Enola Holmes and the Goodness of Telling Old Stories from New Perspectives
Every other Tuesday in Storied, K. B. Hoyle explores the ways our cultural narratives act on us individually and in society as a whole.
The world arguably does not need another adaptation of Arthur Conan Doyle’s famous detective. Sherlock Holmes screen interpretations are numerous—legion, even. Since the publication of the first Sherlock Holmes story in 1887 (“A Study in Scarlet”), there have been over 250 adaptations of the character to the screen, leading the Guinness Book of World Records to dub Sherlock Holmes “the most portrayed literary human character in film and TV.” I’ve always been a fan of Doyle’s stories, and I’ve consumed with great enjoyment as much Sherlock entertainment as I can, but when I saw that Netflix had produced a new movie called Enola Holmes, I rolled my eyes a bit because it just felt like a retreading of ground that has been tread so many times before. My cynicism, however, did not leave room for the way in which an old story can be told from an important new perspective, and I am always happy to be proved wrong when I find something to be unexpectedly good.
Based on a series of books by author Nancy Springer, Enola Holmes tells a Sherlock Holmes story in which Sherlock and Mycroft have a much younger sister who grew up on their family estate in the country mostly outside their influence—or anyone else’s aside from their eccentric mother (Helena Bonham Carter). Enola (whose name spells “alone” backwards) is someone who, at age sixteen, can match wits with Sherlock. But where Sherlock’s genius is in deduction, Enola’s is in ciphering—and in following those clues to their logical conclusions. When the Holmes family matriarch goes mysteriously missing, it is both Sherlock (Henry Cavill) and Enola (Millie Bobby Brown) to the case as Mycroft (Sam Claflin) tries to foil Enola’s attempts, determined to send her off to finishing school and make a lady out of her. But Mycroft plays second-fiddle villain in this mystery romp as Enola happens upon a young lord on the run who needs her help and an assassin who ends up trying to kill both the lord (Louis Partridge) and Enola.What I love about the creation and inclusion of the Enola character is how much she makes sense in the Holmes family and how much she adds to the ethos of the story.
Enola Holmes is not only delightfully witty and adventurous, but it serves as a needed entry into the empty space in entertainment for that tween/teen audience that has grown too old for children’s programming and is still too young for the content of a TV-MA show on Netflix (or any other streaming channel). I haven’t read the books, so I don’t know how the stories read, but from a purely visual arts perspective, Enola Holmes is a story the entire family can enjoy, especially if you have young teens looking for stories made just for them. And Enola Holmes treats its young audience with respect, assuming they bring to their viewing experience an awareness of the world they themselves are growing up in.
But now that Enola Holmes has been a success on Netflix, the streaming giant has begun floating the idea of a spin-off series following Henry Cavill’s adult-aged Sherlock from the movie. When the news broke, people of the internet responded hilariously as people of the internet will do: with the obvious response of, “You mean a show about… Sherlock Holmes? Another Sherlock Holmes adaptation?” Netflix, it seems, missed the message about what people like so much about Enola Holmes. It is Enola. The movie is a Young Adult story, starring a young female protagonist. And it is an interpretation of a Sherlock Holmes story where girls are allowed to be remarkable, too. Where Sherlock isn’t reinvented as a woman, where the show isn’t a mere gender-swap, but where a logical female character is introduced into the canon with her own strengths and faculty and wits who complements the existing story. The character of Sherlock Holmes will always fascinate (clearly!), but sometimes recreating the matter of existing stories is seeing the good in them that can be brought to the fore—and the creation of Enola is an example of that.
Sherlock did not have a sister in the original Conan Doyle stories—but then again, neither did he have a brother until Mycroft just happened to appear in a story one day. In other words, the world of Sherlock Holmes has always been open to the possibility of more Holmes siblings because the character of Sherlock Holmes is such that he is so unsentimental as to not talk about his home life—to the neglect even of mentioning siblings. What I love about the creation and inclusion of the Enola character is how much she makes sense in the Holmes family and how much she adds to the ethos of the story.
In the case of Enola Holmes, the question was: what if this was a Young Adult story? In that case, it would almost certainly be told through the eyes, and voice, of a young female protagonist. And not just any young female protagonist, but a young female protagonist with agency of her own. I cannot overstate how refreshing it was to view women in a Sherlock Holmes story who were not only geniuses, but were also geniuses who were sane—sane and not dangerous psychopaths, or victims of dangerous psychopaths. The BBC’s Sherlock (starring Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman) gave us a Holmes sister in the character of Eurus. Eurus is just as brilliant as her brothers, but her brilliance leads her to be a psychotic killer. In fact, the trend toward villainy of the smartest women in Sherlock is a little strange—while the genius of men more often leads to heroism.
It shouldn’t need to be stated in the year 2020, but intelligence in women isn’t something to be feared. It doesn’t corrupt the mind to wickedness or turn them into evil hags, and even though you may be (hopefully) chuckling or even rolling your eyes that I felt the need to say that, there are still tropes and roles that women are written into as characters that reinforce outdated ideas. That is why even a lighthearted YA adventure mystery romp like Enola Holmes can be an important story for young and old people alike. Because there have been over 250 screen adaptations of Sherlock Holmes, but this one shifts the focus to a girl who might have otherwise been in the shadows. And she’s smart and kind and brave, and Sherlock doesn’t patronize her, but treats her as an equal—as he says in one scene, “one detective to another.”
Nothing about the story of Enola Holmes undermines or undercuts who Sherlock Holmes is. Neither does she take his place; Enola is her own person with her own strengths and weaknesses—bearing her own witness to the fact that she grew up in the same unique environment as he and Mycroft did. Sherlock remains as much the genius, deductive detective as ever, and Mycroft as much the man of the state. Bringing a young sister into Sherlock’s life does, however, humanize him. But this is nothing that other interpretations of his story haven’t done before.
I like to think that there is a Sherlock Holmes for all of us (I certainly have my favorite), and as more and more of Arthur Conan Doyle’s stories come into public domain, there promises to be no end of new screen adaptations and reimagined stories. I do hope, however, that Netflix decides to pursue more Enola stories even if they do give us a “spin-off” Henry Cavill Sherlock Holmes. While over 250 screen adaptations of Sherlock Holmes may provide a Sherlock for anyone who wants to enjoy the character, so far there is only one Enola—and that sort of representation can matter a great deal for young girls, for teenagers, and even for grown women like me.
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