• Why Irene Adler Is THE Most Annoying Character in Every Update of Sherlock Holmes, Ever

    by  • June 10, 2013 • House, M. D., Sherlock Holmes, TV, You are probably sorry you asked • 10 Comments

    (Even you, Elementary. Though I admit your circumstances are slightly different. BUT I WILL *NOT* SPOIL THEM, SO READ ON WITHOUT FEAR!)

    I love updates of Sherlock Holmes, but I have not yet encountered a single version of Irene Adler who does not make me want to punch the character in the face.

    For those who are unfamiliar with the original Holmes stories, Irene Adler appears in a single Sherlock Holmes short story, “A Scandal in Bohemia,” in which she is in possession of incriminating materials that her former lover, royalty about to get married, wants back. However, whenever Sherlock Holmes updaters try to solve the Holmesian sausage-fest problem, she’s usually one of the first characters to get brought in. Why? Because Holmes refers to her as “the woman,” and for that reason, she’s pretty much the most famous female character in all of canon.

    Updated versions of her include: Stacy from House, M. D.; Catwoman Irene Adler from the new Robert Downey Jr. movies; naked dominatrix Irene Adler from Sherlock; and (initially — no spoilers!) manic pixie dream girl Irene Adler from Elementary. And I hate all of them.

    Here’s why.

    1. Updates introduce Adler in the worst possible way.

    We tend to hear about Adler way before we ever meet her. The Holmes character — or his friends — or sometimes even the showrunners — tell us how she was always the woman to him/the only romantic partner he every loved/the only romantic partner everyone ever always finds attractive/practically perfect in every way like a sexy, smart Mary Poppins.

    Notice something? First, that bar is pretty darn high. After spending so much time learning how awesome Irene Adler is, I get disappointed pretty quickly when the reality doesn’t match up.

    And it probably won’t because, second, all these cool attributes of hers are vague and subjective. Often, I get told Adler is smart and attractive, but I never actually see her, you know, doing smart things or attracting people. In fact, I often see her getting dominated by Holmes right away (e.g. the measurements bit in Sherlock), which isn’t dumb, necessarily, but certainly isn’t the WOW EINSTEIN + HAWKING x 2 that I was promised.

    Finally, Adler’s build-up as “the woman” tends to implicitly contrast her with the existing female characters on the show. By explaining how super-special Adler is for her gender, showrunners, intentionally or not, invite us to compare her with the other ladies. And considering those other ladies are regular, (hopefully) fleshed-out characters whom I already know and love, that just highlights the shortcomings of her depiction.

    2. Updates usually write a “perfect woman” Adler.

    This drives me bonkers.

    Most (good) characters are written and performed based on what makes that character an interesting and well rounded individual who gives the illusion of being a real person. Not so Irene Adler.

    For Adler is Smurfette — she is designed for one purpose only. In recent updates, that purpose is to be the only woman to whom Holmes is attracted.*

    That means that she’s seldom written in the way that puts her development as a character first. It means that Holmes is carefully analyzed, and Adler becomes a compilation of parts intended to match Holmes’s needs. Holmes is the artefact; Adler is just a blank mold into which his clearly defined personality is impressed so that when the audience sees her, they’ll understand they fit perfectly.

    Only, it’s not just that: Watson also has to fit Holmes perfectly. Adler has to fit Holmes in ways that the writers feel are appropriate to an ideal woman. So where you have giving Wilson who needs someone to need him but also advises House to pick up hookers, or Afghanistan-war-vet-Martin-Freeman Watson who loves sniping and adrenaline but also is hurt when Holmes says he doesn’t have any friends, you get an Irene Adler who’s all I LOVE BEING NAKED AND SEXY AND WANT TO HAVE SEX WITH YOU ALL THE TIME BECAUSE I AM A LIBERATED WOMAN (/what the writers think straight men want a liberated woman to be) or LOOK AT ME I AM A FREE SPIRIT WHO WANTS TO LIVE LIFE TO ITS FULLEST.

    3. Updates give Adler to Holmes.

    Two things canon is clear about: Adler is more clever than Holmes. Adler does not love Holmes. Like, Holmes requires an explanatory letter from her to figure out what she’s done, that is how much she pwns him, and she runs off with the other man she actually loves without ever talking to Holmes face to face with neither of them in disguise, that is how little Holmes matters to her.

    So why, in almost every update, does Holmes dominate Adler intellectually** and become the object of her mad desires? Even happily married Stacy was ready to leave her husband for House, M. D., and the only reason she didn’t was because he changed his mind.

    Don’t get me wrong, that can be an exciting twist on canon, but recent updates often act like it’s the only way the character is interesting. It’s not! And having an unwritten rule that nobody but Holmes can ever, ever win, intellectually or romantically, also limits what writers can do with him. So it’s lose-lose.

    4. Updates give Adler to Moriarty.

    So, Adler is arguably smarter than both Holmes and Moriarty. Don’t forget, Holmes catches and defeats Moriarty over and over. Holmes never catches Adler. True, Adler never aims as high as Moriarty does, but perhaps she’s all the more dangerous for that?

    Yet for some reason (again, no spoilers, so I won’t name particular updates or point out the ones that diverge from this trope), new updates of Holmes tend to make Irene Adler Moriarty’s subordinate. Why? Charitably, maybe they see it as a step up from “woman who messes up other people with her love life.” And maybe they want to simplify the structure of the show — avoid distracting everyone from Holmes’s “real” nemesis, Moriarty. And, of course, there’s the HIGH STAKES DRAMA of the woman Holmes loves working for his mortal foe.

