Last night, while waiting for a bus, I decided to read "A Scandal in Bohemia," a story that is most famous for being the only actual appearance in the canon of Irene Adler. She's mentioned in a few other stories, but as far as being an active character in a Holmes story, this is it. Which made me wonder, why does she play such a big role in so many Holmes film adaptations and fan fiction? Very few adaptations make a very big deal about, say, Mrs. Hudson or Lestrade, and they show up far more often than Irene.
I suppose it's partly our desire for the leading man to be a somewhat romantic figure. Batman's got Vicki Vale, Superman's got Lois Lane...heck, even Data on Star Trek: The Next Generation (who enjoyed playing Holmes on the holdeck) got to canoodle with Tasha Yar for a little while. Sherlock Holmes, who is usually played as a pretty cold, calculating machine, doesn't immediately lend himself to the role of heartthrob. And yet, Benedict Cumberbatch has become quite a sex symbol in the past few years. We just have to give him a romantic interest, or at least, the potential for romantic interest. (Some fans seem to take Watson at his word, that Holmes never saw her in a romantic light, but others think the good doctor doth protest too much.)
It's also fascinating how many adaptations (at least, recent ones) have connected Adler with the other most popular character who rarely appears in the stories: Professor Moriarty.
In Guy Ritchie's Sherlock Holmes, she's working for Moriarty; ditto for Sherlock; and in Elementary, Irene and Moriarty actually turn out to be the same person! There may be other adaptations that have connected Adler and Moriarty, but those most recent three versions immediately spring to mind. And that may be another thing that attracts Holmesians to Irene Adler: her role as adversary to Holmes. After all, she's not only the woman, she's also one of the few people who have actually outsmarted the great Sherlock Holmes. He admires her for it, and so do we.
Meanwhile, on a little side note, there seems to be a considerable amount of disagreement over how to pronounce the woman's name. Is it "eye-REEN," which would make sense for an American character; is it "eye-REEN-ee," which seems to have been for some time the most popular pronunciation in Great Britain; or is it the baffling "ee-RAY-neh," which is how all the characters in Granada TV's series featuring Jeremy Brett pronounce it? However you say it, it seems that she will continue to fascinate Holmes fans for the foreseeable future.
I'm a stay-at-home dad, and Director of Music Ministries at a United Methodist Church in Mt. Juliet, TN, and a longtime fan of Mr. Sherlock Holmes.