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Mar 1

Cameron Mar
Professor Haas
Writing 37
25 Nov 2014
Watson Convention Reinvented
When someone mentions the name, John Watson, they immediately think of Sherlock's
Martin Freeman, Sherlock Holmes's Jude law, or Elementary's Lucy Liu. Not many modern day
audiences know of the true Watson who Arthur Conan Doyle had created over a century ago.
Leroy Panek states in his book, An Introduction to the Detective Story, that he needed a "drab,
quiet name for this unostentatious man" (77). Doyle wanted to appeal to his male middle class
audience more by creating a middle class man with an ordinary name. This allowed the Victorian
Age audience to connect more with an ordinary male like themselves as they read through these
Sherlock Holmes stories. Doyle also realized that Holmes "could not tell his own exploits", so he
decided to make Watson his narrator (Panek 77). In the twenty first century, Watson has been
replaced by a camera as the main narrator of these new Holmes stories even though we still get
to experience Watson as a narrator and even Holmes. Watson has also been changed from a
white middle class male to an Asian middle class woman in Elementary. Over time, two core
conventions of the detective genre, Watson as the narrator and Watson as a middle class male,
have been twisted in order to suit the twenty first century audience more.
Watson as the narrator has been one of the most important qualities of the Sherlock
Holmes stories. Ever since the conception of the first story, A Study in Scarlet, was released in
1887, Watson has been the narrator of almost every succeeding story. Out of all those stories,
three of them do not use Watson as narrator and they are all considered to be weaker than the

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stories that do (Binyon 10). Why was Watson such a key component in the success of Sherlock
Holmes stories? Why would a middle class male acting as narrator attract the Victorian Age
middle class male population? It is simply because those readers could relate. Not many people
could relate directly to the Great Detective Sherlock Holmes, but seeing a normal male like
themselves in these books solving cases alongside Holmes gave them someone to connect with.
These readers could relate to how Watson would deduce wrong or be amazed at how Holmes
could deduce part of a man's life just by looking at the tattoo on his arm and the size of his
hands. In the modern day, the camera is the narrator for almost every film or show. Although
they differ in how they convey messages to the audience, where Watson will share his thoughts,
while the camera will use different angles and shots to give different meaning to a scene, they
both fill the same role a narrator should fill. This role is stated by Leroy Panek: the writer can use
the narrator's ignorance to hide important facts and through him can praise the detective and keep
him civilly reticent at the same time (80). While Watson will not know some facts due to his own
"ignorance", the camera will purposefully omit certain details in a scene in order to give the
audience as many clues as Watson would usually pick up to keep the case as mysterious as
Even though the camera has become the primary narrator in Elementary, Watson still
takes part in the narration and even Holmes narrates sometimes as well. In season 1 episode 1
of Elementary, we are presented with Joan Watson waking up forty seconds into the
episode. The scene starts with a close-up of her clock and then jumps to a close-up of her. The
audience can see that the director uses low-key lighting in order to show how apathetic she is
about starting her day as a sober companion. The audience will recognize Watson as the narrator
at first because she is the first character that the director, Robert Doherty, introduces. This is a

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slight nod to Doyle's original concept of Watson as narrator in order for Elementary to try to
follow that important convention. The background music that is played during the montage of
her running around the city quietly starts to play and then explodes with music once the scene
jumps to a full shot of Watson running down the street in her jogging clothing. The director uses
elliptical editing in this portion of the episode to quicken her jog through New York. The camera
only wants us to look at Watson as ordinary in these scenes. A following shot is employed in
these scenes to observe Watson running past all these other people to display how normal she is.
Doherty wanted the audience to connect with Watson through these scenes because she is
average just like most of them are. Once Watson arrives at Holmes's home, we get a point of
view shot from Watson's perspective of Holmes putting his shirt on. This still gives the audience
a sense that Watson is the narrator as we are looking through her eyes at Holmes instead of
through the camera lens. The next point of view shot is immediately after she sees Holmes. As
she walks through the gate, we see the prostitute through Watson's eyes. Looking through
Watson's eyes allows the audience to feel the emotions she is. We are a bit scared at who this
man who escaped the rehabilitation facility is as we look through Watson's eyes and then once
we see the prostitute through her eyes, we become even more suspicious as to who this man is.
The audience doesn't know it is Holmes yet since the camera has chosen to omit the name of the
man who Watson will be accompanying as his sober companion. This creates a "game" for the
audience to play in the very first episode to see if they can guess who this mystery man is.
Watson finally walks into the room with many televisions where we get another point of view
shot. The audience experiences the queer image of several televisions playing a different show or
movie and Holmes shirtless as we anxiously wait to discover who this man is. We can only see
these three scenes happen through Watson's eyes because we are meant to meet Holmes for the

