I just finished re-reading Subcutaneously, My Dear Watson
by Jack Tracy and Jim Berkey (1978), a great book I picked up at a used book store back when I first discovered and devoured the Holmes canon about 13 years ago.
With BBC's Sherlock
on my mind lately, re-reading this book brought up some interesting points about the portrayal of Holmes's use of drugs in screen adaptations and in particular the way it puts a new twist on the Sherlock
version of the character simply due to the change in setting.( First, I must confess that it was drugs that originally got me into Sherlock Holmes in a serious wayCollapse )Subcutaneously, My Dear Watson
is about both Holmes's drug use specifically and cocaine use in Victorian Britain in general (with some US contextual info, too).
The most significant thing that I came away with this time - again, with Sherlock
on my mind - was that in late 1800s Britain, it was perfectly legal to purchase, possess, and use cocaine. One could buy it in local shops without a prescription. It wasn't until after 1900 that restrictions started being put on cocaine and other potentially harmful or addictive substances. When you move the character forward in time, obviously this will bring up some issues.
Before moving on to screen adaptations, ( some other interesting tidbits from SubcutaneouslyCollapse )
Also, just so we're clear: Watson never approved of Holmes using cocaine, regardless of the fact that it wasn't illegal.( As for cocaine use in adaptations that are not SherlockCollapse )
With it's contemporary setting, the BBC's Sherlock
has a problem (or at least an interesting issue) in that the legal status of and social attitudes towards cocaine are entirely different now than when Doyle first wrote about the Great Detective. Of course, this is also a problem for period adaptations and even the canon itself nowadays, as the setting may be Victorian, but the audience is always contemporary. Sherlock
, however, has the added hitch that even the other fictional characters
around Holmes will have those same modern attitudes and everyone is operating in a world with certain legal and social restrictions that did not exist in the 1880s.
It's implied (or more than implied in the un-aired pilot) that Sherlock used to be on drugs. This is counter to Tracey and Berkey's timeline, but a perfectly acceptable change considering that commercially-available cocaine existed for a hundred years before this version of Holmes was even born. It does, however, pose problems for fandom carrying notions about Holmes's past and Watson's role in all of this backwards from Sherlock
More significantly, the Sherlock of Sherlock
using cocaine would be 1) illegal (or at least the purchase of it, I expect - I don't know what exactly the law currently states in the UK regarding possession or usage), 2) expensive, and 3) perceived entirely differently by the people around him (and the audience) than would have been the case for his canonical counterpart 100+ years previously.This is what is most interesting to me in all of this: maintaining an original, Doyle-created character trait - the use of cocaine - becomes a new twist on the character when that character is picked up and dropped into a present-day setting.
The closest thing to a contemporary version of Holmes's cocaine habit - in as far as it would be perceived by other characters and the audience - is probably alcoholism, or at least excessive drinking. This drives us off into other directions, however, as Holmes is not canonically an alcoholic and alcohol abuse presents different symptoms than cocaine use and would surely have a different effect on a person's personality and lifestyle.
That was longer than I expected. Golly. Without any real concluding statements, I'll turn this over to the internet at large. Any thoughts on the matter? Any insights into how the portrayal of Holmes's drug use in screen adaptations has changed over the years (including outright omission)? Any ideas about what this means for Sherlock
specifically and how audiences who may not be aware of either the canonical use of cocaine or of the historical context perceive those hints in "A Study in Pink?" I think that must have ramifications for both how the show chooses to include drug use (or doesn't) and how fandom processes and expands on this portrayal.