Not The Ideal Holmes


Recently there’s been much talk in the creative community about IPs. The intellectual property rights of characters are being sought out as never before because in uncertain times they come with built-in buyers. The most well-known characters are the most valuable, and they’re usually the simplest and easiest to grasp. That’s what keeps Sherlock Holmes at the top of the table. His adventures, spin-offs and ‘reimaginings’ keep an industry afloat.

You’d have to be a surly curmudgeon not to enjoy ‘Enola Holmes’, a film about Sherlock’s young sister based on a series of American YA novels, but I’m willing to have a go.

I’m in the minority, but I have a point to make. This is Conan Doyle rewritten for Generation Bunty, feisty girl power substituting for Victorian creepiness and fan service pandering to the present while paying lip service to the past. But why not? It’s simply another perfectly acceptable reiteration of Holmes, this time for teenaged girls. Heaven knows the rock-solid IP can stand it. One of my favourite reinventions is the delightful ‘Without A Clue’, in which Michael Caine plays a hopeless Holmes to Ben Kingsley’s secret genius Watson. But that wasn’t pandering to a specific demographic.

‘You must paint your own picture,’ says Enola’s mother (Helena Bonham-Carter), ‘and not listen to what others say, especially men.’ Holmes, who did exactly the opposite, is not impressed. In the most perverse piece of miscasting imaginable, he’s played by iron-jawed Henry ‘Superman’ Cavill. But a now-vile Mycroft is the real villain here because he thinks Enola should have more discipline. He’s right, of course, but who needs to study scientific evidence when you can believe in yourself? The dumping of rationality in favour of the kind of self-belief that leads to anti-vaxxing sympathies is very now, just not very Conan Doyle. Enola has had self-confidence instilled by her mother; you can be whatever you want.

But it’s hard to see what Millie Bobby Brown’s Enola has inherited from her scientific family other than overwhelming self-confidence. She pouts and barks and threatens, confusing assertiveness with rudeness. She solves a few rudimentary clues, ticks people off and stamps her foot at them. ‘The Railway Children’ did this without condescension or sentiment (except where appropriate – the ending), but today’s children need affirmation, and Enola needs lots of it.

Everyone tells us she is special but we see no evidence of this. She certainly doesn’t have her brother’s razor-sharp mind (not that we see much evidence of that in him either). When realising that her mother has gone missing she does not attempt to determine any logistics, the where, when, why, how and who of the case, and though she announces that the game is afoot it really doesn’t seem to be. Determination can’t simply be conveyed by striding about with brows furrowed, complaining.

The period furnishings are of course utterly exquisite yet the dialogue is tone-deaf and anachronistic. ‘It’s not one of my core strengths’ says Enola at one point, sounding like a PowerPoint presentation. She’s been trained in martial arts, of course, a popular obsession of Edwardian girls along with flower arranging and suffrage marches. It’s all delightfully tick-boxy; a very unthreatening boy whips her up a vegetarian meal, and happens to be a lord, which would mark him down as potentially insane in my book.

Enola realises her name is an anagram of Alone, but that’s one thing she never is. She’s forever surrounded by people paying court. Perhaps unearned respect is all Gen Z wants. Enola wants to play the part, so she spends more time choosing an outfit than doing boring old investigation. It’s Holmes as a cosplay game, free of real threat or indeed real life.

Behind the scenes, an unseemly fight broke out when the Conan Doyle lawyers sued Netflix. The author died in 1930 and while most of his writing is in the public domain, ten stories about the detective remain under copyright in the US. In the UK, where rights last for 70 years after an author’s death, all Holmes stories are out of copyright. 

The lawsuit argued that Conan Doyle created significant new character traits for Holmes and Watson in the stories written between 1923 and 1927. Holmes was previously depicted as aloof and unemotional, but this magically changed in the last ten stories, and as the film projected the more human Holmes the makers had infringed copyright. Nice try, creeps; the case was dismissed and the lawyers slunk back to their caves.

Anyway, the film’s a hit so there’ll be more to come. 

20 comments on “Not The Ideal Holmes”

  1. Margaret says:

    The books were enjoyable. The film bore little resemblance to them.

  2. Bernard says:

    Tried to watch this a while ago but gave up and retained almost no memory of it. Your explanation of the film’s failings is perfect. Thank you.

  3. Vic says:

    Tried a couple of Holmes look-alike books including one where he is married. No more. Legal plagerism? Having said that I have enjoyed two of Brandreth’s Oscar Wilde books.

    … and your chat on the Joined Up Writing podcast.

  4. John+Griffin says:

    The film lost me early on with anachronistic dialogue.
    However I did like Cavill as a paradoxical Holmes, there are some things you can mess with. I like the Rathbone Holmes, despite the incorrect Watson, Cumberbatch with the more accurate Watson (I waxed lyrical over Freeman’s soldier Watson!), and really enjoyed the Downey/Law combo riff.

  5. SteveB says:

    Perhaps unearned respect is all Gen Z wants

    I think that may be a very astute comment

    By the way, may I mention …
    I’m insanely excited about this!!!

