Greatest Sherlock Holmes #1: Who is Irene Adler?


Jeremy Brett was probably the best Sherlock Holmes on-screen, starring in years of entertaining moments on PBS, UK, and Canadian television.  The Brett series “The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes” was a popular one when it first came out, but receives less credit today.  I never hear it talked about in the same breath as the movie version or the silly modern comedy adverture version, which is unfortunate.  I hope it is not dying from memory.

Even as a youngster, I loved this series.  Sherlock Holmes seemed like a wise, intelligent superhero, thwarting evil and living by his wits.  His eccentricities were amusing, but the puzzles and detective work was where the true drama was.  Each episode of the series was a great treat and worked wonderfully as a dramatization of Arthur Conan Doyle’s famous detective.  Jeremy Brett was a stage actor and a great dramatist, which I think added the right amount of flavor to his portrayal of Sherlock Holmes.

A book called “Bending the Willow” by David Stuart Davies recounts some of the background of the Jeremy Brett Sherlock Holmes series shown during the late 80s and early 90s. In his book, Davies recounts many memories made at Grenada Studios in Manchester, England, where Jeremy Brett had a strict notion about how he played Sherlock Holmes. Writer John Hawkesworth and producer Michael Cox imbued many of the episodes they wrote with their own sense of correctness, rules about Sherlock Holmes and how it was to be filmed. I have never seen an original Baker Street File by Hawkesworth and Cox go up on Ebay, but Michael Cox rearranged the document into his own book in 2002.

sherlock4“A Scandal in Bohemia” is the first Sherlock Holmes story ever published, but it was not the first one filmed by Grenada, allowing time for Jeremy Brett and David Burke to get their footing as Holmes and Watson. However, “A Scandal in Bohemia” opened The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes in April of 1984 as the first episode on British television nonetheless. It got good reviews from critics at the time of its showing, many of whom respected other Grenada shows, such as Upstairs, Downstairs during the 70s. They mainly made soap operas and The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes did not have a Hollywood budget. One street was constructed for “A Scandal in Bohemia”, which can be seen in the introduction to the program, and it was redressed for other shots throughout.

This 1892 story has been adapted numerous times, but I would say the Grenada version is the closest to the original story. The episode was altered with a modern interpretation on the television show Sherlock, starring Benedict Cumberbatch. His Sherlock Holmes is far more psychotic and over-the-top than I’ve ever seen Holmes portrayed, and I’ve seen a lot of interpretations. I may have to fault Jeremy Brett for beginning the focus on the eccentricities of Holmes, but it is a great and successful focus. Brett moves, talks, and holds himself just like the Sherlock Holmes in my head, in my imagination of the stories. He looks like a literal Paget drawing right out of The Strand magazine, where Paget’s pencil drawings tried to bring Holmes to life, giving an uncanny authenticity to Brett’s performance and the show.

Talk about eccentricities, we get them all in 1984’s “A Scandal in Bohemia”. We get the moody Sherlock Holmes right from the start, where David Burke’s Watson chastises him about his drug habit using some doctorly dialogue, seeing his cocaine syringe in an open desk. We can see the two are great friends and the drug subject doesn’t last long, because Holmes is already contemplating a case.  David Burke does a great job as Watson. 

sherlock1Gayle Hunnicutt plays Irene Adler with grace and distinction, which is quite the opposite of some of the other interpretations we’ve gotten over the years. She’s clever and intelligent, more than a match for Sherlock Holmes. Yes, she’s beautiful, but perhaps it is her mind, as well as her beauty, that Sherlock Holmes was taken with in “A Scandal in Bohemia”.

Watson and Holmes interact heavily about their case and Watson tries some deductions at the start, with Holmes correcting him. This back and forth act would be done many more times throughout the series. They later discuss the case with a masked man, whom Holmes deduces is the King of Bohemia. The country is today the Czech Republic.

sherlock3Holmes uses disguise to infiltrate Irene Adler’s estate and learns her habits, in order to find a scandalous photograph taken of Adler and the King. The King wishes to remarry and in his arrogance, wants to expunge any past indiscretion he may have had with Adler.

