Friday, July 19, 2019

The Women of Baker Street

Irene Adler
Five years ago courts concluded (and not for the first time) that the stories and characters created by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle written prior to 1923 are in the public domain, freely available for any artist to write about or interpret without fear of copyright infringement.

(The Doyle estate did go on to press the creators of the 2015 film Mr. Holmes that they had used details about Sherlock’s retirement referred to in stories written after 1923, which illustrates how legal issues continue.)

I could adapt almost any of the classic Sherlock Holmes adventures. I have chosen instead to create an entirely new mystery, one which will, ideally, fit neatly into the established timeline of events as set down by the original author.

Why a new adventure? Simply put -- women. The only recurring female character in Sherlock Holmes is Mrs. Hudson, the landlady at 221B Baker Street.

Contemporary adaptations, like the BBC series starring Benedict Cumberbatch and the two Guy Ritchie films, chose to inflate the character of Irene Adler into that of Holmes’ romantic opposite, though she appears in only one Doyle story and the characters have no such relationship.

Today we expect, in fact require, strong female characters. This is not a matter of political correctness, it is merely a fact. My daughter never held any interest in the Star Wars films until Rey was introduced. I never told her which books to enjoy, she always gravitated toward compelling women (Hunger Games) and has entirely avoided weak ones (Twilight).

"Treasure Island"
Great Lakes Theater (2019)
Our last two outreach tours, freely adapted by Eric Schmiedl from the classic novels The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and Treasure Island, illustrate the challenge in finding compelling female models in 19th century adventure tales. You can cast women to play Huck and Jim Hawkins to great effect (and we did), but the actual women characters in these stories are only docile mothers and silly girls.

Having decided to create compelling women for this Holmes play, the question was how to do this and still maintain the authentic structure and feel of a Sherlock Holmes narrative. Holmes, Watson, Lestrade, Moriarty, Mycroft -- principals characters all. In order to introduce new characters, most would need to be absent, to make way. How to do that without losing what is intrinsic to the legend?

Of course, what is most iconic is the man himself. But could we create a female narrator -- not a women playing Watson (as Lucy Liu does in the successful, modern American TV adaptation) but a new character entirely? How will that work?

And who is the bully of Baker Street?

To be continued.

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