Jeff York

Translating Sherlock Holmes to the Screen Is No Longer Elementary

Translating Sherlock Holmes to the Screen Is No Longer Elementary
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The fictional character of Sherlock Holmes continues to be one that the entertainment world mines with stunning regularity. One would think that the success of Benedict Cumberbatch and Johnny Lee Miller on the small screen this past decade might intimidate others from wading into similar waters, but in Hollywood, nothing breeds success, or excess, quite like a hit. Thus, Robert Downey, Jr. will soon play his Holmes character for a third time on the big screen and Will Ferrell just gave the world his satirical take on the role in Holmes & Watson. The comedy was not well-received, garnering a score below 10%, even though it did faithfully follow some of the essential tenets of the Holmesian world. Perhaps there is a lesson in there somewhere about what to expect of Holmes interpretations these days. Maybe Victorian parody just isn’t enough.

Time was that you could have a successful Holmes by following a number of tried and true tenets. Most executions simply followed the classic tropes established by character actor Basil Rathbone who played the role in 14 features for Universal Studios between 1939 and 1946. His Holmes became the gold standard all others copied, from his almost regal, imperious manner, an eloquent, yet brisk delivery of his lines, and a jutting, hawk-like visage the seeming epitome of author Arthur Conan Doyle’s description of his “consulting detective.” Unfortunately, some of the Rathbone window dressing also became standard as well, including omnipresent deerstalker hat, cape, and curved pipe. No matter what actor essayed the role, from Nicol Williamson to George C. Scott to Christopher Plummer, each kept their take exceedingly close to Rathbone’s iconic template. Indeed, part of the failure in Ferrell’s turn is that the Rathbone clichés he’s mining frankly have been done to death and spoofed to death too.

But then, three television series did an incredible job of erasing that template to restore a new novelty to the legendary character. The first series was The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, Granada’s series in England that ran from 1984-1995. This was not only the first time that a production told almost the full canon of Doyle’s stories (four novels and 56 short stories) faithfully, but the show boasted a Holmes and his times closer to the way the author wrote them than they ever had been. One of the first things the series did was correct the misconception of Holmes in both look and manner. Here, the detective dressed as a posh gentleman, wearing top hats or fedoras to travel around the city. His deerstalker cap was reserved for visits to the countryside where such clothing belonged.


The series also showcased Holmes favoring cigarettes in public just as he did in the books. His pipe was kept for longer smokes in the privacy of his home at 221B Baker Street, and he preferred a long pipe, not a curved one. The production designers and costumers on the series approached their tasks just as authentically, giving every episode proper period detail with the eagle eyes of historians.

Most importantly, the series rejiggered the two main characters of Holmes and Watson to be more faithful to Conan Doyle’s original concept. Gone was the dunderheaded Dr. John Watson that Nigel Bruce brought to comic life opposite Rathbone. Watson was an MD, after all, a learned man, as well as a soldier. Plus, Holmes would not hang around such a nattering nincompoop as Bruce’s Watson. British character actors David Burke, and subsequently Edward Hardwicke, restored the measured gentleman to the character for Granada and ensured that Watson could never be presented as a blustery fool again. (At least not in a drama.)

In Holmes, the series not only cast an actor who was a dead ringer for the original drawings of the character by Sidney Page for The Strand magazine but in Jeremy Brett they had a lead who burrowed so deep into the role that he became the new standard bearer. Brett brought every bit as much of the intense concentration and stoic righteousness to the role as Rathbone, but he offered layers upon layers of complexity to the part that Rathbone never attempted.

Brett magnified the character’s more likable qualities such as his warm devotion to Watson, his gentleman’s sense of protocol in public, and a wicked sense of humor. (Brett’s laugh was one for the ages.) More importantly, Brett illuminated the detective’s less than attractive qualities to give his characterization more substance and nuance. Brett’s Holmes was moody, childish, sexist and dismissive, yet he was also introspective, mournful, and more generous than he’d ever been played before. Much of it was due to the actual stories being told where Holmes was deeply concerned for the well-being of his clients, yet a lot of it had to do with Brett and the production working to overcome the clichés that made for variety show fodder and spoofs like Disney’s animated film The Great Mouse Detective in 1986.

The 2010 BBC series Sherlock starring Cumberbatch as the sleuth, and Elementary beginning two years later on CBS starring Miller, did as much as the Granada series to cast Holmes in a new light. Perhaps taking a cue from Downey’s bad boy, Bohemian take on the character in 2009, both of the new series darkened Holmes further, turning him as naughty as any villains he was chasing down. Cumberbatch’s Holmes, a texting, forensics-minded modern crime solver was also a terrible man, “a highly functioning sociopath” as the detective described himself in the series. On CBS, Miller’s Holmes was an ex-drug addict, fresh out of rehab, looking to make a new start as a private eye under the watchful eye of his Watson, the female sponsor making sure he stayed on the straight and narrow path.

Despite being portrayed as anti-heroes, both actors made their characters relatable and sympathetic, though both beat up far too much on Watson. Cumberbatch’s treatment of his good doctor (Martin Freeman) softened in the second and third series, and became so close in the stories, Mrs. Watson had to be killed off to make room for the real ‘love affair.’ Still, both Liu’s Watson and Freeman’s were presented as the smart cookies that their doctors would be, especially to earn the respect and love of Holmes. That changed though with Holmes & Watson this Christmas, and the return to a more doofus doctor.

While it is a spoof, one that tried desperately to play off of the chemistry Ferrell displayed opposite John C. Reilly in 2008’s Step Brothers, it seemed DOA as it not only mined hoary riffs that have been done on the material for decades, but it also failed to honor the tropes that should have been kept intact no matter what the version. Holmes must have smart villains to play opposite of, and that becomes a problem when the very character of the detective himself is quite a fool. That idea hurt 1988’s Without a Clue as well, where Watson (Ben Kingsley) was the brains, and Holmes (Michael Caine) was a pickled schmuck.

The parody also spends too much time on Holmes’ relationship with Watson, rather than showcasing Holmes helping his client. The audience knows that you cannot kill off Holmes or Watson, so the stakes are all in the client’s well-being. Yet if Holmes doesn’t seem all that invested in whom he’s helping, why should an audience? The mystery also must allow us a fighting chance as armchair detectives too. The facts must be present and visible, but again, the actual mystery and the sleuthing involved in solving it in Holmes & Watson plays less crucially than sight gags involving selfies with Victorian-era tripoded cameras or the homeliness of Queen Victoria.

No matter whether Holmes is placed in drama or farce, period or modern day, any adapter of Conan Doyle must keep Holmes accessible, unpredictable, and focused on the crime at hand. After all, he has a job to do, and a smart detective would know enough to not to wear a deerstalker in the city. By now that, at the very least, should be elementary.

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