Hello! Today, we’re going to look at one of the most adapted fictional characters in the world: Sherlock Holmes! Specifically, we’re going to look at the original material as is written by Sir Arthur Conan Doyles and BBC’s live series adaptation with Benedict Cumberbatch as Sherlock and how his drug use has evolved from the books to the television screens.
No spoilers ahead! 🙂
Who is he?
The quintessential genius detective, Sherlock Holmes, was first penned into being in 1887 in his first case, A Study in Scarlet. Since then, Sherlock has captured hearts and imaginations worldwide and is easily one of the most widely recognisable literary icons of our time. His acute powers of observation and genius intellect, often only explained at the end when Sherlock lays out the case, leaves those around him baffled and unsure what he is thinking or planning.
The original books were set in the Victorian Era and the BBC’s adaptation takes place in the modern day. As such, Sherlock is seen using technology much more in his work and we also see an update to match the tastes and social norms of modern society. We will expand further on that in the next part.
Sherlock works alongside his friend and flatmate Dr. John Watson in both the books and the TV show who acts as a stand-in for the audience. Other recurring characters include Molly Hooper, who performs as the forensic analyst in many cases (who was not present in the books), Mrs. Hudson, Watson and Sherlock’s landlady, as well as detectives from Scotland Yard, Inspector Lestrade, and Detectives Anderson and Donovan.
What does he do?
Well, here’s a short video demonstration:
Here, we can observe several things: his acuity and logical thinking, his self-assured manner and his sense of superiority. These are all traits that we expect from a male “hero” character. In a way, Sherlock could be described as a superhero of the mind. In a day and age where knowledge and intelligence is the main currency of power, Sherlock emerges as a character that can make full use of the current stage of societal development.
We see how he is able to deduce a lot about a person whom he had just met from his initial interactions with Dr. Watson, able to form detailed character profiles on someone with seemingly disconnected clues that he’s able to logically connect together. The following is another such example, as illustrated by an extremely stressed Sherlock:
His other skills include being able to visualise a vast mind palace to store his memories and knowledge in and having amassed niche information that he thinks is useful in investigations (like being able to differentiate between 240 types of tobacco ash).
What sets him apart, though, is not that he has superpowers; his deductions come from his intense attention to details and logical thinking (“Once you eliminate the impossible, whatever remains, no matter how improbable, must be the truth.”). His sense of superiority is justified in that he simply uses the cognitive abilities that everyone has to their full potential.
Anti-Social Genius Archetype
So we’ve covered the genius part, what about the anti-social tendencies?
I have prepared a small slideshow:
In this slideshow, he shows signs of arrogance, of thinking of others as inferiors (and telling it to their face), a shallow emotional affect and overall, a lack of awareness of and disregard for others’ emotions. Multiple times throughout the show, he identifies himself as a high-functioning sociopath, which, although the term has no clinical validity, reinforces the idea that while he lacks (or deliberately suppresses) emotions and caring for others, he also has a sense of pride about it: that not caring is better which he justifies by saying that it interferes with his work.
His disregard for social norms also extends to the law in how he conducts his detective work. For example, he breaks into a crime scene after he deduces the next victim in a series of murders in The Blind Banker episode. Lestrade mentions that by bringing Sherlock in to look at crime scenes, he’s breaking police procedure and risks contaminating the crime scene. The fact that Sherlock doesn’t follow rules is normalised in the show and it’s to show that because Sherlock is exceptional, he is also an exception to the rules. This point will be important as we explore how BBC portrays modern Sherlock’s relationship with drugs.
Modern Sherlock vs Canon Sherlock
Canon aka Doyle’s Sherlock was a reserved, emotionally detached man but BBC’s adaptation seems to have made him deliberately cruel. While Doyle’s Sherlock was not above making dry remarks about those around him, modern Sherlock is seen lashing out with the intent to cause harm. For example, one of his most frequent punching bags seems to be Molly Hooper who he works with regularly to solve cases.
She is shown to have quite a crush on him but not only is Sherlock oblivious but is also unnecesarily obtuse given his mental prowess. In the first episode of the show, he notices that she is no longer wearing the lipstick she was wearing earlier that day and then remarks that her mouth is too small now. He makes many of these insensitive remarks throughout the show, like pointing out how she’s gained weight or that she has bad luck in dating. Later, during the Christmas episode, he humiliates her by pointing out that she’s all dressed up for someone and got a present for them, not realising that it was for him. It was only in this last example that he realises he’s crossed the line and he apologises.
Other examples within the first episode include stepping on a dying man’s injured shoulder to force him to answer questions and being confused why one of the murder victims might think about her stillborn daughter in her dying moments.
In the books, the most egregious things he does is play the violin in the early hours and shoot up his wall when he’s bored (which BBC Sherlock also does) but BBC Sherlock goes beyond that and actively harms those around him with his actions.
This difference in character extends to their drug habits but it is important to place their actions in their specific cultural contexts. Victorians had access to cocaine and morphine but their medical understanding of these substances were incomplete. The use of now-illegal substances were far more commonly circulated in the Victorian-era UK. For example, they would prescribe these highly addictive drugs to patients for their cough or put cocaine in commercial drinks. Thus, in that era, Sherlock being an upper-class gentleman, it is not unusual for him to take these drugs recreationally.
However, BBC Sherlock exists in the modern time where these drugs are highly stigmatised and illegal in the UK. His drug use is highly unusual and it is suggested in the first episode of the show that Sherlock has had incidents before where the police is reasonably sure that they could find illegal substances in his flat when Lestrade raids his flat under the cover of a drug bust in an attempt to get Sherlock to cooperate with them.
