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Published April 09 2012

A detective for all seasons: Course to examine evolution of Sherlock Holmes character

If you go

What: “Three Faces of Sherlock Holmes” F/M Communiversity course

When: 1:30-3:30 p.m. Saturday, April 21 and 28

Where: Riverview Place, 5300 12th St. S., Fargo

Info: Course fee is $30; visit www.fmcommuniversity.org or call

(218) 299-3438


FARGO – In the world of literature, Sherlock Holmes is still considered the greatest detective of all time; but even he might have trouble deducing why he’s so popular right now.

The iconic sleuth that was a staple of late 19th century mystery lit can be spotted all over today’s popular culture. With the second season of the BBC series “Sherlock” starting next month on PBS, “Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows,” being released on DVD the month after that and CBS’s new drama “Elementary” in production for a debut later this year, the man known as the Great Detective is in high demand these days.

And just in time, a new F/M Communiversity course, open to the public and taught by Mayville State University professor Mitzi Brunsdale, will take a look at the various portrayals of Holmes over the years in order to understand who the character is and why he’s so popular today.

As it turns out, with apologies to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the answer is elementary, dear readers.

To begin to understand Sherlock Holmes, Brunsdale, who has a background in comparative literature, says we have to factor in the historical context of when the character made his debut in 1887.

“I don’t think we can understand a literary figure unless we really see what the history was like at that time,” she says.

Most significantly, Brunsdale says, England’s Industrial Revolution was changing society throughout the country.

“It put a lot of technology into their world that changed things enormously,” she says. “As a result, the rich were getting richer and the poor were really suffering.”

This, in turn, led to an increase in crime as well as a general fearfulness in society to what was being done to the English way of life.

Luckily, Conan Doyle, the author of the Holmes stories, happened to create just the man for the times.

By writing about a detective who was solving seemingly-impossible crimes in his books, Conan Doyle brought some vicarious security to his otherwise troubled readers, Brunsdale says.

The professor doesn’t think it is coincidence Holmes has become a go-to hero for today’s popular culture fans. In some ways, the conditions of today aren’t all that different from 1873. The continued advent of transcendent technology plus the unstable economic environment could be contributing to a sense of uneasiness in American culture.

“I wonder if the responses to the history and cultural shifts and the insecurity that a lot of people are feeling – that they can read the story, and by George, something’s going to go right, and something’s going to get fixed,” she says of Holmes’ work. “I think that’s why there’s the appeal today.”

In her Communiversity course, Brunsdale will examine the images of Holmes portrayed in three different movies – including the 2009 reboot starring Robert Downey, Jr. – while asking students to read short stories as well.

The 2009 film, and 2011 sequel, portrayed Holmes as more of an action hero rather than a classic detective played in the past; including Basil Rathbone, who starred in 14 Holmes movies.

It’s a necessary change for today’s climate.

“In order to make that character resonate, there has to be certain qualities about him that literally jump off the screen,” Tom Brandau, cinema arts & digital technologies professor at Minnesota State University Moorhead.

As filmmakers have evolved the character, Brandau thinks they’ve still been careful to retain elements from Conan Doyle’s books.

“The people who are making the films today are smart enough to be able to remember the real charm of this character,” he says.

That charm can also be seen in recent adaptations of the character, which place him in a modern setting.

In the BBC’s “Sherlock,” where Holmes is played by Benedict Cumberbatch, and in CBS’s upcoming “Elementary,” played by Jonny Lee Miller (and accompanied by a curiously feminized Joan Watson, played by Lucy Liu), the detective is taken from the 1870s and placed in the 2000s.

The time shift causes some skepticism in Brunsdale.

Taking Doyle’s creation and placing it in a contemporary setting is fascinating, she says, but the timeshift makes the concept a little bit different from what Doyle intended.

But with as popular as the character has become lately, making him more relatable by moving him to modern times only makes sense.

“We’re very comfortable with it,” she says. “I think we can respond positively to both, as long as we don’t expect today’s Sherlock to be identical to the old Sherlock.”

And just like Conan Doyle advocated in his books, Brunsdale hopes that participants in her course are able to see exactly how today’s Holmes differs from the original, and how the character has evolved over time.

“The thing about these courses is, if it inspires these folks to go and dig deeper and enrich their lives, that’s what it’s all about,” she says. “This gives people something to do that’s worthwhile. It’s actual exercising of the mind, and I think that’s a very valuable thing.”

Holmes himself would probably agree.


Readers can reach Forum reporter Sam Benshoof at (701) 241-5535