If creativity is a body, then fan fiction at its worst acts as a degenerative disease. A character or story is removed from a creator’s influence and subjected to the mutating effects of wish fulfillment, replacing an original concept with a derivative. The pathology comes partly from over-extension – more is good, goes the reasoning, and even more is even better – and partly from the desperation that comes from the relentless pursuit of novelty. (Exhibit A: New Doctor Who, which perpetually recycles the same formula and villains all the while congratulating itself for its wide-eyed adoration of the classic series.) Fan fiction never is admitting that there can be too much of a good thing.
With deep-pocketed productions, the pandering that comes with fan fiction is masked by money and professional craft. In the case of Hollywood revivals of TV series, or free-adaptation of novels, there is also the leveling effect of converting everything into action spectacles out of fear that remaining too close to brainier original concepts will dilute the mass appeal. This explains the Mission: Impossible franchise, for instance, or the state of Star Trek post-Roddenberry. (The Great Bird of the Galaxy may have been single-minded in his optimism for the future, but the outright militarism of later series and reboots, with a cynical inversion of the original series’ ideals in the dark and gritty name of realism, exemplifies perfectly fan fiction’s revisionist impulse.)
So what are we to make of this latest attempt to revisit Sherlock Holmes outside the confines of Conan Doyle’s stories? Directed by Bill Condon and based on a book by Mitch Cullin, Mr. Holmes is an elegant production that captivates in its many facets, from an attention to period detail to an unsurprisingly satisfying masterclass performance by Sir Ian McKellen as the Great Detective. Insofar as we consider the film for its thematic handling of aging and decline, it is a poignant and compassionate drama. McKellen’s Holmes is movingly counterpointed by Laura Linney’s put-upon housekeeper and her precociously smart son, played with nuance by Milo Parker, and the story takes on an elegiac quality as it depicts an intellect in decline.
Resistance to this decline comes in the form of confronting a last memory in the difficult and gradual process of reconstruction that gives the film its mystery. And that is where Mr. Holmes stumbles into the shortcomings of fan fiction. In context, Mr. Holmes doesn’t come close to committing the sins of Steven Moffat’s mystifyingly acclaimed modernization for the BBC, which is mostly bad writing, a preference for flash over coherence, and the dubious decision to transplant Holmes from a Victorian England, where his pioneering forensic reasoning is novel, to a modern policing era where his methods are widespread.) Mr. Holmes delivers precisely the sort of literate, slow-burn thoughtfulness we hope for from a character study. But the conception of Holmes’s last case is a failure both as a mystery and as the lens through which Holmes’s character can be examined. The case, which involves a man whose wife’s periodic disappearances are tied to grief over two miscarriages, offers no intriguing conundrum – neither as the impetus for Holmes to take on the case, nor in its development as the film progresses. Not only is the mystery far from the puzzles Conan Doyle conceived for his hero – an Agatha Christie detective, with a more psychological approach, might be more suitable – with an nonsensical resolution, it ultimately serves to refute the very idea of a Sherlock Holmes, who is made to acknowledge the limitations of logic and the value of fiction (that is, lying) over truth. I’m not at all opposed to deconstructing characters and their underlying rationale, but productive deconstruction requires more than simply pulling the rug away. The Holmes on offer here misses the character’s concept within the framework of a very particular kind of mystery, which begs the question: Would Mr. Holmes have worked better with a different character at its center?
So Mr. Holmes is fine as a film, and entirely worthwhile for McKellen’s performance, but dissatisfying as a film specifically about Sherlock Holmes. It demonstrates the problem that fan fiction, writ large, disrupts the relationship between fans and a creator’s original work when it interposes another, incompatible perspective. Perhaps, notwithstanding Guy Ritchie’s entertaining and arguably successful efforts to recast Holmes as both intellect and man of action, it’s time to let Mr. Holmes retire in peace within the pages of Conan Doyle’s stories.
Frédérik Sisa is the Page’s Assistant Editor and Resident Art Critic. He can be reached at email@example.com.