Another week and another episode of our pop culture icons series ! This time we’ll talk about one of the oldest pop culture character and probably the most famous detective in history : Sherlock Holmes. The British detective created in 1887 by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle travelled through time and he is, 135 years later, still a classic. From evolving through time while also being an inspiration for many other characters and stories, Sherlock Holmes has a wide history in basically every cultural platform, from books to movies, passing by comics, video games and many more. Let’s dive into it !
135 years and still there…
Talking about Sherlock Holmes means more than talking about any famous pop culture character. There has been many legendary litterature and movie franchises through history (Harry Potter, The Lord of the Rings, Star Wars, etc.) but rare are the monuments like Sherlock Holmes. The thing is that famous characters and stories developed themselves around an entire universe which helped them to grow as icons and leave a mark in history. For example Star Wars is not only about one character but about dozens of different stories with different heroes. It’s basically the same for most of famous franchises we know. However it’s not the case for Sherlock Holmes. If we resume this shortly, Sherlock Holmes is only a small roster of characters who where reinvented again, again and again during 135 years. Rare are the characters (and I insist on characters and not stories or universe) that went through history like Sherlock Holmes did. I, obviously don’t know about all the characters that existed through pop culture history, but from my knowledge, I don’t know a lot of characters (outside of religious or fictional historical characters) who managed to survive all this time with such popularity. I think about all the characters from the Arturian stories, some characters created by Jules Verne but globally that’s it. Actually, I’m not even sure that characters like King Arthur or Captain Nemo are as much famous as Sherlock Holmes.
This is in my mind the reason why Sherlock Holmes is an absolute monument of pop culture, more than most of other iconic characters. Yes, Sherlock Holmes has been reinvented dozens of times through history but the formula is still the same, unchanged, 135 years later. Thanks to such a wide history, everyone have its own favourite version of Sherlock Holmes. There’s obviously the books, unchanged since 135 years, but also movies, comic books, TV shows, video games, theatre plays, etc. So many people took on the challenge to reinvent Sherlock Holmes with the hard task of creating something which is at the same time, totally new and yet, totally the same. Some of them are debatable like many video games or certain movies like the one starring Robert Downey Jr, and some of them are absolute masterpiece, such as the BBC show starring Benedict Cumberbatch. The fact that 135 years later, Sherlock Holmes is still an iconic character known by everyone but also still reinvented by everyone, is a proof of how great this character and his stories are, because once again, rare are the characters who lasted so long.
Sherlock Holmes : the original detective
While preparing this article, I always had one question in my head : why very old characters like Sherlock Holmes have been icons for so long ? Of course there is the quality of the stories themselves, people appreciate Sherlock Holmes because they are well written stories. Also, the detective genre is a highly appreciated genre, wether in its litterature or cinema and has been an appreciated genre for a long time, people always liked reading these stories. But it doesn’t explain it all. Then I thought about something. Why, when we mention a genre of litterature or cinema we always refer to the very first stories that settled the designated genre ? Well… because they’re the first. If you talk about science fiction, you’ll always refer to Star Wars, 2001: The Space Odissey, the first Alien movie, etc. If you talk about super heroes movies, you’ll probably mention the 1966 Batman TV show. And of course, this reflexion will be the same for any genre. And this is my point with Sherlock Holmes really stayed as an icon for so long. Everything we know about detective stories and detectives themselves, all the cliché we have about them and how we’re portraying detectives in fictional stories, are in a way or another elements which were settled by Conan Doyle while writing Sherlock Holmes. The fact that, directly or indirectly, Sherlock Holmes influenced the detective genre by almost creating the genre itself almost says it all when we ask why is Sherlock Holmes so popular. I know, that detective characters existed before Sherlock Holmes but it’s clearly Sherlock Holmes who settled the standards of detectives in litterature (and then later in cinema). So whatever will happen and whatever new detective stories will be created, on any platform, it’s probable that we’ll always refer to Sherlock Holmes, in a way or another.
The last thing I wanted to mention regarding the iconic Sherlock Holmes is the endless potential this character can give you. Sherlock Holmes is typically a character who can be reinvented again, again and again, with never having the same story. Because it’s just detective stories, with a small roster of main characters, you can create a different version of Sherlock Holmes from the moment you keep the characters and the investigations. I’m not saying that it’s going to be good, but Sherlock Holmes stories can definitely be put in any context. Moreover, the different platforms we have nowadays allow us to model each Sherlock Holmes stories differently. For example video games allowed us to play as Sherlock Holmes, giving access to a various number of features which were only described or showed in books and movies. Meanwhile, the recent BBC TV show, with four seasons and very long episodes, allowed the show to develop its character, to dive deep into the stories and details that were probably hidden or just suggested in the books. As you can see, if you combine a character with basic elements and the various cultural platform, you can create so many versions of this character and history proved it as in 135 years, we had so many versions of Sherlock Holmes but with each one being different from another.
As I said at the beginning of this article, Sherlock Holmes is, in my mind, more iconic than many other icons of pop culture. Sherlock Holmes combined all the elements to became a timeless icon and whatever we do regarding the detective genre, Sherlock Holmes will always be the original one, the one who set the base for everyone else and the fact there always gonna be people who will try to create and reinvent the character, it will assure the endless travel of Sherlock Holmes through time, as he did for the last 135 years.