This means that the inclusion of a drug habit in the BBC’s Sherlock was meant to illustrate something about his character rather than a reflection of the time period he lives in.
Becker developed a theory on how one develops a drug user identity (in relation to marijuana) in 1953 and we are going to apply it to the two Sherlocks. He breaks down the process into three parts: 1. learns to smoke it in a way that will produce real effects; 2. learns to recognize the effects and connect them with drug use; and 3. learns to enjoy the sensations he perceives.
In both the books and the TV show, Sherlock is shown to have already achieved Steps 1 and 2 in that he knows how to administer the drug and that he knows what it feels like to be high on the drugs. The question is whether he’s achieved Step 3.
Sherlock in both the TV show and the books say that they use drugs to stimulate their mind and that since they can’t stand being bored, they will often use between cases. However, BBC Sherlock’s use seems to go beyond that.
Sherlock is shown in the first episode to be using three nicotine patches while solving a case, stating that it’s a “three-patch” problem. This is a considerable departure from the canon. We’re going to explore this further in the next section.
There is also an expansion on Becker’s original theory by Hallstone in 2002 that updates his theory to a more modern context. The relevant part of Hallstone’s paper points out that while mainstream society is still highly prejudiced against drugs and drug users, there is also a significant popular narrative that connects illicit drug use to having some level of alternative-culture status and to certain status markers like how smoking was associated with being adult or being masculine. In other words, drug use also has a strong association with being “cool” and as a source of rebellion against authority and existing societal rules which seems to be the case with BBC Sherlock.
Their Drug Habits
Just as we wouldn’t necessarily self-identify as a drug user if we’re taking antibiotics for an infection or painkillers for chronic back pain, we wouldn’t necessarily say that if Sherlock purely used drugs to stimulate his brain between cases, that he’s achieved Step 3 of Becker’s theory. Rather than using for purely recreational purposes, one could argue that he’s taking drugs to maintain his optimal state of well-being.
In Doyle’s original work, on page 13 of The Complete Sherlock Holmes Vol. I to be exact, Watson notes that there are periods where Sherlock lays on the couch for days and suspects narcotics dependence but then dismisses the notion with the remark that these instances were rare and that he usually is sober and organized otherwise. His drug use is also very rarely mentioned within the books and it doesn’t have a significant impact on either the plot or his character.
On the other hand, the TV show has Sherlock’s drug use as a crucial part of his characterisation. It was actually so severe that it caused strain in his relationship with Watson on multiple occasions. Perhaps the most destructive case of him high on drugs is in The Lying Detective episode where his guilt at hurting Watson and fear of losing his friendship shows him relapsing (into what could be cocaine) and we see him trashing his flat. That entire episode showed him struggling to solve a case while high.
Again, that is a drastic departure from the occasional, mild drug use in the books. Therefore, while Doyle’s Sherlock may not have completed his transformation into a drug user, BBC’s Sherlock definitely seems like he’s using the drugs for personal satisfaction and therefore, fulfilling all three steps of Becker’s theory. So, what’s changed between the two versions of Sherlock?
Drug Use as a Dramatic Element
We’ve discussed the personality differences between the book and the TV show and how their drug use see a similar exaggeration when Sherlock was adapted to the screen. Both of these can be attributed to the archetype of the Anti-Social Genius that is popular in modern media. In the TV show, we see that Sherlock’s selfish and egotistical nature is excused because he’s so good at his job and the police turn a blind eye to his unconventional methods and his illicit drug use, communicating to the audience that his exceptional abilities merit exceptional treatment by others and the law.
His drug use in association with this exceptionalism also squarely fits into the narrative that drug use is edgy or cool. This is problematic because it glamorises a very harmful practice and perpetuates the myth that an exceptional person’s skills and potential should be given more weight than their crimes and misbehavior. More to the point of the creators of the show (Moffat and Gatiss), this sort of storytelling shorthand for a cool character is lazy writing and cheapens the character.
Altogether, Sherlock’s characterisation in the show not only makes him an objectively unpleasant person and a terrible flatmate, but also makes him unfit to be a role model for those watching the show. His characterisation of being an anti-social genius not only promotes callousness as being acceptable or admirable if one was just smart enough (a trend we see mirrored in other media such as Mark Zuckerberg’s character in The Social Network) but also treats serious drug abuse as a secondary plotline, throwing away the consequences after the immediate situation is resolved (after all, we don’t see Sherlock ever being held accountable or getting withdrawal or receiving treatment).
For such a high-profile show, this sort of characterisation is lazy at best and irresponsible at worst.
Becker, H. S. (1953). Becoming a Marihuana User. American Journal of Sociology, 59(3), 235–242. http://www.jstor.org/stable/2771989
Doyle, A. C. (1930). The Complete Sherlock Holmes Vol. I: The A. Conan Doyle Memorial Edition. Doubleday.
Hallstone, M. (2002). Updating Howard Becker’s theory of using marijuana for pleasure. Contemporary Drug Problems, 29(4), 821–845. https://doi.org/10.1177/009145090202900408
Jackson, K.M., Janssen, T. & Gabrielli, J. Media/Marketing Influences on Adolescent and Young Adult Substance Abuse. Curr Addict Rep 5, 146–157 (2018). https://doi.org/10.1007/s40429-018-0199-6
Vertue, S. (Producer). (2010). Sherlock [Television series]. London: BBC Worldwide.