Will the real Sherlock Holmes please stand up?

I’m going to wind up my exploration of pulp mysteries with the ultimate pulp detective of them all—Sherlock Holmes.  And for any of my regular readers, the fact that I’ve chosen Zero Effect with Bill Pullman and Ben Stiller instead of the more obvious selections like Hound of the Baskervilles shouldn’t be a surprise.  And, just like when we looked at Warren Beatty as an ersatz James Bond back in the discussion of Kaleidoscope, the only way we get to such unlikely casting is by examining an unauthorized project from the margins.

As it happens, it is that aspect of Zero Effect—its status as an authorized adaptation—that is the focal point of our story this week.  So—click to open the fold and let’s take a journey through the tangled jungle of Sherlock Holmes’ complicated rights issues.

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To see what’s screwy about Sherlock Holmes, and how it gives rise to things like Zero Effect, let’s first look at a more representative approach to a long-running pop culture icon—James Bond.  There are established media institutions that administer the ongoing intellectual property rights in the character—one entity manages the literary copyright, and another handles the movie versions.  And between them they keep James Bond a viable presence in pop culture in multiple manifestations.  There is the main avenue of expression, in which Skyfall counts as the most recent, but there are other versions like the video games or the “Young Bond” novels that cater to different, more niche, markets.

This is a common, and effective, business model.  Take just about any long-running character and you’ll find the same paradigm.

Matt Smith plays the most current Doctor Who in a version pitched at the widest, most expansive mass audience, while alternate takes are also crafted in audio plays, comic books, novels and so on for a variety of other, more targeted, audience groups.

The Dark Knight Rises showed Batman in his most widely seen and appreciated manifestation, while different Batmen roam the pages of comic books, animated TV shows, or video games.

batman-arkham-asylum-wallpaper-2 The Dark Knight batman-6

I’d go on, but you get the idea.  The owners of a copyright in a beloved, long-running character have an incentive to make the primary official iteration of that character be the one that connects most effectively with mass tastes and contemporary relevance, and represented in whatever media is best suited to conveying that version.  Meanwhile, the other facets of the character can be experimented with in other media where the stakes are lower.  Properly marketed, these alternate versions of a character don’t compete with or undermine the primary version, and allow the copyright holders to craft multiple successful versions of the same property for a wide array of individual audiences.

But, this approach depends on a strong copyright holder exercising their legal controls with care and attention.

And that brings us to Sherlock Holmes.  There is an enduring estate for Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, represented by lawyers who assert their copyright control over aspects of the Sherlock Holmes concept, and the bigger media companies with skittier risk management officers may sign license agreements with these lawyers just to avoid trouble, but the fact is that nearly all of the actual Holmes books are now in the public domain.

This has two consequences: the first is that the so-called copyright holders have almost no leverage to control their licensees and kind of have to take whatever they get.  Toho can famously stipulate exactly how many toes Godzilla is allowed to have when depicted by licensees, but the Doyle estate must count themselves lucky anytime anyone agrees to pay for a license at all, and that desperation does not allow for much oversight.  The second consequence is that any number of non-licensed variants can proliferate in the marketplace in competition, with limited recourse for the rights holders or their licensees to police.

Between these two facts, a single result has emerged: we now have three major versions of Sherlock Holmes all targeting essentially the same audience with essentially the same fundamental commercial agenda but with different creative aesthetics.  Will the real Sherlock Holmes please stand up?

sherlock_holmes_bbc_tv_series_image_01-600x450 170181 Sherlock-Holmes-006

The noisiest of these Sherlocks, both figuratively and literally, are Guy Ritchie’s big budget popcorn movies starring Robert Downey Jr. and Jude Law.  Although set in the Victorian period in which the original novels emerged, these films have the DNA of a 21st century adrenaline-addled action blockbuster—they are basically Die Hard in the Nineteenth Century.

