I remember when I was reading that story as a kid, Sherlock goes on and on about The Woman, the only one who ever beat him, and you’re thinking, he’s had better villains than this. And then you click: he fancies her, doesn’t he? That’s what it’s about.
- Steven Moffat on A Scandal in Bohemia.
That quote from Moffat that I just reblogged made me think of something about the way most adaptations have handled Irene Adler and Moriarty.
In the original stories, Adler wasn’t a plot device, she was the adversary in the mystery that matched wits with Holmes, outsmarted him, and that he respects greatly at the end. While she’s still a character in the story, she doesn’t exist for Holmes, and she comes up with a solution to the dilemma that’s actually superior to his.
But Moriarty existed purely as a device for Arthur Conan Doyle to get rid of Holmes. He had to create a reason for Holmes to be willing to sacrifice himself, so he created Moriarty who was given this big criminal past and was said to be super smart. The story itself really didn’t show him being particularly smart, and most of what sets him up is just told to us. At the end he ends up being tossed off a cliff by Holmes after Holmes has ruined his empire. He’s completely a plot device, his entire raison d’etre in the story is focused around Holmes, and to get ACD from point A to point B which is having Holmes die a hero’s death that hopefully the fans would accept. He wasn’t Lex Luthor, he was Doomsday.
Adler didn’t exist as a plot device, she didn’t revolve around Holmes, and she got what she wanted at the end. Moriarty existed just to facilitate Doyle getting rid of Holmes, everything he does in that story revolves around Holmes, and Holmes gets what HE wants at the end (even without Holmes coming back to life, it had already been established Holmes was prepared to die to get rid of Moriarty).
Yet in almost every adaptation, it’s the opposite. Adler is the plot device, she’s a romantic interest, she’s a hostage, she’s the fake out, she’s the bait, etc… and Moriarty is the active agent who is smarter than Holmes and outwits him (at least until he’s defeated) and that Holmes respects as an equal. Adler tends to exist for Holmes, revolves around Holmes, and Moriarty is the greater character with his own story.
The Moffat quote makes me wonder if many boys (him included) grew up reading A Scandal in Bohemia, rolling their eyes and going “stupid chick, he probably let her go just because he likes her, why else would he think she’s so great?” while reading the much less fleshed out Moriarty who Holmes defeats and going “WOW WHAT A COOL BRILLIANT DUDE! HE’S SO SMART AND AWESOME. WHAT A WORTHY FOE.” Even though he’s not shown as being so, he’s just said to be so, but he’s a man and he captured the imaginations of boys reading the story, while she’s a woman and they fit her into a slot for women characters (and how women are seen in relation to men in society) and dismissed why she had won such profound respect from Holmes. So when they grew up and wrote the adaptations that now shape how people see these characters, their biases changed the way the characters were represented, and also the way people now see them.