The most prominent of the Sherlock Holmes canon is certainly Irene Adler, also known as the woman who beat him. She is also the character who has been most maligned by the various adaptations. At one point along the line Irene Adler has become this smart criminal, who is expertly navigating some sort of grey area. Being the one woman who ever stirred Sherlock Holmes interest, she has become his femme fatale. The problem is, though: Irene Adler anything is actually a subversion of the femme fatale.
Since the actual story involving her has been buried under a number of adaptations which changed her character into something nearly unrecognizable, here is the story: Holmes is hired by the King of Bohemia who is about to marry, but needs to get his hand on a photo which would prove his illicit affair with a stage performer. The implication here is that a stage performer is automatically a person of questionable reputation, and indeed, Sherlock’s first reaction is to assume that the king has become the victim of extortion from a woman who started an affair with him because she was interested in money. His first suggestion to the king to deal with the matter by paying her off. This first conclusion is immediately proven wrong when the king claims that she is not interested in money but in revenge. But during the investigation he discovers that for one, she is actually quite a poised woman, two, she is marrying a young lawyer (Holmes witnesses the ceremony personally) and third, she is really smart. Holmes puts on a disguise and tricks her into revealing where the photo is hidden, but before he can retrieve it, she is gone, leaving behind a different photo and a letter in which she explains that just in time she had seen through his plan, in fact, she even followed him home in the disguise of a man. She says that she is on the way to America with a man who is honestly in love with her and whom she loves in return, and that she hopes she would be able to live in peace there. She claims that she only kept the photograph to protect herself from the king. The story ends with the king expressing his admiration for her and bemoaning that she would have made a great queen if she had just been on his level, to which Holmes answers that she truly is of a very different level, implying that she is actually way too good for him (not that the king realizes this).
So, what is the point of the story? Well, for once ACD actually penned something which can be considered feminist for his time. Irene Adler is initially judged as an unsavoury character by Holmes because she is a performer and because Holmes has a low opinion of women in general. But apparently Holmes learned something from the encounter, because he is no longer that quick to judge later on. The picture the King paints of a vindictive women is turned around. Looking closer, it is not Irene Adler who is the honourless one, it is the King who started an affair with her even though he never had any intention to marry her, and who made her life in fear because she knew that he would do everything to hide his affair with her. The whole point of the story is that Irene Adler is a woman who deserves respect despite having a job which was back then socially one step above being a whore and that nobility by birth doesn’t necessarily translate to nobility in action.
I can’t express enough how angry I am with all the adaptations (and yes, that includes Sherlock) which turn Irene Adler into some sort of criminal and change the whole story to a mutual love affair. Holmes might or might not have fallen for Irene Adler, but it is never clarified if she has a particular interest in him aside from being fascinated by his wit. Why should she, she is getting married to someone else after all, and her letter specifically states that she loves her new husband, who is (unlike the king) a good and honest man. Though I guess she does enjoy the little game of wits she has with Sherlock Holmes.
In any case, though, a criminal Irene Adler misses the point by a mile. I am not really a big fan of the trope of the femme fatale. It can be handled well, and Sherlock comes actually pretty close pulling the trope off until around five minutes before the end, when it the show makes Irene Adler beg. But even if they hadn’t gone off the rails in the last moment, the result would have never been a proper depiction of Irene Adler, unless she had revealed in the end that her questionable actions were based on morally sound motives. The thing is, once you made Irene Adler a criminal, you can’t allow her to truly triumph over Sherlock Holmes.
I admit, the jump to the femme fatale is not a far one, since Irene Adler is described as very alluring and she does manage to be the cause for one of Sherlock Holmes rare failures. But he is not a seductress. She does not actually use her beauty as a weapon. What makes her so alluring is her clever mind as well as her principles. In the end, she is the one who takes the moral high ground in the affair by giving the photo back, even though she could have easily made her threat reality and taking revenge on the King of Bohemia. To me, the only proper take on the story is to make her seem like a femme fatale, but then show that she is anything but that in the conclusion.
Sadly, there is no adaptation like this out there. But there is one, which comes pretty close, the Granada version with Jeremy Brett. It captures her character perfectly, but above all, Jeremy Brett underlines through gestures and tone how Holmes attitude towards her changes with every new bit of information he gets. He gives the source text a deeper meaning without changing one single word. The only downside of this take is that it shows more or less in the first scene how terrified Irene Adler is. By showing what it actually means when the King of Bohemia describes his attempts to get the photograph, it is hard to see her truly as vindictive as he claims her to be.
In addition, the actress pulls off the idea of a woman who would enchant every man just through her poise and character so well, it is hard to see her as dangerous even when she pulls out a gun. It just looks natural, another skill to impress but not something one should be concerned about. She will pull the weapon if necessary, but she wont use it if you back off.
I have read comments that the Irene Adler in the original story is anything but a feminist character, since, well, basically because she chooses marriage over freedom in the end. I see it differently. This is a woman whose intelligence is celebrated over her good looks. A woman manages to get everything she wants in the end. She had her time on the stage, she had her time experiencing adventure, and yet she is still desirable and not just for a one-night-stand, but a man who is younger than her loves her exactly like she is. She is not punished for daring to step out of the social norms, she manages to find happiness in the end. The social norms are sneered over while the true virtues, like kindness, honesty and courage are rewarded. It is a message influenced by the Victorian time, but I think it is still an important one.
Quote: “I love and am loved by a better man than him.”
The Granada version is often considered the best out there. I don’t quite agree. It is the one which is the closest to the source text as well as the most complete version, since it adapted all but 18 stories. The downside of this version is that some stories are better suited for adaptation than others, and some simply don’t have enough substance to fill a whole episode. I nevertheless highly recommend it, because seeing some of the scenes acted out, made me see them in a different light. I never really noticed how rude Sherlock Holmes actually is in the source text beforehand.