Meanwhile the BBC have created a TV version written by Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss that resets the original Doyle stories in the modern day.  Stars Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman use smart phones, blogs, and other information age technology to solve crimes—but while the veneer and pace of the series is decidedly contemporary, the makers are carefully writing the adaptations to be recognizable to fans of the books—and in fact, in England, the original novels have now seen a boost in sales and a new readership brought in thanks to the TV series.  Reprints of the novels sport covers adorned with the faces of Cumberbatch and Freeman.

And just a couple of months ago, CBS joined the party with their own modern-day TV version, starring Jonny Lee Miller and Lucy Liu.  I haven’t seen enough of Elementary to comment on it beyond noting that its similarity to BBC’s Sherlock is significant enough to have led to discussions of possible lawsuits.  Regardless of whether a lawsuit is ever filed, and regardless of who would ultimately prevail in court, the mere fact that a lawsuit is even considered is mind-boggling.

Jerry Faces 11_10_2005_nonames

If all of the various adaptations of Sherlock Holmes had been administered, managed, and controlled by a central authority, the possible clashes between competing visions would be kept at bay.  In this instance, the crux of the conflict between CBS and BBC is not whether each party is free to do a Sherlock Holmes TV show—that is taken as a given.  What’s in dispute is whether the specific details of the modern-day setting in CBS’ version encroach on the creative ideas of Moffat and Gatiss.

And meanwhile, another creator altogether made it to market with a modern day Sherlock Holmes before either of them.

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Let’s look at the various ways in which Zero Effect overlaps with the current batch of high-profile Sherlock adaptations:

  • Emphasizes the detective’s drug addiction (see also Elementary)
  • Emphasizes the detective’s anti-social tendencies (see also Sherlock and Sherlock Holmes)
  • Avoids the cliché of the bumbling Dr. Watson and presents the side-kick as the detective’s human face (see also Sherlock, Sherlock Holmes, and Elementary)
  • Adapts the Doyle story A Scandal in Bohemia (see Sherlock, season two)
  • Was adapted into a pilot for a TV series (the Zero Effect series was not picked up, but nonetheless see also Sherlock and Elementary)
  • Has scenes in which the detective’s voice-over narration explains to the audience his peculiar techniques (see also Sherlock Holmes)

I suppose I should explain why I’ve been referring to the hero of Zero Effect as “the detective” instead of Sherlock Holmes—as I mentioned above, this is a “secret” adaptation, in which Bill Pullman plays Darryl Zero, a reclusive and troubled consulting detective who communicates with clients and the outside world only through his lawyer Steve Arlo (Ben Stiller).  Arlo is approached by a rich man (Ryan O’Neal) who wants to enlist Zero’s expertise in rooting out a blackmail plot.  Zero quickly finds the blackmailer (Kim Dickens) but finds his own attraction to her compromises his professional objectivity.  There is a larger conspiracy afoot, and figuring out who are the real bad guys and who are the real victims will take Arlo’s full concentration.

In other words, it’s Scandal in Bohemia with the names changed, right?  So the question is, why change the names?

To answer that question, let’s look again at the current crop of Sherlocks.  Without the top-down control of a copyright holder enforcing a single vision of what the official presentation should be, and which should be relegated to the experimental fringes, we have an unruly cluster of competing visions that have all converged on the same basic idea: to modernize Sherlock Holmes.  Each one takes a different path to that goal, but all three seem enervated by the idea that the concept of Sherlock Holmes is a viable commercial property worth pursuing, but that the traditional execution of that concept needs to be avoided.

Except, on closer examination, BBC’s Sherlock actually does believe in the original Sherlock Holmes, and has maintained a fannish respect and commitment to Doyle’s original stories.

And that’s where Zero Effect comes in.  Its makers—principally writer-director Jake Kasdan—understood that the original Doyle stories became popular in the first place because they are exceptionally well-told, but that over the years the various adaptations into movies and other media layered a host of extraneous baggage onto the name Sherlock Holmes.  Audiences respond to that name, but come in with burdensome expectations of deerstalker caps and curvy pipes, of “Elementary my dear Watson” catch phrases and the like.  By skirting the name Sherlock, Zero Effect gets to enjoy the inherent value of Doyle’s excellent story construction without having to contend with the distracting audience expectations that would otherwise attend it.

