It’s official. Sherlock Holmes no longer belongs to Conan Doyle. He belongs to the world. So ruled a federal judge in Chicago last December when the estate of Sir Arthur sued Leslie Klinger, editor of The New Annotated Sherlock Holmes, over copyright violations. The ruling followed one made earlier in England and raises a curiosity in my mind about how this fictional character became a cultural myth. (“A Study in Sherlock,” by Laura Miller, Harper’s, May 2014, pg. 89-94.)
Certainly, Holmes is beloved round the globe and the versions of his life are many. We’ve seen him as mature, young, a patriot, and even depicted as someone mentally disturbed, as in the current television series, Elementary. Robert Downey gave the character comic overtones and Basil Rathbone’s 1940s films played him as seriously serious. I confess I like those old films, but I also have a special fondness for Jeremy Brett’s PBS series, as well. I’ve even room on my list of favorites to include Benedict Cumberbatch’s young Sherlock in the current Masterpiece Theater run.
Would Doyle have had a preference for any of these depictions, I wonder? Probably not. Having failed to kill off his character in his lifetime, the writer washed his hands of the fellow and gave license to anyone interested in Sherlock to, “Marry him, murder him, or do what you like with him.” (Ibid pg. 90)
Writers have taken Doyle at his word, as we have seen. But enough continuity remains so that Sherlock Holmes, even without his pipe, is recognizable throughout the world. He is a fictional character grown to mythic proportions in the imagination of others and allowed, therefore, to cast a shadow greater than the one his creator envisioned.
Not all authors are so cavalier about their characters as Doyle. For years, J.L. Travers resisted Walt Disney’s request to make a film of Mary Poppins, and when Agatha Christie saw what movie people had done with Miss Marple, she slammed the door on their further attempts to add another sequel.
I’m not sure how I would feel about people tampering with my fictional characters. My first reaction might be to give them a swift kick in the pants. But Sherlock Holmes’ example gives me pause. Is it better for my characters to remain pristine and unread, or would I be willing to allow them to extended their lives in the imagination of others? Cast in this light, I’d say the answer to my question is elementary.
(Courtesy of Wikipedia.com)