How Does Today’s Sherlock Stack Up? An Expert Compares Old to New

Benedict Cumberbatch as Sherlock Holmes in the BBC’s “Sherlock.” Courtesy of Hartswood Films and “Masterpiece.”

Hang onto your plaid hunting caps. Jan. 1 marked the return of the BBC’s wildly popular high-functioning-sociopath-turned-consulting-detective, Sherlock Holmes. “Sherlock” enthusiasts have been without the series since 2014, with the exception of the Victorian throwback New Year’s special of 2016.

I grew up poring over the original novels, and Sherlock Holmes was my very first literary crush. As I binge-watched past seasons in anticipation of the new one, I found myself wondering how the modern-day self-described sociopath lives up to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s depiction of a Victorian gentleman detective.

Richmond Adams, assistant professor of English at Northwestern Oklahoma State University, has been fascinated by cinematic adaptations of Sherlock Holmes throughout the years. The lucky guy specializes in analyzing the differences between the many iterations of Sherlock that have appeared in popular culture for more than a century.

“Iconic characters such as Holmes and (Dr. John) Watson serve the purposes of each generation of readers and viewers through a recreating of older stories or developing new ways for them to explore issues through a given cultural setting,” he said.

A sampling of Sherlock Holmes throughout history: (from left) illustration by Sidney Paget, 1891; John Barrymore, 1922; Christopher Plummer, 1979; Vincent D’Onofrio in “Law and Order: Criminal Intent” (his character is said to be a modern interpretation of Sherlock Holmes); Jonny Lee Miller in “Elementary.”

Adams’ work investigates cinematic adaptations of Holmes against the cultural milieu of the generations and compares them to the Victorian ideals illustrated through Conan Doyle’s gentleman detective.

“Sherlock” provides rich ground for this kind of investigation. While the Victorian-era Holmes struggled with nascent forensic science, a rigid class and social structure, and a world changing rapidly through industrialization, Benedict Cumberbatch’s HolmesDr. Adams contends, faces his own round of challenges: “post-9/11 Western cultural fears coupled with mutual critique of postmodernism as an intellectual construct.”

Courtesy of Hartswood Films and “Masterpiece.”

Modern anxiety is perhaps one of the most compelling themes of the show, from Inspector Lestrade’s chagrin over Sherlock’s phone hacking in the episode “The Study in Pink” to terror cells invested in the outcome of Bond Air in “A Scandal in Belgravia.”

So how does the BBC’s “Sherlock” stack up to the original?

While the modern Holmes is not the model of a Victorian gentleman, he retains characteristics vital to Conan Doyle’s version. He has a hunger for mental trials, a love of his work and a strong moral center.

“The Holmes of ‘Sherlock’ seems to be constantly on the look for an intellectual challenge, or even simply a way to pass the time within a given week, but upon coming upon that something, finds himself confronting moral as well as investigative crises, through which his sense of propriety plays a central role,” Adams said.

The Victorian Holmes may have an easier time embodying a gentleman compared to the BBC’s, but that’s because the world the original detective inhabits maintains the illusion of social order and a strict sense of social propriety. The modern Holmes’ society maintains no such façades.

sherlockThat lack of illusion is one of the reasons Sherlock can so glibly refer to himself as “a high-functioning sociopath.” This imperfect Holmes feels strange to a fan of Conan Doyle’s detective, who embodied more comfortable ideals of social interaction.

“When the BBC’s Holmes describes himself in such a manner, he is referring to post-9/11 Western society that has, over the last five decades, embraced a worldview where everything has become negotiable, up to and including facts and even the most basic standards of moral decency between one person and another,” Adams said.

Today’s Sherlock possesses the unenviable ability to detach himself from empathy and moral centeredness to understand the excesses to which people will go to preserve their power and authority. The villain Moriarty, a true sociopath, poses as an interesting foil for Holmes—Moriarty uses his lack of a moral center to amass power and authority, all to avoid being bored.

Adams argues that Sherlock’s ability to set aside his moral centeredness allows him to reintroduce “at a basic level, the ideals of empathy and moral conscience into the present era.” While the BBC’s version of Holmes presents us with a man who is hungry for intellectual challenge and is often cold, calculating and hard to empathize with, he retains the basic goodness of Conan Doyle’s proper Victorian detective.

It’s the retention of this basic goodness combined with uniquely 21st century problems that makes “Sherlock” such a compelling show, I think. Where the Victorian Holmes confronted diplomatic politics and anarchists, the BBC’s Sherlock tackles terrorism and the intersection of sexuality and power. The challenges Sherlock faces are, as Adams writes, “fundamental crime(s) of inhumanity and indecency.”

The serial killer in the episode “A Study in Pink,” Irene Adler’s blackmail of the British government in “A Scandal in Belgravia” and Moriarty in “The Reichenbach Fall” are all forces that challenge the basic moral centeredness Holmes has retained across his cinematic depictions.

sherlockSherlock recognizes that he cannot solve the fundamental problems of the world, but Adams states that “he can, by interceding at certain times, reshape (if only for a time) the bounds within which those outside of power attempt to live as separately as possible from what otherwise would fully engulf them.” In other words, Sherlock can, through the cases he chooses, help those who are affected by injustice and inhumanity.

As I get excited for season four, I’m spending more time considering the moral centeredness of our hero and ruminating over his flaws. The problems confronting Sherlock in the new series feel relevant to our modern world, particularly his recently revealed drug addiction. I find that I agree with Adams: “Sherlock Holmes will always be melded to explore the issues and perhaps express the needs of a given era.”

I’m glad Sherlock and John are still going strong in our modern era—even if I do prefer them in Victorian dress.

Watch the first episode of season four on for a limited time. Check your local PBS station’s schedule for broadcast dates and times.

Kelly Prosen Hara

Kelly Prosen Hara is a Minneapolis writer who loves tabletop games, horror, roadside attractions and empowering women. She tweets pictures of her cats and food her husband makes @kellymprosen and blogs about love and mental illness at