Later, Holmes and Watson team up and find the location of the photograph, but don’t ultimately recover it. Irene Adler is too smart for them and escapes, leaving England with the photograph. She leaves a letter to Holmes, saying that she left because he was too strong an antagonist, but promises not to interfere with the King’s impending marriage. The King praises this result.

To this the King of Bohemia declares: “Would she not have made an admirable queen? Is it not a pity that she as not on my level?”

With disdain, Sherlock Holmes says: “From what I have seen of the lady she seems indeed to be on a very different level to your Majesty…”

This is an excellent first episode to Jeremy Brett’s Sherlock Holmes series. It has everything you could want in a Sherlock Holmes adventure, including a puzzle, disguises and some Holmes violin playing. The show has a bit of a repetitive pattern to it, but it feels comfortable and very authentic. Sherlock Holmes was a story set in the present day when it was first published, so it was a contemporary story that touched on popular trends and historical subjects.  It is no wonder modern interpretations have taken this same hint from Doyle for their own production.  Although this episode streamlines many of the details seen in the original story, it leaves the essence and delivers a quality introduction to a long series.

Who is Irene Adler?

This woman is crafty and intelligent, capturing the attention of Sherlock Holmes.  To him, she is known only as “The Woman”, a designation of honor and allure.  It is no wonder she is the most common character in any Sherlock Holmes adaptation.  However, her place of distinction is tarnished somewhat in other productions, as she’s portrayed as a silly thief or dominatrix.

adler1The Hallmark Channel ran a series of Sherlock Holmes movies in 2001, one featuring Irene Adler in a confusing mish-mash of Holmes stories.  It starred Matt Frewer as common-man Sherlock Holmes, who is not British, but he’s kinda disappointing in this role.  Irene Adler is played by Liliana Komorowska, a Polish actress.  She plays the role akin to the movie version, but is very conniving and double-dealing in contrast.  The whole thing was kinda bland in you ask me.

adler2Gayle Hunnicutt plays Irene Adler as the Doyle version, a former opera singer.  She’s rich, smart, and attractive, getting the attention of a King.  She does not exchange with criminals, as in the Liliana Komorowska version.  The portrayal is simple and understated, unlike most other versions.  She’s simply a smart woman and that’s it.  She seems to be around Jeremy Brett’s age at the time of the episode “A Scandal in Bohemia”, but they don’t interact much during the episode, which is a shame.  

adler3Rachel McAdams plays Adler in the movie version.  She is a professional thief and the events of the movies take place some time after “A Scandal in Bohemia”, because Holmes already has a photo of her.  She is apparently killed off in “A Game of Shadows”, the 2011 sequel, in order for Holmes to show emotion for once in the movie series.  She’s not an opera singer in this version and seems more commonplace than graceful.

The Sherlock version on UK television is played by Lara Pulver.  I’m not sure if this is the most notorious version, but it is up there.  She is a dominatix and is able to confuse the highly intellectual Sherlock Holmes with her naked body, which is perhaps the most anti-feminine thing ever.  It was heavily criticized at the time.

adler4The CBS version of Irene Adler on the show Elementary is played by Natalie Dormer, who is really “Moriarity” in diguise.  This one takes the cake.  She is eccentric, but is probably the most arrogant Irene Adler out of all of them.  She’s an artist and a criminal mastermind, using male agents to stand in as “Moriarty” while she plots behind the scenes as the real McCoy.  She probably wouldn’t be caught dead at the opera.

All of the versions of Irene Adler are different, but I really dislike the belittling nature in which Irene Adler is portrayed sometimes.  She can’t just be a smart woman who has the wit to out-think Sherlock Holmes, no she has to be a dominatrix or an over-the-top criminal mastermind.  That’s disappointing.   Hopefully, future versions will consider Irene Adler a complement to Sherlock Holmes, and worthy of the title of “The Woman”.

Please check out other Jeremy Brett Sherlock Holmes reviews:


The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes Episode Guide

Scandal in Bohemia Review
The Dancing Men Review
The Naval Treaty Review
The Solitary Cyclist Review
The Crooked Man Review
The Speckled Band Review
The Blue Carbuncle Review
The Copper Beaches Review
The Greek Interpreter Review
The Norwood Builder
The Resident Patient
The Red-Headed League
The Final Problem