Sherlock has found clever ways to bring the deerstalker hat and such clichés into play, but Zero Effect simply ignored the bits of Holmes lore it didn’t need.

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There was a trade-off: Zero Effect was hard to market without its most obvious brand name.  The title doesn’t easily signal what to expect from the film—and the casting may have misled some people into expecting a comedy. If the figures on the Internet Movie Database are to be believed, it lost money in the U.S., despite strong critical reviews.  By contrast, Sherlock has been a massive hit in the UK and a decent hit in the US as well (by the standards of an import airing on PBS)—but the comparative advantage of exploiting the name recognition of Sherlock Holmes forced its makers to content with the extra baggage.

The fact that the popularity of Sherlock has triggered a resurgent interest in Doyle’s writing by a younger audience that was previously unfamiliar with them is a sign that whatever market draw the name Sherlock Holmes has, it is not the truth that audiences are tired of the original Holmes stories.  Most people today don’t even know them.  And so whatever limited audience Zero Effect had could sit and enjoy a not altogether unfaithful adaptation of Sherlock Holmes without ever even realizing it.

0 Response Will the real Sherlock Holmes please stand up?
Posted By Tom S : December 8, 2012 12:36 pm

As I recall, there was a lot of discussion about how the series House was also a secret Holmes adaptation (House? Get it?) with criminal detection transposed back into medical diagnosis, reversing one of Conan Doyle’s original strokes in creating his character. House is a prickly, brilliant drug addict who prefers to work outside the normal system, who has a Watson like assistant with whom he has a complementary relationship, and who is always the last stop when people don’t know where else to turn in solving a tricky problem.

In that case, I’m guessing they didn’t name the character Holmes because people would have been confused that he wasn’t actually a detective, and also because it would have constrained them in some ways. Also, the craze for reboots and reinterpretations of characters has picked up since about 2006, with Casino Royale and Batman Begins, and House predates those, so it might not have had the same marketing cache.

Posted By Tom S : December 8, 2012 12:36 pm

As I recall, there was a lot of discussion about how the series House was also a secret Holmes adaptation (House? Get it?) with criminal detection transposed back into medical diagnosis, reversing one of Conan Doyle’s original strokes in creating his character. House is a prickly, brilliant drug addict who prefers to work outside the normal system, who has a Watson like assistant with whom he has a complementary relationship, and who is always the last stop when people don’t know where else to turn in solving a tricky problem.

In that case, I’m guessing they didn’t name the character Holmes because people would have been confused that he wasn’t actually a detective, and also because it would have constrained them in some ways. Also, the craze for reboots and reinterpretations of characters has picked up since about 2006, with Casino Royale and Batman Begins, and House predates those, so it might not have had the same marketing cache.

Posted By Doug : December 8, 2012 8:59 pm

I’ve seen a few episodes of the Beeb’s “Sherlock”-good entertainment, solid production. I recall the name “Zero Effect” but never saw it, had no idea of its parentage.
David, remember “Without a Clue”? Michael Caine and Ben Kingsley grinning their way through a fun Holmes adventure, with the very beautiful Lysette Anthony along for the ride.

Posted By Doug : December 8, 2012 8:59 pm

I’ve seen a few episodes of the Beeb’s “Sherlock”-good entertainment, solid production. I recall the name “Zero Effect” but never saw it, had no idea of its parentage.
David, remember “Without a Clue”? Michael Caine and Ben Kingsley grinning their way through a fun Holmes adventure, with the very beautiful Lysette Anthony along for the ride.

Posted By Larry Thompson : December 9, 2012 1:15 pm

A couple of summers ago in anticipation of the RD Jr. new version to come I watch every Sherlock reel and spoof from Barrymore to Caine but I missed this film. I went to Amazon and rented it for 48 hours and $2.99 and I loved it. Bill Pullman and Ben Stiller were both great and the Jr. Kasaden did a fan update that in the light of BBC and CBS saw into the future.