  6. Bruce+Rockwood says:

    My granddaughter in Scotland enjoyed the film, and we did too here in the States. I can grant all your objections to the treatment as reflecting current tastes among YA fans and the mis- casting of Sherlock in the film. But it may entice a new generation of readers. Cuts in library funding has undercut support for building a new community of readers, so I have no problem with anything that reaches out to them. See also the modernization of myth in the various Rick Riordan YA series!

  7. Ian Luck says:

    ‘Without A Clue’ is a lovely movie, featuring one of my favourite lines of dialogue from any movie:
    “He was hit over the head with a blunt excrement…”

  8. Sarah+Griffin says:

    Thank you for giving precious time to review this…… you have saved me a feature length film piece of time that I will invest in a long walk with trees. Mentally and physically a much better decision all round.

  9. Brooke says:

    Tag this “crapification of everything.” Otherwise known as Gresham’s Law–the debased drives out the good. Copycats leech on originals.

  10. Brian+Evans says:

    Ian, It’s a great line and I love the film. Off topic I know but can’t resist-one of my fave lines is Jessie Matthews in “Gangway.” in describing a show she saw the previous night. After running every act down she ended: “….and with a chorus of 40 who looked everyday of it”

  11. Helen+Martin says:

    Brooke, is this dismal year getting to you at last? Re-use of characters is all over the place.Have you ever read the Flashman books? Taking a character from a book and imagining their later life is certainly not “crapification” since it gives you a different point of view. I haven’t seen any written to explain how a character turned into ‘that’ but it would certainly be a challenge. It wouldn’t be as interesting a book,though, probably, as the ones that tell you whatever happened to…
    By the way, Bellingcat says it doesn’t matter the source of information as long as you have double checked its accuracy.

  12. Brooke says:

    Greetings, Helen. How about dismal year and a half! Btw, you just confirmed my point–copying characters is all over the place, and turning the copy-cat work into a monetized IP.
    Bellingcat…well yeah they would say that… “information” may be accurate in the sense that person X did say Y. But in what context?


  13. Mladen says:

    I think it’s a little unfair to label gen-z yet. This movie was made FOR them but not BY them. It’s the current adult’s vision of what Gen-Z want, but that might not prove to be the case.

  14. admin says:

    That’s a very good point. All our entertainment is what others choose for us. This is why I stay away from Hollywood movies (MCU excepted, of course!)

  15. Peter+Dixon says:

    Dr Who has gone through more iterations than any fictional character I can think of but still remains Dr Who. Who exists as him/herself alongside the Tardis and a companion. Holmes exists alongside Watson. Philip Marlowe is on his own, as are all of his copies (Lew Archer, Parker and a baker’s dozen others). Somehow no-one has been able to rework Biggles or The Famous Five into new realms.

  16. Peter+T says:

    Most important of all, how would (or does) Holmes feel about it?

  17. John+Griffin says:

    Apropos Dr Who, and referencing this ‘character’ debate, Jo Martin as the ‘fugitive doctor’ to me seemed a truer incarnation of the classic Who than Whittaker, despite being further away from the white male template.

  18. Jan says:

    I loved “Without a clue” it’s a smashing picture.

    There’s a great scene I think when Holmes and Watson- or rather Watson + Holmes in this particular film- have gone off to the Lake District. At Watson’s request in order to distract the crowd/ audience Holmes gets the magnifying glass out and starts looking for physical evidence on the path they are following and sort of asks Watson what he should be searching for. I can’t exactly remember the wording. (Been a long day) but it always makes me smile.

    It was such a cracking idea for a film. Both funny and still a mystery its a real pity even though it was essentially a one joke set up that it’s not more widely appreciated.

  19. Jan says:

    Thinking on it I also enjoyed “Young Sherlock” was it a Spielberg production? The film where Holmes and Watson meet as schoolboys. Mind you that was largely because of a bit of a personal joke that arose from one of the scenes in the film that added to me enjoyment of the story no end!

    The Moriarty character in “Young Sherlock” was the business as well and it was a great sort of prequel to the Holmes / Moriarty dynamic that developed through the novels. It’s also one of the very few films were you should stay put and watch right to the very very end….

    I’ve never really got my head round this I.P. Issue.

    Seems awful tricksy to me that some bird can decide to write a novel about the 1st Mrs Rochester. Or another author gets approved to knock out a few more Poirot, or James Bond novels.
    How’s that really work then?

    Granted theres an appetite for such work but can it be really right that the Christie/ Fleming descendents or book publishers get to choose stuff like this? How’s it work really? Is it /can it be right?

    I dunno I’m only on here because I went outside to watch the Lyrid Meteors and the moons too bloody bright to see much.

    Night night, got to be up early.

    The “Star TrekTNG” episodes featuring Moriarty, more the 2nd one, are pretty special. Especially Captains Picards musings on the solution to the Moriarty problem.

  20. Paul+C says:

    House of Silk by Anthony Horowitz is the best Holmes novel I’ve read in recent years. The worst are those where Holmes enters the world of H P Lovecraft – the ones I’ve read are dire.

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