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The Case of the Problematic Woman

Irene Adler as seen in the BBC's "Sherlock"
Lara Pulver proves the more dangerous of the two recent Irene Adlers.

It’s Sherlock Season at the moment. The second installment in Guy Ritchie’s Downey Jr-&-Law driven comeback arrived on cinema screens over the Christmas period, and on New Year’s Day, the BBC debuted the second series of its modern-day updating of the Arthur Conan Doyle tales, starring Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman. As a long-time Sherlock fan (when it comes to the classic interpretations, I’m a Jeremy Brett man), this double header definitely added to my festive cheer. However, there was one feature of both offerings that raised a doubtful eyebrow.

Spoilers below for those of you who haven’t watched either slice of Holmes (and they’re both worth taking your time to see).

Irene Adler, like Professor Moriarty (with whom she’s associated in both the cinematic and televisual Holmes offerings), looms a lot larger in the Holmes mythos than her brief appearance in Conan Doyle’s tales would suggest. She appears in a single story, “A Scandal in Bohemia,” and is referred to in just four others. Nonetheless, the idea of the woman who matched wits with Holmes and won has fascinated fans and writers of derivative works ever since.

Which makes it just a little odd that both the most recent Holmes offerings veer away from the idea of her being Holmes’ equal. The first Ritchie movie had her as Moriarty’s catspaw, and the second reduced her to a damsel in distress before swiftly killing her off for little reason other than to provide Holmes with an axe to grind against Moriarty himself. In the BBC version, she matches wits well with Holmes before being undone and reduced again to a damsel in distress, whom Holmes this time saves.

A feature of both the recent versions of Adler is that she is undone by her own affection for Holmes. This is a long way from the Conan Doyle story, where all the affection and admiration is on Holmes’ part, with Adler in love with and set to marry another man. The transition towards something closer to a genuine romance between the characters seems to do Adler a disservice, as Holmes ends up the dominant partner both times out.

This may be inevitable – Holmes is the central figure, after all – but there could be something else at work here. Both Ritchie and Steven Moffatt, the co-creator of the BBC series with Mark Gatiss, have made the relationship between Holmes and John Watson the central point of their versions. No mere foils for the mercurial and manic Holmes, the Watsons of Jude Law and Martin Freeman are close to equal partners, emotionally if not intellectually, avoiding the bumbling caricature that Watson often became in other adaptations. In both cases, the depiction of the relationship between Holmes and Watson is a major part of why these versions work so well.

What that seems to mean, though, is that there’s no room for a romance with Adler. To have her become a victim in both cases seems a shame to me, given that she’s a character with a lot of potential (and the only strong female in the Holmes canon). Ritchie’s casual disposal of her seems much more of a waste, and in somewhat poor taste, whereas Moffat’s decision to have her thoroughly defeated and then rescued seems more a result of confusion as to what to do with her.

Perhaps Conan Doyle had it right: Adler was notable because she won and because she entranced Holmes with her intelligence and honour. To try to bring her closer into the orbit of Holmes-Watson is to ruin her.