meaning to a character, they can also have a limiting effect. As certain visual clues and their meanings become synonymous to Holmes through frequent use, a stereotypical view of the detective is created. As a result of this it becomes harder for the character to move beyond the limits of the connotations that are inflicted upon it by its visual representation.

Looking at Mr. Holmes, there is an absence of the most well-established visual cues tied to the Victorian detective. Returning to the film’s official poster, there is no deerstalker hat, Inverness cape, or other Sherlock Holmes related paraphernalia in sight. When it comes to the film itself, there is little difference. Referring to the deerstalker hat, Holmes jokes how it was “an embellishment of the illustrator.”[9] He also denies a fondness for smoking a pipe, stating that he prefers cigars. He adds: “I told Watson, if I ever write a story myself it will be to correct the millions of misconceptions created by his imaginative licence”.[10]

In line with this statement, the film shies away from presenting most of these ‘misconceptions’. There are however, two interesting exceptions. The first is a gag sequence in which Holmes goes to see a cinematic adaptation of himself. In this scene Holmes’ filmic counterpart is seen wearing the iconic deerstalker and Holmesian coat. Unimpressed by what he is seeing, Holmes refers to his double on the big screen as “a character out of pantomime”.[11] A second exception is Holmes’ magnifying glass, which briefly makes an appearance in the film. However, instead of seeing the detective peer through the glass with an investigative glance, spectators witness how it ends up in pieces on the ground, having been dropped by Holmes’ shaky hands.

Holmes dressing gown

No sign of the deerstalker: a bedridden Holmes.

The absence of recognisable iconography does not stop at Holmes’ attire. Most notably, Holmes’ partner in crime, John Watson, is never completely visible on screen. Although he is alluded to several times, he only appears in flashback scenes in which he is either seen from a considerable distance, or in which close-ups of his hands or legs are shown. Other characters such as Mycroft are absent, whilst Mrs Hudson only appears as a blur in the background.

Rewriting the Myth

More than just disassociating Holmes from the visual iconography he has time and again been linked with, Mr. Holmes is wiping the imaginative slate clean, allowing this character to be reinvented. Debunking established myths and stripping the character from existing (visual) connotations, the film is telling us that the Holmes we thought we knew never existed, and instead gives us a new, ‘real’ imagination of the character.

Holmes rewriting

Rewriting his own story: Holmes tries to remember his last case.

To understand this rewriting in more detail, it is interesting to look at Baudrillard’s notion of simulacra. In its most basic form, Baudrillard makes a distinction between what he calls the real and the sign of the real.[12]He explains the difference between the two by taking as an example a geographical location (the real) and a map representing this location (the sign of the real).[13] Ashley D. Polasek links Baudrillard’s distinction to the realm of adaptations, in particular those of Sherlock Holmes. She mentions how, in line with the distinction, the source text which forms the basis of an adaptation can be interpreted as “the real”, while the adaptation itself would constitute “the sign of the real”.[14]

An interesting aspect of Baudrillard’s theory is that he does not see works like Doyle’s stories as constituting “a physical model”.[15] As such, he believes that there is an infinite amount of possible ways to imagine the elements within the story. However, he argues that when these stories are turned into adaptations, this infinite number of possible imaginations is brought to a halt, as it is substituted with a number of visualised signs of the real (the adaptations).[16] He thus sees adaptation in a predominantly pessimistic light; as a limitation to imaginative thinking.[17] Looking at some of the more recent adaptations of the Holmes stories, Polasek challenges Baudrillard’s pessimism. She argues that even when sources have become “so constricted by their baggage that original interpretation becomes a virtual impossibility”, there is still hope.[18]

Alluding to the BBC show Sherlock, Polasek points out that by creating an adaptation that writes “its cultural referents out of being”, and thus creates “fresh continuities”, “natural cycles of imaginative engagement” can again be initiated.[19] In the case of BBC’s Sherlock, the series rejects Victorian Holmes and instead places the detective in the twenty-first century, eliminating its source of inspiration from the pages of the history books. As the source text is wiped from existence, the years of connotations which have piled on top of it and which form a burden to new imaginations are also undone. The result is a clean slate.

Looking at Mr. Holmes, the film seems to follow a similar path, not by denying Victorian Holmes’ existence, but by rewriting conceptions of the great detective. Rejecting the stereotypical idea of Sherlock Holmes as he exists in popular culture, the film goes against its source text, and many of its subsequent adaptations. Indeed, it argues that the popular image of Sherlock Holmes is just a pretense; a mere fragment of the imagination of the detective’s closest friend. In wanting to ‘set the record straight’ the film eliminates the icon and makes way for a much more human version. Ultimately, it frees the detective of the burden of his most stereotypical connotations, opening doors to new, fresh imaginations.

Works Cited 

[1]Mr. Holmes. Directed by Bill Conden. Miramax, 2015.

[2]Mr. Holmes. Directed by Bill Conden.

[3]Mr. Holmes. Directed by Bill Conden.

[4]Field, Amanda J. “The Case of Multiplying Millions: Sherlock Holmes in Advertising.” Sherlock Holmes and Conan Doyle: Multi-Media Afterlives. Ed. Sabine Vanacker and Catherine Wynne. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013.  19-35. Print.

[5]Field, Amanda J. “The Case of Multiplying Millions: Sherlock Holmes in Advertising.” P. 23

[6]Field, Amanda J. “The Case of Multiplying Millions: Sherlock Holmes in Advertising.” Idem.

[7]Field, Amanda J. “The Case of Multiplying Millions: Sherlock Holmes in Advertising.” P. 20

[8]Field, Amanda J. “The Case of Multiplying Millions: Sherlock Holmes in Advertising.” Idem.

[9]Mr. Holmes. Directed by Bill Conden.

[10]Mr. Holmes. Directed by Bill Conden.

[11]Mr. Holmes. Directed by Bill Conden.

[12]Polasek, Ashley D. “Sherlockian Simulacra: Adaptation and the Postmodern Construction of Reality.” Literature/Film Quarterly 40.3 (2012): 191-196. ProQuest. Web. 10 Nov. 2016.

[13]Polasek, Ashley D. “Sherlockian Simulacra: Adaptation and the Postmodern Construction of Reality.” P. 191

[14]Polasek, Ashley D. “Sherlockian Simulacra: Adaptation and the Postmodern Construction of Reality.” P. 192

[15]Polasek, Ashley D. “Sherlockian Simulacra: Adaptation and the Postmodern Construction of Reality.” Idem.

[16]Polasek, Ashley D. “Sherlockian Simulacra: Adaptation and the Postmodern Construction of Reality.” Idem.

[17]Polasek, Ashley D. “Sherlockian Simulacra: Adaptation and the Postmodern Construction of Reality.” P. 195

[18]Polasek, Ashley D. “Sherlockian Simulacra: Adaptation and the Postmodern Construction of Reality.” P. 196

[19]Polasek, Ashley D. “Sherlockian Simulacra: Adaptation and the Postmodern Construction of Reality.” P. Idem.