Characters we know nothing (and everything) about – Moriarty and Irene Adler
While by no means a great cinematic achievement, I quite enjoyed Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows when I viewed it late last year. Following the film, though, the conversation immediately turned to the fact that we all knew the film was really just a placeholder until new episodes of “Sherlock” were aired.
Season one of the BBC series is streaming on Netflix even as I write this and if you haven’t watched it, you are missing one of the better interpretations of the Holmes character you are likely to see. That is remarkable given that there are so very many of them.
What find interesting about Sherlock Holmes is the mythology that has sprung up around him that goes far beyond the original Arthur Conan Doyle stories. “Sherlock” is a fine example as the show re-imagines Holmes and Watson as 21st century characters. They are, in many ways, the same people Doyle wrote about but they have had a modern coat of paint applied to them.
One character who always pops up in the Holmes adaptations is Professor Moriarty. I’ve always found this interesting because Moriarty is such a comparatively minor character in the original stories. The character was created for the sole purpose of killing Holmes off. The reader never meets him directly and we only view him as Holmes’ equal because Holmes tells us that is the case.
Yet, as Holmes has continued to be a character we revisit with regularity, Moriarty has become a character who must appear alongside him. It is not enough that Holmes have a case, he must have an enemy. While Doyle wrote almost nothing to flesh him out, Moriarty exists as that enemy and he is almost impossible to resist.
A compelling antagonist is an important part of any hero myth. Batman has the Joker, The Doctor has The Master and Holmes has Moriarty. The epic battles between these opposing forces are, it would seem, more dramatic than any other.
So often the complaint about antagonists in film is that they don’t measure up to the hero. Why is Wrath of Khan considered to be the best “Star Trek” film? Because Khan is a worthy nemesis to Captain Kirk. In the Star Trek films, he’s the only enemy as compelling as the hero.
Personally, I think one of the main reasons none of the Indiana Jones films are as good as Raiders of the Lost Ark is the fact that Belloq never returns. What do we know about Belloq? We know he regularly beats Jones and that is what makes him interesting. If Belloq regularly wins, there is risk involved. Sure, the crazy Kali cult dude can pull your heart out of your chest but he’s no Belloq. Jones didn’t beat Belloq. God beat Belloq.
The one time Holmes and Moriarty meet in the Doyle story, they both die. OK, Holmes didn’t die but the intent when the story was written was that he was going to stay dead. When you put Moriarty in a Holmes story, you are providing the story with the one character we believe could beat Holmes. That makes him dangerous and it means we’ll be more interested.
From a writer’s perspective, Moriarty is a treat. There is virtually no source material about the guy – as long as you call him Moriarty you can do whatever you want with him. You keep him around as a tease. He’s out there. We know Sherlock is going to have to deal with him. How long can you keep him in the shadows?
The first Downey Sherlock Holmes film had Moriarty as a shadowy figure and one of the major complaints about the film was a rather uninspiring villain. But we knew Moriarty was coming.
Irene Adler is an interesting complement to Moriarty. Another character we don’t directly meet, she is the only person we’ve seen get the best of Holmes. While she has not featured prominently in the Holmes mythology until recently, she is becoming more prominent.
And, more interesting, she is shown as having a connection to Moriarty. The connection is never suggested in the source material but the modern assumption is if we have two characters who are Holmes’ intellectual equal, they have to be working together.
While I think Adler has moved to prominence more because there is this idea that women won’t find a story appealing without some sort of love interest, she is still becoming a much more important piece of the Holmes pantheon. The first episode of “Sherlock” season 2 was frequently referred to as the “Irene Adler” episode. It was exciting to see how the series was going to interpret the character.
Doing Adler and Moriarty “right” has become almost as important as doing Holmes and Watson “right.”
But the fascinating counterpoint is that it is almost impossible to do them “wrong” so long as the viewer has the impression they could possibly beat Holmes. Once you give a character the name “Moriarty,” however, you’ve already created that impression.
All of this is interesting to me precisely because Doyle wrote virtually nothing about Moriarty and Adler. People know so much about Moriarty when the individual who created him gave us almost nothing to go on. We assume a great deal more about Adler than we can possibly know.
The reason, I imagine, we think we know so much is because we know so much about Holmes and we make a series of assumptions about the people who would challenge him.
Both characters as written, however, are enigmatic. We don’t know them at all – we only know how Holmes feels about them.
We know Holmes, though, and that may be why we think we know them and why any modern depiction of Holmes feels incomplete without their presence.