Posted By Larry Thompson : December 9, 2012 1:15 pm

A couple of summers ago in anticipation of the RD Jr. new version to come I watch every Sherlock reel and spoof from Barrymore to Caine but I missed this film. I went to Amazon and rented it for 48 hours and $2.99 and I loved it. Bill Pullman and Ben Stiller were both great and the Jr. Kasaden did a fan update that in the light of BBC and CBS saw into the future.

Posted By Susan Doll : December 9, 2012 1:38 pm

Interesting account of copyright issues, especially regarding Holmes. And, I had no idea Zero Effect was Holmes related. I have never seen it, but at one time it must have had a cable presence, because I remember being curious about it. However, it has Ben Stiller, which was a sure indicator that I would not watch it, not even on cable. I was interested in the new CBS version with Jonny Lee Miller, but I never found out what night it was on. It didn’t seem to get much buzz, and I soon forgot about it. I will try to track it down before it’s too late, if it is not already. Guy Ritchie’s films are abysmal; the editing alone makes them horrible additions to the Holmes cinematic legacy.

I saw the first season of the new British series with Cumberpatch, and I think the update works well there. Despite the unevenness of the updates, I am glad Sherlock still has a presence in the 21st century.

Posted By Susan Doll : December 9, 2012 1:38 pm

Interesting account of copyright issues, especially regarding Holmes. And, I had no idea Zero Effect was Holmes related. I have never seen it, but at one time it must have had a cable presence, because I remember being curious about it. However, it has Ben Stiller, which was a sure indicator that I would not watch it, not even on cable. I was interested in the new CBS version with Jonny Lee Miller, but I never found out what night it was on. It didn’t seem to get much buzz, and I soon forgot about it. I will try to track it down before it’s too late, if it is not already. Guy Ritchie’s films are abysmal; the editing alone makes them horrible additions to the Holmes cinematic legacy.

I saw the first season of the new British series with Cumberpatch, and I think the update works well there. Despite the unevenness of the updates, I am glad Sherlock still has a presence in the 21st century.

Posted By Lydia : December 9, 2012 5:07 pm

Thanks so much for the look at the current Sherlock Holmes. I will have to see if I can get “Zero Effect” on Netflix.

I’d have to say my favorite new Holmes is the BBC production “Sherlock.” The CBS show “Elementary” is an interesting take on Holmes and we’re still watching it.

Oh, and for Susan – the CBS show airs on Thurs. at 10pm Eastern. I’m sure you can probably see most of the episodes either on Hulu or CBS website. I don’t think the show is on the possible cancellation list, as it’s not bad and I think they’re getting reasonable audience numbers.

It’s great to see so many incarnations of Holmes through the years.

Posted By Lydia : December 9, 2012 5:07 pm

Thanks so much for the look at the current Sherlock Holmes. I will have to see if I can get “Zero Effect” on Netflix.

I’d have to say my favorite new Holmes is the BBC production “Sherlock.” The CBS show “Elementary” is an interesting take on Holmes and we’re still watching it.

Oh, and for Susan – the CBS show airs on Thurs. at 10pm Eastern. I’m sure you can probably see most of the episodes either on Hulu or CBS website. I don’t think the show is on the possible cancellation list, as it’s not bad and I think they’re getting reasonable audience numbers.

It’s great to see so many incarnations of Holmes through the years.

Posted By john a smith : December 9, 2012 5:26 pm

Both the 1st and 2nd season of the Sherlock series with Cumberbatch are available thru your library and are excellent. It does take a while to adjust to so young a Sherlock.

Posted By john a smith : December 9, 2012 5:26 pm

Both the 1st and 2nd season of the Sherlock series with Cumberbatch are available thru your library and are excellent. It does take a while to adjust to so young a Sherlock.

Posted By swac44 : December 10, 2012 10:19 am

I think I’ve mentioned this on a previous Holmes post, but my favourite pseudo-Holmes of recent years was the highly enjoyable series Monk starring Tony Shaloub as a “defective detective” who is ruled by his neuroses, and his female assistant (there were two different ones over the course of the series). That was my initial issue with the new Elementary, in that it felt more like an amalgam of Monk and House than a real Sherlock adaptation, but I’ve kept watching, if only out of some deep-seated loyalty to the Holmes brand. But I still enjoy it on some level, there have been a couple of very good episodes among the ones that have run so far, and I like the performers (Aidan Quinn is an actor I’ve always liked, going back to Barry Levinson’s Avalon and it’s always to see him on a screen, big or small).

