[ Book-watching ] Sherlock Holmes is kind of an asshole

I have a confession that will likely knock me down several literary pegs: I’ve never read a single Sherlock Holmes story.

Now, that isn’t to say that I’m totally ignorant on the subject. I’ve watched the newest BBC re-visioning of the character, sat through several lectures on him in college lit courses, and–of course–pretty much have the Wishbone episode of “The Hounds of Baskerville” memorized. But as far as actually picking up the source material, I’ve just never really been interested.

But in order to fulfil my book-watching duties for Game of Shadows, the most recent installment of the Robert Downey  Jr. version of the character, I decided to suck it up and grab a recording of  The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes off Audible. I only made it about halfway through the third story before I came to the follow conclusion: Sherlock Holmes is kind of a pretentious dick.

“Well duh,” says my roommate when I unveil this revelation. “That’s sort of the point of the character. He’s wicked smart and not afraid to show off his brains.”

“But he’s a jerk!” I counter. “How did he get to be such a popular heroic character?”

“Because everyone loves a smartass.”

That I definitely could disagree with. And it explains why I like the visual versions of Holmes more. I don’t like my literary characters being smart-mouthed unless they regularly pay for such lip (see: Harry Dresden). With Holmes, it appears that he can be smart allecky as can be and never pay a price (note: as I’ve only actually listened to one-tenth of one book, this assumption may be very, very wrong). Perhaps that’s why I enjoyed Game of Shadows so much; every punch Holmes received was well-deserved.

Game of Shadows picks up not too terribly long after the events in the first film, but much has changed.  Holmes is tipping farther into the land of manic genius as he tries to unravel the person behind the rash of terrorist bombings that have taken place throughout London and other major cities in Europe.  Enter Professor Moriarty, played wonderfully by Jared Harris, who sets into motion a frantic trip around Europe to not only stop the continent from going to war, but also save what Holmes holds most dear: namely a highly perturbed Dr. John Watson.

One of the biggest complaints from the original movie was the Holmes was far too much of an action hero. Purists (chief among them being Canary the First) wanted their Holmes to be just as he was in the books: battling only with brains and never with fists. That makes for fairly boring cinema. However, I feel as though director Guy Ritchie took some of the braying to heart. There are more sequences of Holmes precisely dissecting a fight before it happens, filmed through neat slow-motion shots while Holmes gives a running internal dialogue of his predicted moves. The mystery in this film is also much more complex than the first, giving Holmes more time to shine as the brainiac he is.

There were times, though, when this giant mystery seemed to overwhelm the film. Part of what made the first movie so enchanting was the narrow focus–one case that never took the pair outside of London. The gallivanting trip across countries made for an awful lot of continual rehashing and re-positioning of plot that made a good chunk of the story seem like mere check marks on a list. Plot pieces didn’t always surface seamlessly; sometimes they had to be jerked full force into the light so that Holmes and Watson could move on to their next port of call.

That said, the movie was great fun. Jude Law’s Watson in particular was highly entertaining, with his dry humor and logic offering the perfect foil to Holmes insanity. Robert Downey Jr. is still the perfect casting for the role of Holmes (regardless of what Canary the First may think), striking just the right balance between crazy and gifted. And he’s still definitely an asshole. But at least he gets punched for it.


Happy Birthday, Holmes! (Born January 6, 1854)


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13 thoughts on “[ Book-watching ] Sherlock Holmes is kind of an asshole

  1. I’ve never been a huge fan of the AC Doyle Holmes — that combination of too dry and too verbose just left me looking for something else.

    I agree with Canary the First mostly that I think Holmes was a little too action-hero-y in the first movie mostly because Holmes should be out out-THINKING your adversary, not out-muscling them. That said, I thought the first flick was fun and like I said, I’m not enough of a Holmes fanboy to take too much offense.

    Have you watched the PBS/BBC “Sherlock”? It’s updated for the 21st century and the writers have completely nailed the genius/prick duality in Holmes.

    • Yes! I have really enjoyed what I’ve seen of that series so far. It’s a character that I can better get behind.

  2. It’s really hard not to look like a prick when everyone else is so astoundingly dull; if anything I find that one part of Holmes astonishingly realistic. This also holds true for Francis Crawford.

    An incredibly smart person who is also interested in the obvious doings of us humdrum types is therefore either not so smart or is secretly being cynical and mocking behind our backs. Therefore, an overt prick is more trustworthy than the secret mocker.

    In a way this applies to fiction also. An author capable of writing a super-smart character is to be strongly suspected of writing farce or satire when writing a thickie action hero.

    FWIW, Arthur Conan Doyle /did/ write an action hero. Brigadier Gerard – thick as a brick but the best blade in 5 armies. And the Brigadier Gerard stories are _very much_ a satire of English manner and custom during and after era of the Napoleonic wars.

  3. I completely agree with you: AC Doyle’s character is a prick and deserves to be smashed in the face, repeatedly. He should have no friends at all, not even one, and I hate him. So, yes, I also put down the Sherlock novels and focused on the Guy Richie movies, which I love.

    The reason I really like them isn’t just because Sherlock gets punched though, it’s because Watson gets to shine: he can fight, he figures things out, he’s not just there to say “Blimey Charlie, that’s some smart thinking you’d gone an’ done there Mr Sherlock,” you know what I mean?

    • Hahaha yours is so much more accurate though! I’m glad to find that I’m not the only one who feels this way about him.

  4. I’m going to go against the grain and say I actually enjoy the occasional literary asshole. His genius and his friendship with Watson are the redeeming points to his abrasive nature and drug addiction.

    …As an additional disclaimer, I’m a longtime fan of “House,” and just realized I like the eponymous character for the exact same reasons. Wilson and Watson are only different by two letters. Good Lord.

  5. The cool thing about Holmes being an asshole is because it makes him a flawed hero. I’ve always thought the classic hero character to be boring. I don’t like the original Sherlock stories either because they seem riddled with cliches, even though I know the cliches originated from those stories.
    And, for the record, the only reason I put together the House/Holmes connection, is because in the first season, it shows his address is 22B Baker St. 🙂

    • I completely missed the street clue! It makes me wonder whether any of the House episodes paralleled the Holmes adventures. Were there any women who prefered red…? Now I kinda wanna rewatch the first couple seasons.

      If you enjoyed House and love Holmes’ snarky, prickly personality, you will love the new British Sherlock Holmes series called “Sherlock”. It’s so, so good. Watch it and we can fangirl about it together. 🙂

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