Transforming Fandom: Reinventing Sherlock Holmes

Reinventing Sherlock Holmes: The Transmedia Co-Construction by and for Fan Communities

Original illustrations by Sidney Paget for Doyle's "Final Problem"
Original illustrations by Sidney Paget for Doyle’s “Final Problem” (1893)

The adventures of Sherlock Holmes continue to fascinate audiences, regardless of the fact that the author of the original text, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, has been dead for 84 years. Doyle penned a total of 4 novels and 56 short stories containing the beloved Holmes over a period of 40 years, the 8-year long “Great Hiatus” between The Final Problem (1893) and The Hounds of Baskerville (1901) notwithstanding. According to the Guinness Book of World Records, the protagonist Sherlock Holmes is “’the most-portrayed movie character’, with more than 70 actors having played the part in at least 200 films” (Fox 1). In the last ten years, there have been numerous movies, books, and television series’ devoted to reinventing Sherlock Holmes, each one aimed at helping audiences find value in the historical character while simultaneously attempting to entice newer, younger consumers to participate in fan communities based on said character. For purposes of this “Transformative Fandom” series, I will take this concept a step further. According to the Archive of Our Own website for transformative fan works, there are currently a total of (I’ve updated this number 4 times in 1 week) 59,761 texts, pictures, videos and podfics uploaded and tagged with the term “Sherlock Holmes”. The characters of Holmes and Watson, as created by Doyle, are in the public domain, which means anyone can use them without permission, the caveat being that works only include the specific qualities of these characters as defined by the author in his texts published before 1923. For writers, artists and filmmakers, this means commercial adaptations can be made (mostly) without fear of copyright infringement, as long as the features of the characters are explicitly early canon or, conversely, unique. The Consulting Detective has enamored readers for over a hundred years, but with only 60 original stories written by Doyle, fans take it upon themselves to explore, in detail, the universe surrounding Sherlock, while others enjoy filling in the blanks of our beloved character’s existence with imagined cases, love interests and encounters that Doyle never anticipated. While neither community is necessarily exclusive or superior, both have specific goals and characteristics that assist in the co-creation of Sherlock Holmes via multiple media sources.

mr. holmes by mariya olshevska
mr. holmes by mariya olshevska

Fan Communities

The first known meta narrative written about Sherlock Holmes is by Monsignor Ronald A. Knox, entitled “Studies in the Literature of Sherlock Holmes”. Then an Anglican priest, Knox presented his essay at the Gryphon Club in 1911 and subsequently published the piece in The Blue Book Magazine in 1912. The Gryphon Club, formed in 1881 at Trinity College at Oxford, is considered to be the first Sherlock “fan club” and Knox’s essay is celebrated as a “cornerstone of Sherlockian literature” (Diogenes Club) by scholars. In his essay, Knox discusses the inconsistencies of the text, questions the legitimacy of the timeline, and mentions a correspondence between himself, his club mates and the author. Typical fandom behavior, yes, but 100 years before Tumblr, Twitter and the internet gave fans the opportunity to easily participate in a transmedia conversation about creative works. Knox is passionate about the Sherlock universe and believes that scholarly work can come out of any thoughtful examination of a text.

If there is anything pleasant in life, it is doing what we aren’t meant to do. If there is anything pleasant in criticism, it is finding out what we aren’t meant to find out. It is the method by which we treat as significant what the author did not mean to be significant, by which we single out as essential what the author regarded as incidental…If anyone objects, that the study of Holmes literature is unworthy of scholarly attention, I might content myself with replying that to the scholarly mind anything is worthy of study, if that study be thorough and systematic.

Ronald A. Knox

For Knox, there is implicit value in analyzing and deconstructing the work of Doyle. He participates in an affirmational fan community–one which supports the investment in and practice of scholarly criticism of not only the textual work of Doyle, but also the canon that has built itself around the original 60 Sherlock stories. Affirmational fan communities tend to focus on the creator and meaning of the text; exploring significance with an “as-is” attitude, allowing the work to remain a sort of “sacred text”, admiring the creative spectrum without participating in any sort of rewrite of canon. While avoiding the conversation of the gender divide within fandom (for now) traditionally, affirmational fan communities consist of a predominantly male audience who participates in discussions of a show, book or film in an official capacity on terms that encourage and validate the creator and the source text. In 1911, affirmational communities for Sherlock Holmes began at Oxford University. Today, they are carried on at the official BBC online fan forums or at places like San Diego Comic Con. Affirmational fans are interested in displaying their appreciation for a source work and the industry that creates them rather than transforming said work into new material and reinterpreting or reappropriating meaning.