    But jeez, can’t a girl get a break? Why can’t Adler just be working for herself for once? Or maybe she’s a talented criminal who isn’t that interested in crime — the anti-Mycroft to Moriarty’s anti-Sherlock. Why is she automatically relegated to becoming a pawn of the Napoleon of crime? Even Sebastian Moran usually gets a better break than that.

    My point is, sure, Irene Adler may have a cipher personality in canon. But there’s absolutely no reason, even if you want to expand her role, that she has to be a cipher personality in re-imaginings. If you’re going to re-manipulate canon, darnit, do it in exciting ways to give the audience a fantastic character who just happens to be female. Make her the person. Don’t worry, that will automatically still make her the woman, too.

    * Yes, romantically. No, that is not canon. No, I actually don’t mind, as long as it makes the story more interesting and not less.

    ** And let’s not even touch how in recent updates (Sherlock and Elementary, this means YOU), Holmes ultimately wins because Adler puts her feelings ahead of her own interests. Those silly women and their emotions! Why can’t they learn to make strategic decisions instead of getting bandied about by luuurv?


    I write SFF, young adult, and middle grade fiction, and I've been known to knock off a play here and there. I'm represented by Bridget Smith of Dunham Literary, Inc. Stick around - who knows what might happen?


    10 Responses to Why Irene Adler Is THE Most Annoying Character in Every Update of Sherlock Holmes, Ever

    1. June 10, 2013 at 2:08 pm

      I realize your not trying to be nuanced but I think in “A Scandal in Bohemia” Adler actually does get temporarily outsmarted by Holmes as she herself admits in the letter she sends to Holmes. If she had totally pwned him, he would never have found out where she was storing the photograph. So while advantage Adler I’m not sure its as one-sided a conflict as your comment might suggest, but I agree that the adaptions fail to take to heart this sort of aspect of the original encounter.

      I’m not sure what I think of modern adaptions of Adler, I guess I don’t hate them, but they often seem a bit off and weak. Note that this would is true of portrayals of Holmes and Watson that tend to exaggerate in strange and wonderful ways aspects of the original characters. I tend to think of the recent adaptions as too clever by half (I may just like Jeremy Brett’s portrayal too much).

      I wish adapters would not decide that Holmes has to be cynical and morally ambiguous, which you can read into the original character, but I think its more a case that the original Holmes is fundamentally morally unambiguous but has various anti-social and unconventional aspects. The desire for the juiciness of moral ambiguity and cynicism clearly is part of the way several versions of Adler are adapted.

      • June 11, 2013 at 3:37 pm

        Heh, Jeremy Brett is pretty awesome. (Only, I can’t watch any of the ones where the actor is himself suffering health issues. “The Dying Detective” in particular is hard to watch.)

        I don’t mind the morally ambiguous Holmes — I see it as a kind of postmodern take on the turn-of-the-century infallibility of reason, although I wouldn’t want it to overshadow original Holmes completely. They can coexist.

        I agree that Holmes is at his core morally rigid; I think sometimes it’s exactly that aspect when copied into modern adaptations that makes his actions ambiguously ethical. Perhaps it’s an indication of the way compromise and respect for multiple perspectives have in themselves become part of the moral landscape?

        • June 20, 2013 at 5:20 pm

          My take is something like this. Doyle’s Holmes played judge, jury and executioner (or at least pardoner “compound a felony” by covering up a crime he thought it unnecessary to prosecute) without much self-consciousness or doubt. I think we may well be less comfortable with that kind of self-assured black-and-white morality now than Doyle and his contemporaries were. However, I tend to think of modern adaptions as turning Holmes inscrutable and sometimes mercurial personal motivations be all consuming and in some cases have him deny moral purpose or authority (though often his actions refute his words). So the effect is different, it is a different dilemma he presents us with. For original Holmes investigations and hunting criminals is rarely personal, for adaption Holmes it often is personal, if that makes sense.

          • June 21, 2013 at 10:03 am

            Definitely — I see what you mean by post-modern Holmeses becoming personal rather than… I guess I might call it abstract. I wonder if there are any papers on it? It seems like there’s room there for an interesting argument about cultural perceptions of subjective vs. objective rationality.

    2. Boaz Miller
      June 10, 2013 at 2:45 pm

      Well said!

    3. Grace
      June 11, 2013 at 6:42 am

      I guess I have trouble with all of the “adaptations”. They annoy me to no end… just the trailers already do the job without me having to watch the movies themselves. I prefer the original books — just as they are.

      • June 11, 2013 at 3:31 pm

        Fair enough! I actually love seeing new adaptations of Sherlock Holmes, just to see how they’ve decided to rework it. For me, it’s like good fanfiction in that it’s kind of like an essay on how the author(s) see the characters and situations, only dramatic form.

    4. Jean Moke
      December 27, 2013 at 7:43 pm

      I have a feeling the writers do not work on having read the entire book, but somewhat piecing together what they read from a shortened version of the books then having a team of people deliberate on how they’d change the characters to match modern times. This in itself annoys me because in doing this, they tend to strip the characters of their core characteristics. I think that nobody has and ever will get Irene Adler right until they’ve read the books several times and hired people who know something about a little character development. By the way, why does Adler always have to be such a sexual femme fatale in the adaptations? Isn’t that a little old school? I mean, going on the notion of making the books more modern, if that even makes sense.

    5. sam gh
      August 7, 2014 at 12:37 pm

      i can’t realy agree with the statement that adler is smarter than moriarity….. adler could escape more because of sherlock’s too much overconfidence than adler’s own intelligence. yes she was a smart woman…… but moriarity is much better in case of brain games…. there was hardly any face off between sherlock and adler……… but moriarity was the one whom sherlock couldn’t beat in spite of trying so hard….

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