Theme of Intertextuality: Various Screen Adaptations of Arthur Conan Doyle’s Character of Sherlock Holmes

Intertextuality was a term developed by Julia Kristeva in the 1960s in a response to Ferdinand de Saussure’s theory that symbols gain their meaning through repetition and structure in a particular text. Kristeva diverged his theory to her own, stating that readers are always influenced by other texts, either subconsciously or purposefully while reading a new text. She also stated that when writers use inspiration from other texts to imply into their own, all of the emotions and assumptions of the other text give rise to a new meaning and influence the way in which both the new and original texts are interpreted. This essay will examine the theme of intertextuality and the pleasure of repetition and variation in regard to various screen adaptations of Arthur Conan Doyle’s character of Sherlock Holmes. Originally perceived by Doyle in 1887, Holmes appeared in 56 short stories and has since been adapted for numerous films and TV shows, ultimately giving birth to the literary genre known as detective fiction. There are distinct features of Sherlock Holmes that allow him to be constantly conceptualized and re-formed, those being his brilliant eye for perception and high intellect, his frequent sociopathic behavior, a trustworthy partner, and his ability to combine logic with scientific reasoning.

There are multiple signature attires affiliated with the image of Sherlock Holmes, which have laid the foundations of the following detective characters, which include his deerstalker hat, smoking pipe, walking stick, and his violin. Although they are images all associated with Sherlock Holmes, it was originally Edgar Allan Poe who is considered to be the pioneer of men with brilliant investigative skills solving crimes whilst smoking a meerschaum pipe. A proclaimed admirer of Poe’s works, Doyle implemented many of the fundamental traits affiliated with Poe’s character C. Auguste Dupin, such as the relationship between the detective and his loyal, but not as brilliant assistant, who ultimately narrates the story. Apart from utilizing the formula of the modern detective story created by Poe, Doyle also adapted certain character traits for Sherlock Holmes. His obscure mind and selfish intellectual curiosity combined with his rather lonely lifestyle in which he demonstrates a lack of interest in women, and his pompous attitude towards the police is evident of Poe’s inspiration on Doyle. In the 1887 novel A Study in Scarlet, which marks the first appearance of Sherlock Holmes and Dr. John Watson, Watson says to Holmes “You remind me of Edgar Allan Poe’s Dupin. I had no idea that such individuals did exist outside of stories”, which is a further exemplification of how intertextuality has illuminated Doyle’s original Sherlock Holmes adventures.

The original image of Sherlock Holmes, inspired by C. Auguste Dupin, has inherently inspired modern television series such as House and Elementary. Although the sleuths in both House and Elementary have omitted the deerstalker hat and replaced the meerschaum pipe with a cigarette, House has also transformed the character from detective to diagnostician. The transposition from 19th century London to modern-day New Jersey and New York respectively enables for a modern re-visioning of the character while constantly paying homage to the works of Doyle. Dr. Gregory House in House is addicted to Vicodin, comparable with Holmes’ cocaine addiction, and shares Holmes’ address of 221B. Additionally, Dr. House only has one friend, James Wilson, who very similar to John Watson is the main caregiver to House and is always striving to help him overcome his drug addiction. Despite the 21st century settings of both House and Elementary, the sleuths from both shows still uphold the brilliant deductive skills of Sherlock Holmes, that of which James Wilson diagnoses Dr. House with what he calls the “Rubik’s Complex”, an obsessive-compulsive disorder to solve every puzzle in his wake. The emotional connection shared between Holmes and Watson is essential for depicting Holmes’ flaws, and is helped by Watson who “could elevate Holmes’ simple art, which is but systematized common sense, into a prodigy”. Ultimately, both House and Elementary have inherited the deception, high intellect, and occasional sociopathic behavior as personality traits for their protagonists, which are all necessary character traits in upholding and adapting the literary figure which helps identify the Sherlock Holmes character. Furthermore, both House and Elementary exhibit a similar technique to the way in which Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes goes about solving mysteries. He follows his analysis of the clues with his deductive reasoning with his famous quote “when you have excluded the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth”. House loosely refers to this quote when he is confronted with a scenario, as he first and foremost analyses the symptoms, creates a list of possible afflictions, and ultimately narrows down from the list until he comes to the most appropriate diagnosis and treatment. This form of intertextuality can ultimately be viewed as a technique to provide the audience with a sense of pleasure, forcing them to either subconsciously recall or trigger a sense of nostalgia towards previous Sherlock Holmes books and films.

Sherlock Holmes is a textual family which has been the subject of numerous parodies and pastiches. Author Nicholas Meyer has written three pastiches of Sherlock Holmes, The West End Horror, The Canary Trainer, and most notably The Seven-Per-Cent Solution, which was later adapted into a film directed by Herbert Ross, released in 1976. The Seven-Per-Cent Solution refers to two short stories, “The Final Problem” and “The Empty Houses,” which explore Sherlock Holmes’ death and resurrection. Both narrated by Dr. John Watson, he contends that the stories were constructed in order to hide a more severe tragedy that he went through during his adventures with Holmes. The Seven-Per-Cent Solution is a story about Watson’s last attempt to save Holmes from an evil which can be considered more deadly and sinister than any of his previous criminal mastermind foes. The book’s introduction by Watson discloses that there are several authentic Sherlock Holmes stories that are common throughout the cannon but are inherent “forgeries by hands other than mine”. When Holmes visits Watson sometime during 1891, Watson becomes instantly troubled by his sanity and sees that he has “fallen prey beyond redemption to the evils of cocaine”. Ultimately, Meyer’s story examines and hangs on two key elements present in Doyle’s works which are essential for crafting an intriguing pastiche. The relationship between Holmes and Watson, and the inclusion of a mystery for Holmes to solve rather than telling a story purely about drug addiction and recovery.  

07 July 2022
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