According to Stein and Busse, “Sherlock Holmes fan communities exhibit wide ranges and creativities, both affirmational and transformational, be it within more traditional fan communities such as the Sherlock Holmes Society or Baker Street Irregulars, or in the most recently developed communities such as livejournal’s sherlockbbc and Tumblr’s fuckyeahsherlock” (16). While affirmational and transformational communities are not mutually exclusive, there are differences between the way the fans within these populations interpret creative works. Sites such as or Archive of Our Own give transformational fan communities the opportunity to anonymously share work such as fan videos, fan art and fan fiction that pushes against political, gender, social and sexual boundaries and, while Sherlock Holmes adaptations vary in focus and style, most retain key characteristics within new versions of the Detective and his adventures. For example, within the 60k works on AO3 tagged “Sherlock Holmes”, a reader might find stories of a Sherlock AU (alternate universe), Johnlock slash (the homoerotic relationship of John and Sherlock), fandom crossovers, species shifts, gender shifts or newly created adventures that are only slightly off canon. This same reader might explore Tumblr, livejournal or deviantart for images of both Watson and Sherlock as female, or detectives from the year 2078, or even lovers with a penchant for S&M. While affirmational communities may be legitimized by the industry, transformational communities are considered by many as obsessive, inappropriate and unnecessary. Again, while gender is not the express topic of this essay, the transformational community is made up of a high percentage of women, a traditionally marginalized group in the wide world of fandoms. Perhaps because female fans are on the fringes of geek society already, it is mostly women who are anonymously creating, what Henry Jenkins calls the “imaginative juxtapositions of someone else’s words and images” (225). These works question meaning, theme and purpose of the original work, while continuing to validate the source text, across multiple media platforms.

Fan video by Pteryx

The Value of Transmedia

Henry Jenkins articulates the meaning of transmedia storytelling on his blog, “Confessions of an Aca-fan”. He writes,

Transmedia storytelling represents a process where integral elements of a fiction get dispersed systematically across multiple delivery channels for the purpose of creating a unified and coordinated entertainment experience. Ideally, each medium makes it own unique contribution to the unfolding of the story. So, for example, in The Matrix franchise, key bits of information are conveyed through three live action films, a series of animated shorts, two collections of comic book stories, and several video games. There is no one single source or ur-text where one can turn to gain all of the information needed to comprehend the Matrix universe.

Henry Jenkins

By using transmedia, such as the interactive Sherlock smartphone app, a YouTube channel or constantly updating Instagram and Tumblr accounts, networks like BBC America are able to advertise shows such as Sherlock, gain new viewers and communicate with audiences via multiple platforms. Fans of the BBC’s Sherlock can visit both John Watson and Sherlock’s “official” blogs and gain entry into the extensive fictional universe created around the character Sherlock Holmes or they can watch exclusive footage published only on the BBCA website. Access to these different contributions to the Sherlock universe is unlimited and available to all. These affirmational platforms are not only a good way for networks to interact with audiences, but become a way for fans to interact with each other, creating a community space for those who are interested in transformational works to meet, network and share media. This co-creation within the fan community can be taboo in itself, as copyright issues and intellectual property of images come into question, but often even more taboo is the idea of fans taking original material and manipulating it to become something Doyle, or Moffat and Gattiss for that matter, never meant it to be.

In fact, Stein and Busse remind us,”the recent incarnations of Sherlock offer avenues of fan devotion and investment that may seem new because of their location within digital culture, but in fact have long histories in Sherlock Holmes fandom and in the original Conan Doyle narratives” (9). Monsignor Knox and his cohorts of the Gryphon Club at Oxford placed the fictional universe of Sherlock Holmes in such high regard, they assembled on a regular basis to discuss the idiosyncrasies of the character and the books he inhabited. They affirmed the source work by directly communicated with the author about his work and by taking the time to debate the details. Even in the early 1900s, fan communities constructed meaning within the text and used media (personal letters, published essays and lectures) to disperse information to peers. In the 21st century, fans of Sherlock have access to multiple avenues of media from which it is possible to discuss the Sherlockian universe and interact with others. This access to transmedia fosters a participatory culture, encouraging creative parties to not only observe the fictional universe, but assist in the creation, as well.

