Women eh? Who are they and what do they want? This was the conundrum that bedevilled Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. As an author he made an imaginative leap that seems misjudged to this day. He dared to suggest that women were, to all intents and purposes, people too. To our eyes, as to those sunk in Victorian faces, females appeared slight, inconsequential creatures. They were little more than adjuncts to male sexuality and so of course, it remains. What separated them from men, those fully paid up members of the human race, was their soft intellect. Conan Doyle understood that women, though a feast for the eyes, were a hunger strike for the mind. Who could talk to them? Their obsession with whimsy and superficial toss, their odious materialism, their fixation on beauty, their lack of common sense; what a necropolis for substance!
Doyle knew that women made life a misery for the industrious half of the species and that’s why his hero, Sherlock Holmes, was blissfully unburdened by romantic entanglements. The author understood, as his readers did, that if Holmes were to succumb to the tyranny of romantic infatuation, if he allowed himself to be co-opted into madness by the animalistic imperative, then his masculine intellect, built on reason, clarity and the kind of self-confidence that you get straight out of the box when your penis is delivered, would be fatally compromised.
To underline this point he created, in A Scandal in Bohemia, a cautionary foe for the great detective, Irene Adler. Adler, who Doyle told us had “the face of the most beautiful of women” but also a male learning engine under the hood, was a Columbo prototype; she looked foolish, on account of her appearance, but her wits were weaponised.
I imagine that when you read the original story you shared readers’ concerns about Adler’s masculine abilities, despite being conscious of Doyle’s satirical intent. With no other advantages, we’d expect a lady character to use her femininity’s retarding effect on the male mind to give her the edge. What man, even Sherlock Holmes, could resist a pretty face, a well-apportioned chest and a bountiful rear, right? This has been the kryptonite of progress for generations. So yes, like us Steven, you read the original text and were befuddled. You thought this a joke too far.
I imagine Strand readers of 1891 shared your shock that Adler triumphed over the great detective using her brain. She wasn’t a damsel in distress, Holmes didn’t get to save her and she didn’t use her beauty to distract him – he saw her as nothing more than an actor in his latest case; no, when it came to it she simply outthought him and was gone before the pipe puffing genius knew what had happened. Conan Doyle created the female intellect for gawd sakes! Clearly you read the story and thought, like many Victorian conceits, how fanciful it seemed. I can therefore understand your decision to change it for this 21st century update.
It takes real bravery to mark up the shortcomings of a legendary scribe like Conan Doyle. I applaud you for refusing to play it safe. Your version of Adler made more sense to me, and I suspect to most of the 2012 audience. ‘Twas quite a wheeze, literalising the only thing we really knew about her, that she beat the men in her life, turning it into her profession. She’s a dominatrix! Naysayers, who like to tie their tackle to the feminist flagpole, will say this was only superficial smarts on your part. Sure, they’ll bleat, it gave “the woman” a modern pretext for procuring blackmail material while having a little fun with the character’s raison d’être, but it also relegated her to the status of a calculating prick tease. She’s still a brain but one that’s now using her sex to stay on top; her intellect, like a grateful sidecar passenger, invited to enjoy the ride. Brains is the new sexy, indeed!
Still relax, Steven. No matter how backward this seemed to some, I was fully on board. The new Adler was a woman I could understand. Her power came from her sexual yield. She was so conscious of this that she used her measurements as her safe’s password combination. It showed real masculine cunning to recast the character’s intellect as feminine complete with corresponding flaws. I hyenaed as I considered the millions of female viewers who’d be enamoured by this boisterous belle; you’d made them the perfect proxy. She was sassy but lost unless she was a sex object. The ladies would see her as a strong character, though we knew her to be weak: a woman utterly reliant on male patronage for sufficiency. In a society where the ladies objectify themselves to get on then tell themselves that’s independence, it was biting social commentary indeed. Better yet the fems that love the show but are unable or unwilling to extricate themselves from this feminine fallacy would love you for making Irene a seductress. You reasserted the male primacy that Conan Doyle had so carelessly ceded 120 years ago.
This Adler not only failed to beat Sherlock but, in a reassuring twist, was ultimately felled by her own feminine emotions. Let’s face it, she only got as far as she did with the help of your camp and juvenile Moriarty. She may have been a match for Holmes on paper, but when it came to the crunch she had no answer to the question his masculine logic posed. The final rug pulling moment, with Holmes saving Adler from death, saw the familiar pattern of gender relations fully restored. What a flourish, Steven! Purists won’t like it but I suspect that Arthur would have been quietly relieved. He knu he’d dun a bad.
As to the rest, I thought you did a reasonable job refurbishing Doyle’s story. With most of Europe having had sufficient nous to dismantle their monarchies and go for full democracy, it made sense to move the Royal portion closer to home. It was an enjoyable and necessary reminder that we remain a naïve and immature nation enamoured with fairytales about Prince and Princesses. Sherlock could have made the point that the real scandal was that the British people had a Royal Family at all, not that they’d care about their sexual proclivities, but it hardly needed saying. We know they’re all degenerates anyway, Steven; the shock would be to find out that they weren’t having every orifice plugged by ladies dressed as SS officers, at the taxpayer’s expense.
If the plot felt less assured when you ran out of source material (terrorist cells, the plane full of dead people from the movie Millennium), so what? I enjoyed the sharp one liners and Paul McGuigan’s direction; his style, the roving eye, is a good match for the detective’s method; though not the bromance, which though harmless enough, is fast becoming a bit of a Holmesian myth. Look, I know this is an update, and we’re all far less repressed these days, but it seems to me that any notion of Holmes and Watson as a couple misunderstands the dynamic of their relationship.
Theirs is a friendship built upon mutual respect and, in Watson’s case, intellectual curiosity. Watson was married at the start of A Scandal in Bohemia, so it’s fair to say that Sherlock wasn’t filling in as life partner, sub-consciously or not. I know audiences love this stuff – the Guy Ritchie movies are built on it – but between you and me, I find it rather tedious. Holmes and Watson are not in love, anymore than Holmes was in love with Irene Adler. He admires them both for their unique qualities, venerates them certainly, but love? That’s a stretch. Add elements by all means, Steven – update attitudes and situations, but don’t presume you know these characters better than Conan Doy- no wait, hang on…