Saturday, January 14, 2012

How do you solve a problem like Irene?

I've held off on blogging about Irene Adler because after the double-punch of Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows and Sherlock S2E2 A Scandal in Belgravia everyone seemed to have stated what we need to know about her. They've covered the problems of oversexualizing her, making her a subordinate to Moriarty, making her a love interest, becoming a damsel in distress, giving Sherlock a ridiculous amount of power over her, and the major problem of making it so that she doesn't win out in the end. All of these being things that are not in the slightest canonical (fucking one King does not a Femme Fatale make), undermine the theme of the original story, but somehow appear to be popular in adaptation after adaptation after adaptation.

And while many of you seem to be more focused on Moffat than Ritchie, I think we mostly agree A Scandal in Belgravia was a far better showing, even for all it's flaws. Those of you who haven't seen A Scandal in Belgravia and are jumping to the conclusion that it makes the exact same mistakes Guy Ritchie did in his two movies, you're jumping the gun. Irene's far more formiddable in Sherlock than in either of those movies, she makes a far better showing, and I believe she's placed equal to the level of Moriarty and Mycroft there. At the very least, it's something we can argue about over several seasons. Do my blood presure a favor and actually watch this one before you start throwing the same criticisms Ritchie is deserving of at Moffat.

But there is one big problem that I haven't seen anyone touch on. One major change from the canon that leads to all of the smaller problems with Irene. One major change that is at the core of what pulls the rug out from under those of us who loved the original Scandal in Bohemia story. One major change that betrays a complete misunderstanding of the point of A Scandal in Bohemia and the real reason Irene Adler could win against Sherlock Holmes and walk away from him scott free holding everything she ever wanted.

Stephen Moffat and Guy Ritchie made the exact same mistake that a million fanfic and pastiche writers have before them. They looked at the Rogues Gallery of Sherlock Holmes for a formidable female villain, someone with potential for romance and intrigue, and picked out the perfect-seeming Irene Adler. This is understandable. She's popular among fans, particularly female ones. She's one of his best known opponents, possibly the best known after Moriarty. She looks good in a suit. Her story involves political and sexual intrigue. She's cunning and resourceful. She won.

There's just one small problem.

Irene Adler isn't actually in the Rogues Gallery of Sherlock Holmes.

Look back at A Scandal in Bohemia. She's not the bad guy. She's the good guy. Sherlock's client is the bad guy, wrongly pestering his ex-girlfriend and painting her as a extortionist when all she wants to do is live her life. He lied to Sherlock Holmes. Her explanation for trying to keep a little insurance against future bad behavior from this man is perfectly understandable. The entire story is a misunderstanding.

And that, more than anything else, is why she got to win. Because in addition to being his equal, beating him fair and square, she was also on the side of right and he was the manipulated one.

Listing her among his "villains" is like listing Spider-man as a Daredevil villain.

I think I understand their logic. I love Sherlock Holmes, but there's only a few recurring characters and the active ones are men. But they want a really notable woman, a strong feminine presence (notice I didn't say strong woman character) for female fans to latch onto and straight male fans to be attracted to. And really, we all do. We want a decent dose of estrogen in these stories. Oh, there's Mrs. Hudson and Watson's wives and plenty of the clients, bystanders, victims and villains are women and they run the gamut from smart and willful to pathetic and panicky, but none of them shine like Irene. We love Irene better than any other woman because she was a match to Sherlock and she threw his unbelievable sexism back in his shocked face with three words. So we not only want to see Irene, we don't want her to disappear at the end of the first story like she does in the canon. We want her to come back for a rematch. We want to see her as a regular recurring character.

But because she began as an antagonist, a lot of "further adventures" want to keep that dynamic. So they come up with the interpretation of this character as a badass "Femme Fatale" (a role that in Sherlock's Gallery goes to one Isadora Klein, who lost) and the most coldly clever woman of the canon (actually, Maria Gibson was a hell of a lot more clever than Irene and she would've gotten away with it too if not for those meddling kids) that basically places her somewhere on the supervillain scale. This leads to our next problem.

Supervillains lose.

Oh I know, we've been reading grown-up pessimistic comics for so long we've forgotten this but in Sherlock Holmes stories this remains the rule. The Bad Guy loses. The criminals get caught. Justice prevails. The minor bad guys pay and the major bad guys might dick around for a while before they lose but in the end... Supervillains lose. That's why Sherlock can be the biggest jerk in London and we still love him, because he uses that horrible personality for good and he is very, very effective at it.

And before you say it, yes, Moriarty loses.

Canonically speaking, he loses in the first story he appears in just like everybody else does.

In adaptations it takes a while. That's what makes Moriarty Moriarty. But he always loses in the end. We know this. We expect this. We sat in that theater last month knowing exactly what would happen the second Mycroft said 'Reichenbach.' We'll all be glued to our sets tomorrow even though we're absolutely sure of the outcome. An experimental writer or two might throw this in our faces but the truth of the franchise is that at the climax, two men go over the falls and one man walks away. The supervillain does not walk away.

And so by the rules of the franchise, when we incorrectly position Irene Adler as a supervillain, she loses. And no matter how well you do it (and Moffat does manage this well, while Ritchie's Irene is more a nuisance and a henchwoman than a real threat, Moffat's is a full-fledged crime boss playing at Mycroft's level and poised to win completely at the climax), you're going to miss the appeal of the original story when she loses.


