Sidekicks and Illusory Protagonists

I adore Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories. I love the setting, the atmosphere, the feel of these stories. I love the characters and the way they deal with their world. They are unendingly fascinating — and at their best, they are not entirely what they appear to be. Not every tale is a great one. Some are short and shallow, and devoted entirely to using Holmes’ deductions in the place of a flimsy sort of deus ex machina. The best ones, through, see Holmes and Watson alike struggling with the implications of a difficult puzzle, a struggle made all the more acute by Holmes’ own strange shortcomings. Their author was not, we must admit it, particularly good at or interested in character development, but when it works best for him, he gives us something fascinating.

It is not an accident that the best character moments in these stories, I think, are those moments when we learn something about Watson (our erstwhile narrator) in the process of learning something about Holmes. This is one of the things that’s so brilliant about A Study in Scarlet and The Sign of Four, both of which use the conceit of Watson’s writing notes about Holmes’ cases to its best advantage. We get the picture of a competent, slightly damaged man at loose ends with himself who finds purpose in tending and observing the eccentricities of a man whose brilliance is connected to even deeper damage and strangeness. In these mystery stories, the really interesting mystery, the one that captivates Watson completely, is never really solved. We never, in the end, entirely understand Holmes, and because he defies (our/Watson’s) comprehension, we keep trying. For all we are shown Holmes’ restless, terrible need to be challenged, in the end (perhaps by accident) what the reader discovers is that Watson is just as bad — it’s just that where Holmes needs complex puzzles to keep his mind busy, Watson has found in Holmes a single puzzle worth obsessing over.

This is why, for me, the test of a good adaptation of a Holmes story (in print or on film) has little to do with Holmes himself, or with the details of the location or time period. The real test of a good Holmes adaptation is whether or not it gets Watson right. One of the reasons I adore Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe stories (and Stout was a famous Holmes fan — “The Rubber Band” is essentially an Americanized update of “The Sign of Four”) is that Archie Goodwin is Watson done right. It’s why I’m fond of Neil Gaiman’s tricky “A Study in Emerald” as well — he takes loving care of these characters, mostly by appropriating the narrative voice of a pseudo-Watson. Oh, and the Cthulhu stuff was awesome there, too.

What? I like Lovecraft, too.

On film, sadly, Watson has not always fared so well, and in the popular imagination he is mostly reduced to being a sort of hapless bumbler. The Basil Rathbone/Nigel Bruce films of the 30s and 40s, while entertaining, did horrible damage to Watson’s character. I like these films on their own, of course (mostly because I adore Basil Rathbone as an actor), but the people who wrote them missed Watson entirely. They made the mistake that it is all too easy to make when we internalize Watson’s narrative voice to watch Holmes: they made Holmes the main character, without realizing that the real protagonist of these stories is Watson, for whom Holmes is the great mystery. Later television adaptations allowed Watson to be more respectable, but in taking the eye of the camera and the narrative voice of the tale away from him, they reduced him to sidekick status. Seldom, if ever, did they let the audience see the world from Watson’s perspective, and in so doing they emptied the stories of what made them truly brilliant. This is why I liked the recent Guy Ritchie-directed Holmes movie so much (in spite of some its weird shortcomings) — it gave its audience a proper Watson, a protagonist in his own right, in addition to letting Holmes be the star. It took seriously the codependent nature of the Holmes/Watson relationship.

I think, though, that I’ve finally found an adaptation on film that speaks best to what I want in Watson and Holmes alike: The new BBC television series Sherlock, which I hope and pray will let these characters grow the way it’s already started them. It steps right from the very beginning by starting, not with Holmes, but with Watson. We are given his point of view as an anchor in ordinariness (although it becomes clear that he is, deep down, not nearly so ordinary as he seems) before we ever meet Holmes (who describes himself in this series as “a high-functioning sociopath” — possibly the most accurate description of him one could ask for). This show, if it goes well (oh, how I hope series 2 is as good as series 1…) could accomplish something that Sir Arthur Conan Doyle never quite managed: credible and appropriate and interesting growth for these characters, while still preserving the tension and mystery that lets their relationship work so well.

I can hope, anyway.


About L. M. Bernhardt

For a good long while (15 years or so), I taught philosophy at a little private university in northwest IA, and occasionally branched out into playing music, dabbling in photography, experimenting with food, and writing nonsense on my blog. The philosophy teaching part ended in 2017 (program elimination via prioritization), but never fear! I've just finished my MLIS at San Jose State University, and I'm currently on the market looking for new adventures in either philosophy or LIS. For now, I labor at a fairly interesting administrative job in order to support my dogs in the lavish manner to which they've become accustomed.
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