An article in The Independent online has headlined Sherlock's "Britishness" as his key to international appeal this week. And it's a hard point to argue, as some very bad Sherlock Holmes incarnations have coasted by on merely a British accent and the name over the years. Quite a few, actually. The idea of a Sherlock Holmes without that accent is nearly unthinkable. In fact, whenever it's been tried, they had to give the guy a different name.
During one of our Sherlockian dark and desperate periods, when major media was ignoring our main man (Yes, there was such a time, as hard as that might seem to fathom now.), Sherlockians had to content themselves with TV shows like Monk and House. And for movies, we went to things like that American Sherlock Holmes, Daryl Zero.
The year was 1998. The movie was Zero Effect, with Bill Pullman in the Sherlock role and Ben Stiller as his Watson. It was very nineties, very much it's own thing, but there was no question as to what writer/director Jake Kasdan was going for: American Sherlock Holmes.
The nearest thing we had to a Sherlock Holmes adaptation in 1998 was the cartoon Sherlock Holmes in the 22nd Century, but despite good reviews from major critics like Roger Ebert (back in the days when we had major critics and not just Rotten Tomatoes), the movie never really found its footing. Was it that we weren't ready for a modern-day Sherlock Holmes back then, or was it that Sherlock as an American is just too . . . American?
When you think of how Sherlock works in Sherlock, he seems to stand out most when he's breaking rules, flustering Watson, showing up naked at Buckingham Palace, using his intellect as an excuse to subvert social niceties. That works wonderfully in Britain, but give all those qualities to an American and what do you get? Pretty much just another inappropriate American, who, without the British accent to imply class and brains to an American audience, probably not as smart.
Imagine Jonny Lee Miller in Elementary without the accent. Would anyone even go near the result as a proper Sherlock Holmes? Or would we write him off as just another inapproriate American and switch over to the more familiar John Munch on Law and Order? When the makers of Elementary set their show in New York, all of the main characters became American except Sherlock. No matter how many other changes they were making, that one thing was still a line that couldn't be crossed.
Zero Effect is an interesting piece of Sherlockian film history for what makes it not Sherlock Holmes, even though it totally is Sherlock Holmes. And looking back on it now, I really have to agree with the slant Independent took with Steven Moffat's quote on Holmes as a totally British export.