Over time, both affirmational and transformational communities have consistently utilized transmedia to assist in the co-construction of the Sherlock universe, whether by participating in activities such as downloading the Sherlock app, visiting the BBCA website to chat with fellow fans about the show or by finding and/or creating new meaning using source text. Both communities hold some measure of power in the construction of the text. While the source text is the property of the original creator, without the fans, does the text hold meaning? Where does ownership end and creative license begin? In the December 1893 issue of The Strand Magazine, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle decided to publicly kill off the beloved character, Sherlock Holmes, by having him tumble off of Reichenbach Falls with his nemesis, James Moriarty. Outraged, fans united to save the beloved detective and, while it took 8 years for Doyle to cave to demands, he did bring the character back to life in 1903 with The Adventure Of The Empty HouseAccording to The Daily Mail, “The reaction to the great detective’s death was extreme. The Strand Magazine lost 20,000 subscribers — and fans of Holmes took to the streets wearing black armbands.” The participatory culture of fandom required readers–those invested in the universe of Sherlock Holmes–to express their horror at the loss of their favorite Consulting Detective with a letter writing campaign that lasted 8 years. While Doyle may not have had such a sentimental connection to his character as his readers, he did not underestimate the dedication of the Sherlock Holmes fandom. In a response from Doyle in regards to Knox’s essay, the author writes,

I cannot help writing to you to tell you of the amusement- and also the amazement- with which I read your article on Sherlock Holmes. That anyone should spend such pains on such material was what surprised me. Certainly you know a great deal more about it than I do, for the stories have been written in a disconnected (and careless) way without referring back to what had gone before. I am only pleased that you have not found more discrepancies, especially as to dates. Of course, as you seem to have observed, Holmes changed entirely as the stories went on. In the first one “The Study in Scarlet” he was a mere calculating machine, but I had to make him more of an educated human being as I went on with him. He never shows heart- save in the play- which one of your learned commentators condemned truly as a false note. One point which has not been remarked by the learned Sauwosch. . . is that in a considerable proportion of the stories- I daresay a quarter- no legal crime has been committed at all. Another point-one of the few in which I feel satisfaction but which I have never seen mentioned is that Watson never for one instant as chorus and chronicler transcends his own limitations. Never once does a flash of wit or wisdom come from him. All is remorsely eliminated so that he may be Watson.”

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

Much like the gatekeepers of modern fandoms’ favorite obsessions–Stan Lee, Eric Kripke, Steven Moffat–Doyle appreciates, if rather skeptically, the “pains” that fans take in deconstructing the original source work. Alongside the author stands the fan–the person who discovers a deeper message in the grand narrative and who is not ashamed or afraid to extol its value. Whether a community works at affirming the text or transforming it is ultimately irrelevant. What matters is that we recognize the fluidity of meaning within a text, allowing for multiple interpretations as well as creative transformations.

–The Collectiva Diva

Follow @nerdwrldprblms for more transformative content


Works Cited

Fox, Chloe. “Sherlock Holmes: pipe dreams.” The Telegraph. Telegraph Media Group, 25 Sept. 0015. Web. 11 May 2014. <;.

Jenkins, Henry. “Transmedia Storytelling 101.” Confessions of an AcaFan. N.p., 22 Mar. 2007. Web. 13 May 2014. <;.

Leith, Sam. “So how CAN Sherlock return from the dead? How the fictional detective fooled us all over again.” Mail Online. Associated Newspapers, 19 Jan. 2012. Web. 13 May 2014. <;.

Pearson, Roberta, and Alexis Lothian. “Aca-fandom and Beyond: Roberta Pearson and Alexis Lothian (Part Two).” Confessions of an AcaFan. N.p., 15 Aug. 2011. Web. 10 May 2014. <;.

Stein, Louisa Ellen, and Kristina Busse. “Introduction: The Literary, Televisual and Digital Adventures of the Beloved Detective.” Sherlock and Transmedia Fandom. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2012. . Print.

“The Diogenes Club: Studies in the Literature of Sherlock Holmes by Msgr. Ronald A. Knox.” The Diogenes Club: Studies in the Literature of Sherlock Holmes by Msgr. Ronald A. Knox. N.p., n.d. Web. 7 May 2014. <;.