Sherlock Holmes and a Politics of Adaptation



The history of the adaptation of Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories is unrivalled in terms of the sheer number and diversity of adaptive works. Holmes has been part of (to give just a few examples) the evolution of silent cinema, World War II propaganda, and, most recently, the information technology explosion of the twenty-first century.1 As such, Brian McFarlane’s (albeit slightly anodyne) statement that ‘[the] conditions within the film [and television] industry and the prevailing cultural and social climate … are two major determinants’ (1996: 21) of adaptations has been borne out time and again. And because Holmes adaptations are perhaps the most palimpsestuous2 of all popular-cultural reworkings, the interaction with socio-cultural contexts is often multi-textured, with adapted texts appearing to both reinforce and challenge the prevailing status quo in a host of ways, sometimes within the same text. This is certainly the case with the focus of this chapter, the televisual imagining of Sherlock Holmes during the 1980s and 1990s in the UK, which has a complex relationship with the ‘Thatcherite’3 political rhetoric and ideology of the period. As shall become clear, the adaptations function as arenas within which traditional Tory 4 and more fluid free-market impulses compete with each other over the vexed status and significance of the national past within the context of the present. Television, in this case, does not ‘inoculate’ the audience against the implications of social change; rather, it is an active feature of this change.5


Nineteenth Century Sexual Double Standard Silent Cinema Original Story Christmas Tree 
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© Neil McCaw 2013

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