When Netflix announced its adaptation of Nancy Springer’s Enola Holmes books, my inner twelve-year-old cheered.
As a tween, Enola’s story and its revisionist relatives represented a hearty part of my reading diet. I’d scour the library, then return home with an armload of feminist literary retellings. I devoured the stories one after the next: Rowan Hood with Robin Hood’s daughter and her own band of Merry Men, Ophelia with Hamlet’s love in her own quest for identity and independence, Nobody’s Princess with a Helen of Sparta more interested in adventure than her own beauty.
While I did love original heroines like those in Tamora Pierce’s Tortall books, I couldn’t help but return to the retellings again and again. I adored these clever, gutsy girls, and I adored their stories’ blend of history, fantasy, mystery, and adventure. So I returned to the library and scoured the stacks for another trip into the genre.
When Enola Holmes finally released on Netflix this fall, it had been over a decade since I had touched its source material. But my curiosity was also mixed with a bit of fear, a bit of worry. The film is a remix of a remix, and anytime a story combines multiple genres, the resulting goulash can become more disjointed than delightful. Would it be at all successful, and what’s more—would it be enthralling?
The film opens with Enola (Millie Bobby Brown) on her bicycle, eyes locked on the camera as she introduces us to her life and world. We learn that Enola grew up alone with her mother, an independent thinker intent on raising her daughter to be the same. But as the story begins, Enola’s mother has disappeared. And her much-older, much-more-traditional brothers—the stuffy Mycroft and the famous Sherlock—have arrived to sort out the chaos and send Enola off to finishing school. But Enola’s not interested in embroidery or corsetry, so she escapes on a quest to find her mother and a bit of independence.
In her hunt for her missing mother, Enola collides with another runaway teenager and another mystery: why would someone want to kill Lord Tewkesbury, a science-lover with the looks of Timothée Chalamet? The plot then splits between the two mysteries.
As an adaptation, Enola’s world is more inspired by the idea of Sherlock Holmes than any particular version from the screen, stage, or page (although the Arthur Conan Doyle Estate might disagree with me on this point). There’s very little serious sleuthing at work in this film, but Enola’s character is charming enough to allow us to forgive the jumps in logic. (Our heroes solve mysteries with a combination of good timing, good luck, and good memories. One solution relies almost entirely on a very distinct flashback-memory.)
As a piece of historical fiction, however, Enola Holmes is a much more intriguing confection. The film’s overall approach to Victorian England is reminiscent of Pirates of the Caribbean’s approach to colonial Jamaica: just enough reality to create pretty costumes, unusual sets, and mustache-twirling villains. But the film also nods to the many social reform movements of the era, the many voices fighting for change in a rapidly industrializing world. The delivery can become rather heavy-handed (at times, I wondered if Enola would turn to the camera and exclaim, “Dear audience, did you know that women were repressed in the 1800s? Did you?”). Still—as a piece of historical fiction, and as a remix of familiar Sherlock Holmes lore—this discussion of the motives behind the cases is both fascinating and refreshing.
When I was a tween, devouring these retellings, what I really craved was an intriguing character. And Enola Holmes, for all its flaws, gives us just that. Millie Bobby Brown conveys all the grit and gumption a heroine in this genre should possess—and more. Like any good action hero, she’s charming and captivating, and we long for her to succeed.
I wanted to love Enola, and (for the most part) I did. Despite its flaws, despite its mishmash nature, I’ll still be hoping for a round 2 for myself, my twelve-year-old self, and everyone else who loves a good adventure.
Courtney Zonnefeld graduated in 2018 with a degree in writing. She currently lives in Grand Rapids, Michigan, where she works for Eerdmans Books for Young Readers. In her free time, she enjoys reading, baking, and saving up for more herb plants. You can usually find her wandering a farmer’s market, hunting for vintage books, or browsing the tea selection in coffee shops.
Fine essay … my wife and I have seen it twice, the second time with a friend … we love it … and Millie Bobby Brown handles well the “breaking of the fourth wall” … not every actor can do this, and not every film can bring it off, but here, success on both counts. Thanks for your review.
I wasn’t at all familiar with the books, but I found the movie surprisingly delightful– though I agree with your assessment, I think, re: the POTC approach to setting. I also read some very delightful internet discussion about whether or not Henry Cavill is Too Hot(TM) to play Sherlock Holmes– would recommend:
Katie, this article is FANTASTIC–thanks for sharing!! I had a line about SuperSherlock that I deleted for flow reasons…apparently I should’ve just pointed to the jock-prep-nerd-goth quadrant ;). But goodness, Henry Cavill is the strangest casting choice I’ve seen in quite a while.
Reading this after my own piece really does make me appreciate having someone to focus on to draw out positive traits within ourselves. We see “the hero(ine)” and adore them and try to emulate that, want more of it. It’s great.
Well thought out review, Courtney.