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Sherlock Character Analysis
vorel_laraek
Among my obsessions at the moment is Sherlock Holmes - in particular, Conan Doyle's original stories and the BBC modern adaptation. Because I am obsessed, I'm writing all this down in the hopes that it will then stop revolving inside my head.

Anyway, I'm fond of both versions, but one of the things that I find most interesting is how different the modern and Victorian versions of the characters - especially Sherlock Holmes - are from each other.

I'm borrowing some of my analysis of Holmes from icarus-chained's brilliant posts on the subject, not to mention far too much fanfic and character analysis, but the comparison remains my own.

For purposes of clarity, John, Sherlock, and Jim refer to the modern incarnations of the characters, whereas Watson, Holmes, and Moriarty are the originals.


Names and professions aside, Holmes and Sherlock are quite different people. Much of the framework is the same - observational genius, manic and lethargic fits, dread of boredom and need for intellectual stimulation, emotional detachment and antisocial tendencies - but their characters still differ.

One of the main differences is how abominably rude Sherlock tends to be. He is outright disdainful to everyone, including the victims, and blatantly and unapologetically states his admiration for clever criminals, being obviously more interested in the crime than in the person. In "Reichenbach Fall," he verbally attacks an innocent woman so that she'll give him an answer a bit faster. He blatantly admires Moriarty for creating clever crime. Moreover, his deductions are in given the manner of an attack, throwing at people every secret they would rather hide (his treatment of Sally and Anderson in "Study in Pink" exemplifies this, as does his reaction to 'Jim from IT' in "The Great Game").

By contrast, Holmes has a decent grasp of social niceties that Sherlock seems to entirely lack. Some of this can be attributed to a Victorian emphasis on propriety, but it's also a quite different approach to people in general. Moreover, Holmes honestly cares for the plight of his clients. In "The Beryl Coronet," a client comes in who is so agitated that be begins to beat his head against the wall, and it is Holmes, not Watson, who stops him and calms him enough to tell his story. Holmes is kind to the people who come to him for help, and saves his disdain for the criminals. At one point, he remarks outright on how awful it is when a clever person turns to crime, because of the harm done - a far cry from Sherlock's callous fascination.
This is not to say that Holmes is a paragon - he is aloof, patronizing, and can be cutting when pushed (in "The Noble Bachelor", he is obviously displeased at his noble client's obvious arrogance, and he outright laughs at Jabez Wilson for having been incredibly gullible in "The Red-Headed League").
Also, though Holmes does of course deduce those around him, he is nowhere near so aggressive about it as Sherlock - the tone is more "You cannot hide anything from me, so do not try," than Sherlock's "You idiot! Of course I know everything, now piss off!"

The two detectives are also different in their emotional reserve.

Sherlock is a misanthrope. He seems to actively believe the vast majority of humanity to be tedious fools, and is primarily interested in them insofar as they provide entertainment. He calls himself a "high-functioning sociopath," which is very telling. I've been hard on Sherlock here, because he is an ass, but he isn't a sociopath. For one thing, he does clearly care about John and Mrs. Hudson. He has chosen to help the police, when being a criminal would probably also provide intellectual stimulation. Sherlock cares more than he likes to admit, especially since his false self-diagnosis suggests that he wants to be a sociopath, because he finds it easier not to care. He's been hurt before (Sebastian Wilkes serves as evidence that Sherlock's always been an outsider), and he's lonely, but he refuses to admit it, and he's built his armor high enough that only John manages to make any progress in breaking through it.

Holmes, by contrast, doesn't hate people. He doesn't really notice them unless they bring him cases or enter his life spectacularly enough that he must take notice (Victor Trevor's dog bites his ankle, Watson moves in and helps him on cases), but he doesn't hate them. Where Sherlock's reserve is armor against a world that likely hasn't been kind to him, Holmes is just naturally aloof. He's never had many friends ("Adventure of the Gloria Scott"), but it doesn't seem to bother him. Holmes has chosen an intellectual life over a social one, and seems to be comfortable with his choices.

Another disparity is the arrogance of both characters, and the way they handle defeat.

