The Conan Doyle Estate Is Suing Netflix’s Enola Holmes for the Worst Reason
The Estate of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle has filed a complaint against Netflix’s upcoming movie Enola Holmes. Based on a series of books by Nancy Springer about Sherlock Holmes’ younger sister, the film stars Millie Bobbie Brown as Enola and Henry Cavill as Sherlock. Now the Conan Doyle Estate is suing for infringement—alleging that to depict the character of Sherlock Holmes as warm and capable of empathy is a latter-day development based on the ten Sherlock Holmes stories still under copyright. Yes, folks, Sherlock Holmes apparently has to be a bit of a bastard at all times or else you risk the wrath of the barristers.
There’s a lot going on here to unpack. First of all, let’s get this out of the way: Enola Holmes and her stories are entirely Springer’s creation. In Conan Doyle’s canon, we only learn that Sherlock has a powerful brother, Mycroft, who works for the government; Sherlock famously remarks of Mycroft that “Occasionally he is the British government.” (Mycroft will be played by actor Sam Claflin in Enola Holmes, so he’s also around.) Otherwise, all we know of Holmes’ family is that he descends from “country squires.” Essentially, Holmes’ background is a blank book to be scribbled in.
And scribbling away is legally sound: back in 2014, it was affirmed that Sherlock Holmes as a character, and his recognizable world, are firmly in the public domain. As The Los Angeles Times reported then, “A judge has ruled that Sherlock and the familiar elements of his stories are in the public domain and, in a strongly worded opinion, criticized the Arthur Conan Doyle estate for its practices.”
There are four books and fifty-six Sherlock Holmes stories written by Conan Doyle, and only the last ten stories, written between 1923 and 1927 and collected in The Case-Book of Sherlock Holmes, remain under the Estate’s copyright. This hasn’t stopped the Estate from going after books, movies, anthologies, and other works that it alleges draw on elements present in those ten stories alone. In the 2014 ruling, the judge called the Estate’s practice of demanding a licensing fee for the character or else threatening a protracted court battle “a form of extortion.”
Well, the extorters are still at it. In their complaint against Enola Holmes, which targets Springer, her publisher Penguin Random House, Netflix, and Legendary Pictures, the Conan Doyle Estate takes aim specifically at Springer’s depiction of Sherlock Holmes as caring about John Watson’s safety. Yes, you read that right. Variety explains:
In the lawsuit, the estate alleges that Springer’s novels draw on the 10 stories published between 1923 and 1927, in which the coldly analytical detective is depicted — for the first time — as capable of empathy and friendship.
The suit quotes from a scene in one of the novels in which Sherlock Holmes express “controlled anguish” when Dr. Watson goes missing, and is presumed dead or kidnapped.
“Nowhere in the public domain stories does Holmes express such emotion about the well-being of his companion John Watson,” the suit alleges. “This friendship was not created by Springer in the Enola Holmes Mysteries. It was created in the Copyrighted Stories and copied by Springer.”
This allegation is both mind-boggling and laughable to me, but it’s not the first time the estate has claimed, with legal muscle, that an “emotional” Sherlock can only be seen in the Copyrighted Stories. They used this same assertion for the 2015 movie Mr. Holmes, starring Ian McKellan; per LA Times, “that suit was settled out of court and dismissed a few months later.”
I hope that Springer and Netflix et al choose to fight the Estate here rather than bow to their bullying, but with the movie rumored to debut on Netflix in August, it’s possible they might try and settle to forgo the challenge. The Estate’s decision to sue now, with Enola Holmes’ release on the horizon, and not when it was in development or when Springer’s books were published beginning in 2006, seems telling. It’s also immensely frustrating that a movie centered around a young woman’s adventures is being sued over what’s likely a minor plot point involving her brother. But let’s talk about why this is a ridiculous and awful element regarding Sherlock Holmes to sue over at all.
Sherlock Holmes and John Watson’s friendship and crime-solving escapades comprise one of the most famous partnerships in literary history, if not the most famous. Even someone totally unexposed to the myriad stories, books, movies, and TV shows knows from common knowledge that Holmes and Watson are, as the Estate itself calls them, “companions.” To suggest that a modern author’s depiction of Holmes demonstrably caring about Watson’s well-being is based on Conan Doyle’s final ten tales, with zero basis in the other forty-six adventures and four books, is patently absurd. The relationship between Holmes and Watson was established in thousands of words that preceded those last stories.