There’s already been a mention of an Irene (but she will sadly remain in Holmes’ past) and I imagine they will eventually get around to a Moriarty of some sort before the end of the season, so I figure it’s still worth my while to stick it out.

Posted By swac44 : December 10, 2012 10:19 am

I think I’ve mentioned this on a previous Holmes post, but my favourite pseudo-Holmes of recent years was the highly enjoyable series Monk starring Tony Shaloub as a “defective detective” who is ruled by his neuroses, and his female assistant (there were two different ones over the course of the series). That was my initial issue with the new Elementary, in that it felt more like an amalgam of Monk and House than a real Sherlock adaptation, but I’ve kept watching, if only out of some deep-seated loyalty to the Holmes brand. But I still enjoy it on some level, there have been a couple of very good episodes among the ones that have run so far, and I like the performers (Aidan Quinn is an actor I’ve always liked, going back to Barry Levinson’s Avalon and it’s always to see him on a screen, big or small).

There’s already been a mention of an Irene (but she will sadly remain in Holmes’ past) and I imagine they will eventually get around to a Moriarty of some sort before the end of the season, so I figure it’s still worth my while to stick it out.

Posted By DBenson : December 10, 2012 4:17 pm

“Without a Clue” deserves attention not just for being a solid comedy but for its clever subtext: Watson, like Doyle, creates Holmes (hiring a drunken actor to personify him); then finds himself stuck with a silly fiction that’s bigger than he is. It’s almost a cartoon of Doyle’s own mixed emotions about the character that made him wealthy, but cast a shadow over Doyle’s more ambitious works.

There were a couple of TV pilots back in 80s that offered a defrosted Victorian Holmes in the modern world; I think both were titled “The Return of Sherlock Holmes”. The one I liked was a witty mystery-comedy, heavy on inside jokes (Holmes is nearly run down by a pickup truck with TONGA on the tailgate) and allowing Holmes to make clever use of whatever he managed to learn. The other had a sexier young Holmes roaming a suitably foggy San Francisco.

“Sherlock Holmes in the 24th Century” was a disappointing kid’s show on the same premise. It was disappointing because under the cheesy sci-fi they went to some lengths to stick to actual Doyle plots and offer “fair play” mysteries. Silver Blaze replaced horses with racing spaceships, to give you an idea. You kept hoping the show would be as good as some of the ideas.

“Sherlock Hound” was a children’s anime series that also worked in frequent Doyle references, but in a broadly comic manner (they’re all dogs). Hound is laid back and pleasant like Mr. Rogers, in contrast to his excitable Watson. Plotting is often clever and they’re big on comic chases, usually involving the short-fused Lestrade and his army of cops pursuing Moriarty, a monocled dandy specializing in outsized schemes, like stealing cars from moving trains.

There was also a set of four Australian animations based on the novels and boasting the voice of Peter O’Toole. They’re awful, and not amusingly so.

“A Case of Evil” was sort of a warmup for the Ritchie version. Holmes was a hot celebrity who’d get intimate with elegant groupies (threesome!); his Watson was an eccentric inventor. It was hinted that this Holmes was going to mature into the “real” Holmes, but the whole enterprise felt like the work of people who Didn’t Get It.

Posted By DBenson : December 10, 2012 4:17 pm

“Without a Clue” deserves attention not just for being a solid comedy but for its clever subtext: Watson, like Doyle, creates Holmes (hiring a drunken actor to personify him); then finds himself stuck with a silly fiction that’s bigger than he is. It’s almost a cartoon of Doyle’s own mixed emotions about the character that made him wealthy, but cast a shadow over Doyle’s more ambitious works.

