Celebrities and icons, they are a staple in our lives constantly being showcased no matter where we go. We grow up idolizing them, praising their works, this can make them iconic within their own fields. However, these icons can also be fictional. Many a character from TV shows and books have become common household names due to their immense popularity. But none more than the greatest detective to ever walk the fictional works of Arthur Conan Doyle, the London sleuth himself, Sherlock Holmes. More than a century after first emerging into the fogbound, gas-lit streets of Victorian London, Sherlock Holmes is universally recognizable. His wardrobe comprising of the Inverness cape, deerstalker hat and the calabash pipe. With figures such as his best friend and housemate Dr John Watson, arch nemesis Moriarty and house keeper Mrs Hudson, Sherlock and his associates have become part of the popular consciousness, as have his infallible powers of deduction utilized in the name of law along with his catchphrase “Elementary, my dear Watson”. And yet many of his most recognizable features don’t appear in Arthur Conan Doyle’s original stories. So, who exactly is Sherlock Holmes? Who’s the real “great detective,” and where do we find him?
We can often see Conan’s Sherlock speculate, guess and even make false guesses. Furthermore Mrs. Hudson is barely mentioned, never does he say his iconic catchphrase, and his sidekick spend most of the time apart and even his arch nemesis Moriarty, is featured only in two stories. His drug use is infrequent after the first two novels and Holmes is seen preferring his own sense of justice rather than being enthralled by the English justice system. Even the most iconic elements of the Holmesian legend aren’t Doyle’s either. The cape and hat were imagined by Sidney Paget, the story’s initial illustrator, the curved pipe added by American theater actor William Gillete and his iconic phrase was coined by author and humorist P.G. Wodehouse. Thus, we can see that the Sherlock we know is vastly different than the one imagined by Sir Conan Doyle. Many believe that he was inspired by his university mentor Dr Joseph Bell. But today Doyle’s version has long since been eclipsed by various different interpretations of the character, making the original virtually unrecognizable. There have been thousands of adaptations of Holmes, making him one of the world’s most adapted fictional character. This process began with Victorian stage plays and has since accelerated with the emergence of film, there were more than 100 adaptations of Holmes in the first two decades of the 20th century alone. Adding to the fact many thousands more in print, film, television, stage and radio it makes much sense that the character would take on different variations as it is played on by different perspectives. To showcase this, we can see clearly that during the WWII Holmes was featured in a number of allied anti- Nazi propaganda, with both Churchill and Roosevelt being avid enthusiasts, going so far to name one secret base as Baker street. On the other side of the coin, we see that he was adapted in German as well some being the favorite of Hitler. Another can be seen in the modern era, the vast differences in Downey’s and Cumberbatch’s portrayal of the same character. While the soul of the character stays the same, he simply dons different characteristics with each portrayal. So, the truth is that this world of adaptations has made him a palimpsest.
Sherlock is a cultural text, repeatedly altered over time as each new interpretation is superimposed over the earlier one. One can almost see Sherlock like a phoenix, rising anew from its predecessor’s ashes, thus continually evolving embodying ideas and values far removed from those in Conan Doyle’s version. But never the less, the baker street resident will forever be the greatest detective of all times, Sherlock Holmes.