Holmes is justly proud of his intelligence (and arrogant enough about it that he tends to patronize others), but he also knows his limits. He makes mistakes or is beaten on occasion ("A Scandal in Bohemia," "The Adventure of The Yellow Face," "The Adventure of the Devil's Foot Root") but learns from his mistakes. At the end of "The Adventure of The Yellow Face," Holmes tells Watson to remind him of his failure of deduction if he ever gets too full of himself. Holmes only becomes angry at a mistake if he has accidentally harmed another, as in "The Five Orange Pips," where Holmes inadvertently sends a man to his death with his advice. In that case, Holmes' response is to rectify the error by catching the culprits and bringing them to justice.

Sherlock is much more arrogant, enough so that he clearly loathes failure ("It was your sister!"). His self-esteem seems to be entirely wrapped up in his intelligence - Sherlock does not think himself a good man, nor does he seem to care much for his own well-being (he was going to take that poison pill before John shot the cabbie). Holmes is equally careless with himself in terms of irregular eating and sleeping habits when caught up in a case, not to mention the cocaine, but he also does not risk his life so lightly - once he has deduced the answers, he is willing to leave the actual arrest to the police ("The Adventure of the Cardboard Box"), or to obtain backup when needed ("The Red-Headed League").

One similarity between the two is that both care deeply for their respective John Watsons, though it takes significant duress ("The Great Game" and "The Three Garridebs," respectively) for them to show it."

Both detectives also have the same essential drive - to find out the truth, at any cost.


Sherlock Holmes is not the only character to have changed in adaptation - Mycroft is also quite different, changing in relation to his brother.

In the original canon, Mycroft is smarter than Holmes (by Holmes' admission), but far lazier, content to watch the world from the comfort of his armchair in the Diogenes Club. He and his brother are cordial but not especially close, though Mycroft does occasionally provide Sherlock with an interesting case. His specialty is apparently omniscience - he makes a point of knowing everything, serving the British government as a sort of living computer.

The modern Mycroft cares deeply about his little brother, but he's awful at showing it. He is more active than his counterpart, often interfering directly to control Sherlock's life and protect his brother from behind the scenes, because he "worries constantly." Giving Sherlock's childish recklessness, this worry is understandable. Holmes prefers Watson's company, but is self-sufficient and seems to do fine on his own when Watson move out to get married. I am really not sure how Sherlock survived before meeting John, nor can I imagine him letting John go with any equanimity. Given Mycroft's manipulations and Sherlock's fierce independence, the resulting relationship is far more contentious than in canon.


John is more similar to Watson than Sherlock is to Holmes, though not identical.

Both are intelligent, loyal, compassionate, occasionally sarcastic, and devoted to and fascinated by their respective detectives (though not too in awe to remind them when they go too far).

What differences there are between them come into light in contrast with a changed Sherlock, much like the two Mycrofts. Mostly, John is dependent on Sherlock (and vice-versa), much more than Watson is on Holmes (though their friendship is still very close).

Though both versions of John Watson enjoy the excitement of the cases, having latched onto Sherlock Holmes as a source of excitement and purpose after returning from the war, John is more of a danger junkie. Watson loves the mystery and the intrigue, but the tremor and the limp in particular show John's dependence on danger, and by extension on Sherlock.

John and Sherlock's codependency comes into particular light in terms of John's interactions with his girlfriends, as opposed to Watson's wife.
(I should note at this point that I don't actually see either John and Sherlock or Watson and Holmes as a romantic pairing. I've read some excellent fic exploring that and have nothing against that interpretation, but I don't personally believe in it, especially not in the context of the original stories.)

John loses his girlfriend in "Scandal in Belgravia" because he prioritizes Sherlock over her, going so far as to confuse her with a previous one. He has difficulty maintaining attachments outside of Sherlock (at the Christmas party in that same episode, the only other guests are Lestrade, Molly, and Mrs. Hudson - all friends of Sherlock.

Watson manages a more normal social life, getting engaged to Mary Morstan at the end of "Sign of Four" and seeming quite happy in his marriage, though he does always join Holmes on cases when asked.

John also serves as apologist and caretaker for Sherlock because he seems incapable of being polite or dealing with 'tedious' ordinary concerns like food and sleep. Watson cares for Holmes - and reminds him to have a care for his health - but Holmes is more mature than Sherlock. He doesn't need the help quite as much, so Watson doesn't give it.