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first time with Watson as our narrator. It is necessary to recognize one of Doyle's classic
conventions before twisting it right afterwards. Holmes pauses the shows on his televisions and
the audience sees through his eyes for once. Any classic Sherlock Holmes fanatics would be
astonished to actually be able to see through the Great Detective's eyes. This foreshadows how
we will be able to look through his eyes more as he investigates since Watson won't be acting as
primary narrator anymore.
Just like using a white middle class male to attract a larger audience worked in the
Victorian Age, using an Asian middle class female to attract a larger audience works in the
twenty first century. Due to the invention of the linotype to revolutionize printing, the new labor
laws that cut down work hours, and the passage of the Education Act of 1870, more middle class
males gained the chance and ability to read (Panek 76). The linotype increased production of
magazines, such as the one which contained Sherlock Holmes stories. Less work hours gave
middle class males more free time to read, while the Education Act of 1870 taught them enough
to be able to read. During the modern day, a proper education isn't necessarily required to
watch Elementary. All you need is free time, basic cable, and a television to watch from. This
allows a wider audience to enjoy the show rather than just middle class males. The casting of
Watson also helps to increase viewership on the show. Zack Handlen states that "Turning John
into Joan (and casting Lucy Liu in the role) wasn't just a gimmick, but rather the central part of a
commitment to finding a new take on the Holmesian mythology" (2). Doherty's "take on the
Holmesian mythology" was meant to attract a diverse crowd of people. Most Sherlock fanatics
will want to watch this American "knock-off" of Sherlock, while woman will want to watch
because there is a woman in a leading role in this show. The attraction is also in the fact that
Watson is given a chance to be a detective herself whereas the original Watson never was. As

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stated in the Hound of the Baskervilles by Holmes to Watson, "it may be that you are not
yourself luminous, but you are a conductor of light" (Doyle 1). This quote states how Watson
isn't actually a genius like Holmes, but will help Holmes solve cases by being the one who
stimulates his genius during cases. This is changed in Elementary. Emily Asher-Perrin states
how Watson and Holmes are seen as equals in the show proven by the fact that Watson becomes
Holmes's apprentice because he believes she can become great just like him (3). Watson is no
longer seen as a conductor of light, but more as one who could become luminous as well.
The adaptation to cast Watson as a middle class Asian woman is successful in appealing
to the twenty first century audience. In the twenty third episode of Elementary, Holmes is faced
with taking care of Irene Adler, his lover, while Watson is given the case to find Adler's
kidnapper. Starting at 11:58, Holmes is telling Watson that she needs to work on the case.
Doherty employs a medium long shot to show Holmes and Watson talking about her working on
the case alone. This shot exemplifies quality between the two of them. They both take up the
same amount of space in the frame and Holmes doesn't look as though he trumps her with his
own ingenuity. Holmes sees her as an equal and reassures her that the inspectors will help with
her "transition" into the consulting detective. He is confident Watson will be able to assist the
police as if he were there himself. This gives the audience confidence in the fact that even the
great Sherlock Holmes can trust a woman of the middle class to solve a case without his
extraordinary deduction skills. The fact that a woman can be on equal standing with a man is
more updated for this time period whereas in the Victorian Age, woman were seen as objects.
The next part of the scene begins at 13:32 when Watson is observing the paint at the abandoned
house. When she first approaches the paints, Doherty uses a medium shot of her looking at the
paints. Once she picks up a yellow paint, the camera tilts from the paints all the way up to her

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face, we see that there are many shadows cast upon her to display her lack of being "luminous"
like Holmes. The scene cuts to a camera looking at her from behind as Detective Hill asks her if
she found something. As the camera turns back to look at Watson from the side again, we see
half of her face has been lit up as if a light bulb just appeared above her. She turns around and
starts to explain to the inspectors why she is looking at that certain paint called Gamboge. The
shot turns into a medium long shot with Watson, Inspector Gregson, and Detective Hill standing
in the frame. As she walks towards them, we see her whole face becomes lit up to display her
becoming "luminous. She is able to deduct that Gamboge is a rare color that can only be sold at
certain stores in New York and Hill remarks that "it's just like having Holmes here" (The
Woman). This scene displays Watson becoming the detective that Holmes believes she can be.
They are now becoming equal because she is able to deduce as well instead of just being a
"conductor of light" to Holmes. This gives interest to any middle class men or women because
they see that even a normal woman like Watson can become "luminous". Watson is no longer
"playing the awestruck, eager fag" and she is now making the detectives "awestruck" at her
deduction skills (Panek 90).
These twenty first century adaptations of making the camera as primary narrator and
making Watson an Asian middle class woman are necessary for the modern day audiences. Even
with the camera as primary narrator, we still get to experience some parts of episodes through
Holmes's and Watson's eyes to twist and recognize Doyle's original concept of Watson as the
narrator. Adapting Watson as a woman has also helped the transition of the Sherlock Holmes
series from a predominantly white male story to one of diversity. As long as directors keep
releasing these unique adaptations of Sherlock Holmes, the concept will live on perpetually.

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Works Cited
Asher-Perrin, Emily. "Battling Super-Sleuths: The Awkward Case of Sherlock, Elementary, and
Building the Better Adaptation.", Macmillan, 24 Feb. 2014. Web. 26 Nov. 2014.
Binyon, T.J. "Murder Will Out": The Detective in Fiction. Oxford: Oxford University Press,
1989. PDF File. 26 Nov. 2014.
Conan Doyle, Arthur. The Hound of the Baskervilles. Sharon, MA: Higher Read, LLC 20143.
Kindle eBook. Online. 26 Nov. 2014.
Handlen, Zack. "It's Elementary, Sherlock: How the CBS Procedural Surpassed the BBC
Drama," A.V. Club. The Onion, 20 Jan. 2014. Web. 26 Nov. 2014.
Panek, Leroy. "Doyle." An Introduction to the Detective Story. Bowling Green, OH: Bowling
Green State University Popular Press, 1987. PDF File. 26 Nov. 2014.
"Pilot". Elementary. Writ. Robert Doherty. Dir. Michael Cuesta. CBS, 2012. TV.
"The Woman". Elementary. Writ. Robert Doherty and Craig Sweeney. Dir. Seith Mann. CBS,
2013. TV.