It’s worth mentioning that there are also, at current, more than 61,000 fanfiction stories on Archive of Our Own about Sherlock Holmes and John Watson being involved romantically, a pairing extrapolated from Conan Doyle’s text, early films, and subsequent depictions of the codependency of their relationship in shows like Sherlock, Elementary, and moves like the Robert Downey Jr. Sherlock Holmes franchise. Romantic stories theorizing that the canon-era Holmes and Watson are linked have been around for as long as I’ve been online. I know this because after I read the first Sherlock Holmes collected stories, The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, in high school, I thought to myself, “Wow, these guys really love each other,” and went searching on Ask Jeeves to confirm. This is all to say: Holmes and Watson being close is possibly the most widely known element about Sherlock Holmes other than the fact that he solves mysteries. One wouldn’t have had to ever read Conan Doyle’s final stories to write the characters in this fashion.
In addition, the Estate claiming that Holmes was never shown caring for Watson, or discussing his own emotional state in the earlier canonical stories, is to ignore the stories of Sherlock Holmes. I submit a few quotes:
“You have a grand gift of silence, Watson,” said he. “It makes you quite invaluable as a companion. ‘Pon my word, it is a great thing for me to have someone to talk to, for my own thoughts are not over-pleasant.” —The Man With the Twisted Lip (1891)
“It may be that you are not yourself luminous, but that you are a conductor of light. Some people without possessing genius have a remarkable power of stimulating it. I confess, my dear fellow, that I am very much in your debt.” —Holmes to Watson, The Hound of the Baskervilles (1902)
“I am lost without my Boswell.” —Holmes to Watson, A Scandal in Bohemia (1891)
I could go on at great length.
Sherlock Holmes is a prickly, complicated character, but he’s often highly excitable and emotively open—”coldly analytical” would actually be the last description I’d choose. Even at their first meeting in A Study in Scarlet (1887) Watson (and thus Conan Doyle) describes Sherlock as shouting, chuckling, with delight shining on his features over a discovery and “a merry laugh” as he’s hashing out details of rooming with Watson: “His eyes fairly glittered.” And in describing himself and his shortcomings off the bat to his potential roommate, Holmes says, “I get in the dumps at times, and don’t open my mouth for days on end.” This is a sensitive man frank about his overwhelming emotions from the start, who also says things like:
“How sweet the morning air is! See how that one little cloud floats like a pink feather from some gigantic flamingo. Now the red rim of the sun pushes itself over the London cloud-bank. It shines on a good many folk, but on none, I dare bet, who are on a stranger errand than you and I. How small we feel with our petty ambitions and strivings in the presence of the great elemental forces of Nature!” —The Sign of Four (1890)
Yeah, a real rigidly closed-off buzzkill, that Sherlock Holmes.
Further, even if Conan Doyle’s later Holmes does openly express more affection where Watson’s concerned, I’d argue that as the creator, Conan Doyle is only codifying longstanding character development, not inventing a dramatically new element of Holmes’ feelings that could be potentially infringed.
In The Adventure of the Three Garridebs (1924), one of the stories still under copyright, Watson observes:
“You’re not hurt, Watson? For God’s sake, say that you are not hurt!”
It was worth a wound‚ it was worth many wounds—to know the depth of loyalty and love which lay behind that cold mask. The clear, hard eyes were dimmed for a moment, and the firm lips were shaking. For the one and only time I caught a glimpse of a great heart as well as of a great brain. All my years of humble but single-minded service culminated in that moment of revelation.
While this may have been Watson’s first personally confirmed glimpse of Holmes’ “great heart,” and his “depth of loyalty and love,” it’s clearly been there all Watson’s long years of “humble but single-minded service.” Because how else, for Conan Doyle, could this be an appropriate demonstration from Sherlock if his emotionality had not already long been part of him? It’s a revelation to Watson—not a brand-new invention. Would the Estate suggest that Sherlock discovered his own loyalty and love only in that moment? And doesn’t the sheer depth of emotion here suggest that it’s perfectly reasonable to show a younger Sherlock in Enola Holmes as expressing mere “controlled anguish” about Watson being presumed dead? Is Holmes supposed to shrug impassively when told that Watson is imperiled?
Had Conan Doyle’s older Holmes dramatically changed physical characteristics, say, or gotten married (unlikely), or taken a significant character turn that’s a change of heart and out of nowhere, those seem like elements you might be able to argue were Conan Doyle’s still-copyrighted invention of a later date. In the 2014 ruling, the judge points out that the later-day Holmes has learned to like dogs, which is a distinguishable character trait from his earlier feelings. So that’s a copyrighted development. To claim, however, that the entire friendship and warmth of comradery between Holmes and Watson can be pinned down to ten stories written decades after their inception makes no sense. Their relationship is the one through-line through it all.
Asserting that Sherlock Holmes had never cared before about John Watson’s well-being, and would never have acted with “such emotion” before 1923? You’re on the wrong track, my dear Conan Doyle Estate.
(via Variety, image: Netflix)
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