Like Mycroft, John is different mostly in relation to a reinterpretation of Sherlock, on whom the whole show turns. Sherlock is less mature than Holmes, and less self-sufficient despite the way he values his independence. He relies on John, and the reverse is equally true.


Lestrade also differs between the two versions, again in relation to Sherlock.

In the original stories, he is the most reliable of several detectives who help Holmes in his investigations. He is determined and dedicated once put on the right path, and though Holmes doesn't think much of his intelligence or imagination, he does trust Lestrade to take the right action when given the solution to a mystery - in "The Adventure of the Cardboard Box," as I mentioned earlier, Holmes solves the case and lets Lestrade go arrest the culprit, expecting him to tell Holmes the ultimate solution when he's done.

Their working relationship is different in Sherlock, especially since Sherlock, though brilliant, is such an ass. Greg Lestrade apparently knew Sherlock as a junkie, and in my headcanon he helped him get clean via a conditional offer of cases. He reacts to Sherlock with resignation, and lets him work cases because he needs the results (and he knows Sherlock needs the distraction). The relationship is closer than in the books, especially because Sherlock is so much more difficult to work with than Holmes, and as such only has the one DI who willingly works with him.

In bringing him closer to Sherlock, Lestrade gains extra detail of characterization that he didn't get in the original - mostly a bit of the stereotypical workaholic cop, complete with cheating wife presumably related to his overwork.


Other than Sherlock Holmes, the character who is most changed between versions is probably James Moriarty. (Interestingly, despite his appearances in nearly every adaptation, the original Professor Moriarty only appears in one short story: "The Final Problem.")

The original Moriarty was a mathematics professor as well as a criminal genius. He was dignified and controlled, and he warned Holmes off only once he got too close. He comes unarmed to Baker Street to meet Holmes, knowing that Holmes won't attack him (it would leave Moriarty's organization intact and therefore be counterproductive), and warns him that his investigations are getting too close and that any attempt to destroy Moriarty will destroy Holmes as well. (Holmes' reply is that as long as he can be sure of beating Moriarty, he will, "in the interests of the public," cheerfully accept his own death). Had Holmes actually listened to the Professor's warning, he probably would have been left alone thereafter, because Moriarty saw him mainly as an an obstacle.

By contrast, Jim is a psychopath. He is obsessed with Sherlock, and sets out to gain his attention - not the most practical course of action for a criminal mastermind. He threatens everything Sherlock cares about, and systematically sets out to destroy him, going so far to kill himself because his life doesn't matter as long as he wins. Unlike Moriarty, Jim's concern is not for whatever threat Sherlock's investigations pose to him and his organization - all he really wants is to stop being bored.

Jim is a fanatic, where Moriarty is a specialist - they're both excellent villains, but for different reasons.

Moriarty was scary because he was subtle as well as evil. He didn't need threaten Holmes with bombs or snipers, because they were both clever enough to know exactly what was at stake.

Jim is clever, but he isn't nearly so subtle - he's scary because he's completely and entirely unhinged.

If Moriarty is the Napoleon of Crime, then Jim is Emperor Nero.


I've been harsh here, so I would like to clarify that I like BBC Sherlock quite a lot. It does something new with the characters. It isn't just a rewriting or a transplant of setting - it takes names and ideas from the original and throws in a thousand extra references, but it tells its own story, and it's amazing. Sherlock is not really the same person as Holmes, and he's all the more interesting for that.

On reflection, the updated versions of the characters (childish Sherlock, broken John, insane Moriarty, controlling Mycroft, overworked Lestrade) seem to be noticeably more damaged than their counterparts (even Mrs. Hudson, in gaining more detailed characterization, received a presumably abusive, murderous husband). Is it because we're more cynical now, or because they didn't discuss these things in the Victorian Era? Both? I'm not sure why "doing something new with the characters" has made them all a bit less put-together, but I do enjoy the results.

It's an awesome show, based on awesome stories. That said, if I had to choose one Sherlock Holmes to meet, it would definitely be Holmes that I'd choose.

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