  1. I agree with basically everything you said here about Irene Adler and her use in adaptation, even though I haven't seen either of these works yet. I am really looking forward to the second series of Sherlock, but haven't had time to track it down.

    After the last Ritchie movie I wrote some thoughts about adaptations or pastiches often twisting Irene into a romantic lead and/or femme fatale. (


    Very interesting. At the end os ASiB I was thinking "unholy alliance". Mostly because in BBC Sherlock, Sherlock's not really 'a good guy' for sure. He's not Moriarty. But in The Great Game, he got his hope up for an allied antagonist, a playmate. Then he got disappointed when the price turned out to be too high. Irene's alliance with Moriarty hurt him, but he saved her. If she was like Moriarty, I don't think he would have. She's an antagonist, yes, that dynamic is kept. And in the story, a villain. But hardly a supervillian. The positioning between 'good side' and 'bad side' are not tightly secured for Sherlock or Irene in the BBC series. The sides don't really matter, the game does.

    She lost.
    Him saving her could mean "I want a rematch" because he's not satisfied with that, unlike when it's just a criminal being caught. I hardly think he did it out of 'romantic love'.


    Anon -- I got the same basic impression, esp after Moriarty, but I think she'll be more an ally when she returns. (I give her a 60% change of showing up in Reichenbach Fall to return this exact favor.) The impression I got was these two definitely want to be friends. His bit about sentiment was utter bullshit (it goes against the theme of the show AND there's several scenes where he's acting out of sentiment in that episode, not to mention the bits with Mycroft where Sherlock shows he's wishing for an intellectual equal who can stil be warm like the people he surrounds himself with at the Christmas party) and it was mainly because he was hurt. He thoguht he'd found that playmate again, and nope, too cutthroat for him. Then on reflection, he remembers she's not quite as cutthroat as she comes off. Instead, she's like him. And he wins that round and gloats.

    I winced at the end, but I read it as definitely a "Let's be friends again" thing.

    But OH, don't sell her short. She is not an everyday villain. She is a supervillain, because the "super" doesn't mean without any code of behavior or hesitancy, the "super" covers power, scope and skill. She's clearly up there with Moriarty. She's playing in Mycroft's league in this ep, and interacting with Moriarty as an equal. She's not a remorseless killer like Moriarty is, but well.. He's basically the Joker of London. Would you downgrade Talia Alghul to a mere "villain" because she's slightly sentimental about her father and Batman and sometimes teams up with the good guys?

    I'd say the positioning is very clear that Sherlock is good side, and Moriarty is bad side. Great Game establishes this, and it's how we go in in Scandal. And Scandal is basically Irene as Sherlock, so it's not a stretch that she'll be a good guy when she next shows up, but that doesn't change the fact that she's a Level Boss in this adaptation and gets categorized as super. If she comes back bad, she's still a supervillain, just a playful one. If she comes back good, like I think, she's a reformed super-villain, or antoher hero.

    And that's really the way she should be to begin with. Moffat shot for Poison Ivy (and arguably got a much cooler Talia), Ritchie shot for Catwoman and came up short, but the canonical interpretation is Black Canary. Another superhero who's breezed into town, and the first meeting is when he finds out whether she's a friend or foe. Moffat may have given us a Black Widow, who starts off a femme fatale and comes back a genuine ally. (And that's why I forgive the end scene.)

    1. In describing Adlet as Black Canary it brings up the classic trope of when 2 heroes meet for the first time they are obliged to have a misunderstanding & fight. Your comparison puts "A Scandal in Bohemia" in a more understandable light for many, I hope.

      And I have to admit it has annoyed me some that Adler has gotten translated somewhat constantly I'm reinterpretations as a love interest &/or villainess. She was escaping a bad relationship, also getting married & immigrating. I appreciate some revamping, like Moffats, but most has been to lessen all characters involved.

  4. Totally agreed.

    On the Spidey note, this was in the latest issue of Daredevil: Thought you might get a kick out of it. :)

  5. Did anyone find Adler to be a little, well, rape-y? One of the main problems I had with her was the fact that her behavior as a domme was not problematized at all. She was a TERRIBLE domme! Yeah, she read her partners well, but she clearly never negotiated and never got consent for a lot of the stuff she did, and a lot of it was pretty brutal. Her comments to Sherlock about his desires were unprofessional and out of line. If their roles had been reversed gender-wise, we'd be talking about how disappointing it was that the strong female protagonist fell for the clearly problematic predatory douchebag male antagonist.

    I realize she's a bad guy, but I think her behavior wrt consent has really been glossed over because she's a woman. I don't find Moffat's adaptation acceptable because I think it plays into the idea that women can't rape. It's really not cool the way her actions surrounding harassment and consent are basically OK in the show. We're supposed to be OK with what she does on some level. Supervillains do bad things, but it didn't feel like the show was pointing to her consent fails and saying" These are bad things," just that her deceptive, selfish, and manipulative behavior made her bad. Did anybody else feel this way?

    1. Yup, unprofessional at best, totally rapey at worst. A lot of the scenes with her made me really uncomfortable :(