The last few days, I’ve seen my friends talk about an upcoming film debuting on Netflix this September, Enola Holmes, based on a series of young adult novels by Nancy Springer, starring Millie Bobbi Brown (Stranger Things) as the titular character and Henry Cavill (Man of Steel) as her older brother, Sherlock Holmes.
Among the comments I’ve seen:
Sherlock Holmes didn’t have a younger sister in the Canon (or, for the older Holmesians among us, the Sacred Writings).
Henry Cavill, fine and charming actor though he is, isn’t right for Sherlock Holmes.
The Doyle estate is suing to prevent the release of the film.
I read the books about five years ago; I found the first and third at Ollie’s Bargain Outlet, then bought the other four from Amazon. I found them quite charming, and when the film was announced I was intrigued, particularly by some of the casting, especially Cavill as Sherlock Holmes and Helena Bonham Carter as the mother of the Holmes siblings. Last summer at Shore Leave, I talked to several people about the series after a panel on introducing Sherlock Holmes stories to the next generation. I wouldn’t say I’m an evangelist for Enola Holmes, merely an interested observer.
Let’s take these in order.
Sherlock Holmes didn’t have a younger sister
The Canon is completely silent on the subject. Watson has known Holmes for years before he learned that he had an older brohter, Mycroft. For whatever reason, it never mattered in the Canon whether he had a younger sister or not.
(The Sherlock, Lupin & I series I read last year also gives Sherlock Holmes a younger sister. Maybe that’s a YA thing.)
Where Enola Holmes poses difficulties with the Canon is her age — she’s twenty years younger than Sherlock, which makes her twenty-seven years younger than Mycroft. And if you accept William S. Baring-Gould, she’s twenty-nine years younger than the hypothesized older brother Sherrinford.
There is a solution to this. In a Sherlock Holmes group I belong to, someone suggested recently that perhaps Mycroft and Sherlock had different mothers to explain the gap in their ages. I realized that could solve the Enola problem. Mycroft is the son of Holmes pere‘s first wife; she dies when Mycroft may only be three or four. Holmes pere remarries, Sherlock follows within a few years, and Enola is a late-in-life child; perhaps there was difficulty conceiving another, perhaps she was an accident. Mycroft would think of Sherlock’s mother as his mother rather than a stepmother, because she was the only mother he ever knew.
Henry Cavill as Sherlock Holmes?
Cavill will be fine. He’s not playing Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes. He’s playing Nancy Springer’s. He’s not the protagonist of Springer’s stories, and we don’t see him through Watson’s eyes. Enola is the protagonist, and we, the reader, see Sherlock through Enola’s eyes. It’s clear to the reader, from the very first book, that Sherlock, even though there’s twenty years between them, loves his sister very much, though she doesn’t fully understand that (and won’t until the sixth book). The way Springer writers him, he’s a warm character (one of the problems the Doyle estate has, according to their legal filing), and Cavill and his natural charm will fit that take on Sherlock. I probably wouldn’t cast him in a serious adaptation of, say, “The Naval Treaty,” but for the Sherlock that appears in the Enola Holmes mysteries he’s a fine choice.
This is standard operating procedure with the Doyle estate… which doesn’t have any connection with the Doyle family any longer. They filed a suit against Miramax over Mr. Holmes five years ago, they have sued anthologies here and there. It is, in Neil Gaiman’s words, a “shakedown operation.” Some big project comes along, there’s the possibility of making some money, a nuisance lawsuit is filed, and a publisher or a studio settles for a small-ish amount because it’s easier.
I’ve read the legal complaint. It makes several factual errors, like asserting copyright on stories whose copyright has expired in the past two years.
The lawsuit won’t stop the movie. Netflix will either pay Jon Lellenberg to make him go away, or they’ll fight him, as Leslie Klinger did, because he’s essentially Sherlockiana’s ambulance chaser.
I’ve read the books — yes, they’re YA, and I haven’t been YA-aged in nearly thirty years — and enjoyed them immensely. I hope the movie does well, because I’d watch a series of films. Perhaps Nancy Springer will even write more books of Enola Holmes.
There’s also a series of graphic novel adaptations of the books; my Diamond colleague Wink Shörtendorfer, currently in furlougatory due to COVID, wrote a short article about the first book two years ago.
Enola Holmes arrives on Netflix in September.