There were a couple of TV pilots back in 80s that offered a defrosted Victorian Holmes in the modern world; I think both were titled “The Return of Sherlock Holmes”. The one I liked was a witty mystery-comedy, heavy on inside jokes (Holmes is nearly run down by a pickup truck with TONGA on the tailgate) and allowing Holmes to make clever use of whatever he managed to learn. The other had a sexier young Holmes roaming a suitably foggy San Francisco.

“Sherlock Holmes in the 24th Century” was a disappointing kid’s show on the same premise. It was disappointing because under the cheesy sci-fi they went to some lengths to stick to actual Doyle plots and offer “fair play” mysteries. Silver Blaze replaced horses with racing spaceships, to give you an idea. You kept hoping the show would be as good as some of the ideas.

“Sherlock Hound” was a children’s anime series that also worked in frequent Doyle references, but in a broadly comic manner (they’re all dogs). Hound is laid back and pleasant like Mr. Rogers, in contrast to his excitable Watson. Plotting is often clever and they’re big on comic chases, usually involving the short-fused Lestrade and his army of cops pursuing Moriarty, a monocled dandy specializing in outsized schemes, like stealing cars from moving trains.

There was also a set of four Australian animations based on the novels and boasting the voice of Peter O’Toole. They’re awful, and not amusingly so.

“A Case of Evil” was sort of a warmup for the Ritchie version. Holmes was a hot celebrity who’d get intimate with elegant groupies (threesome!); his Watson was an eccentric inventor. It was hinted that this Holmes was going to mature into the “real” Holmes, but the whole enterprise felt like the work of people who Didn’t Get It.

Posted By Qalice : December 10, 2012 8:02 pm

David, thanks for bringing “Zero Effect” to this blog — it’s a good movie whether or not one is familiar with Holmes. and Tom, one of the interesting connections between Holmes and House is that Conan Doyle was partly inspired by an Edinburgh physician when he started writing Holmes. As for me, I’ll give any Holmes a look and I like them all to varying degrees.

Posted By Qalice : December 10, 2012 8:02 pm

David, thanks for bringing “Zero Effect” to this blog — it’s a good movie whether or not one is familiar with Holmes. and Tom, one of the interesting connections between Holmes and House is that Conan Doyle was partly inspired by an Edinburgh physician when he started writing Holmes. As for me, I’ll give any Holmes a look and I like them all to varying degrees.

Posted By Derrick : December 11, 2012 11:40 pm
Posted By Derrick : December 11, 2012 11:40 pm
Posted By robbushblog : January 2, 2013 3:02 am

I remember liking Zero Effect when I saw it years ago, but not catching the parallels to Sherlock Holmes, as I had not yet read A Scandal in Bohemia. I will definitely watch it again now.

I do enjoy the new Sherlock series with Cumberbatch. It is not perfect, but it’s better than those loud and obnoxious Robert Downey Jr. movies. I’m sure it’s also better than the CBS version, but I won’t watch that as I boycott anything on CBS on principal, except for football games. I think all three concentrate too much on the anti-social behavior of their character. The literary Sherlock was not nearly so boorish towards everyone.

And, to clear up any doubt about House being modeled after Sherlock, his address is 221B Baker Street. He was also shot by a man named Jack Moriarty in season 2 and his sidekick is Dr. James Wilson.

Posted By robbushblog : January 2, 2013 3:02 am

I remember liking Zero Effect when I saw it years ago, but not catching the parallels to Sherlock Holmes, as I had not yet read A Scandal in Bohemia. I will definitely watch it again now.

I do enjoy the new Sherlock series with Cumberbatch. It is not perfect, but it’s better than those loud and obnoxious Robert Downey Jr. movies. I’m sure it’s also better than the CBS version, but I won’t watch that as I boycott anything on CBS on principal, except for football games. I think all three concentrate too much on the anti-social behavior of their character. The literary Sherlock was not nearly so boorish towards everyone.

And, to clear up any doubt about House being modeled after Sherlock, his address is 221B Baker Street. He was also shot by a man named Jack Moriarty in season 2 and his sidekick is Dr. James Wilson.

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