With a deerstalker cap perched atop his head and a pipe clenched between his teeth, the great detective plainly states, “It’s elementary, my dear Watson.” This image of Sherlock Holmes with his meticulous memory and unmatched deductive skills may have been wrought in Victorian London, but it continues to entrance audiences today. From their humble beginnings in Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s novels, and later his short stories published in The Strand Magazine, Holmes and his sidekick, Dr. James Watson, have appeared in all types of media, from classic television adaptations to testosterone-driven films to modern-day mysteries.
Pen and Ink
The great detective first sprang from Doyle’s pen in 1887, in the novel “A Study in Scarlet.” Doyle’s full canon, consisting of fifty-six short stories and four novels, ends in 1927, with The Strand’s publication of Holmes’s last adventure, “The Adventure of Shoscombe Old Place.” These tales are still popular today, and many writers have tried their hand at adapting them; author Neil Gaiman fused “A Study in Scarlet” with H.P. Lovecraft’s mythos of Cthulhu, an amphibious, godlike creature born from a hellish, mind-bending land, in his short story “A Study in Emerald.”
However, the original adventures still stand strong, and though many have tried to emulate Doyle’s style, few succeed. Through first-person narration, Doyle’s Watson is not just a companion, but also an equal, unlike his portrayal in many rehashings as a bumbling tagalong. Seen through modern eyes, Watson’s and Holmes’s cohabitation and co-dependency seems, perhaps not unintentionally, more like a love affair than just an intense friendship. Holmes’s use of cocaine to counteract periodic boredom is another unique detail that makes the original stand out.
Silver Screen Stars
In the 1930s and mid-1940s, Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce starred as the detective and doctor, respectively, in a series of films. While the first two adaptations were set in the Victorian era, after the series was dropped by 20th Century Fox and picked up by Universal Studios, they were set in the present, often involving matters of national security. This iteration is well-known for Bruce’s depiction of Watson, which introduced many viewers to a vastly different doctor than Doyle’s characterization. Rather than the competent army doctor from the novel, Bruce’s Watson is bumbling, klutzy, and more likely to step on a clue than uncover it.
Director Guy Ritchie’s “Sherlock Holmes,” released in 2009 and starring Robert Downey, Jr. as Holmes and Jude Law as Watson, returned the duo to the Victorian era. This film takes Holmes in a more aggressive direction for the sake of blockbuster success, emphasizing physical confrontation as well as mental gymnastics—but even in brawling Holmes exercises his intelligence. Each bout begins with Holmes targeting previously noticed weaknesses, such as a punch to the gut to fell an alcoholic guard, a characteristic he’d deduced from the hip flask and flushed face.
The modern plot is not that of a direct murder mystery, instead revolving around a secret organization and its nefarious plans. The movie also returns Watson to his role as a competent, willing participant in Holmes’s adventures, playing up the “bromance” between the two by increasing their back-and-forth needling and flirtation. This dynamic refutes past film iterations, and restores the pair to their original form.
The sequel, “Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows,” released on December 16, 2011, follows in its predecessor’s footsteps, making the detective much more of a do-it-all action hero than in the classic version. The potential homosexual relationship of Holmes and Watson is also played up to a more comic degree, especially when Holmes disguises himself as a woman, decked out in blue eye-shadow, to rescue Watson from the antagonist Professor Moriarty’s trap. After sending Watson’s new wife to safety, the two end up on the floor of a cabin, locked in each other’s arms, to avoid Moriarty’s cannon-fire. Whether you believe their relationship is sexual or not, Downey Jr. and Law’s electric chemistry makes this one of the most arresting sequences of the film.
While Victorian-era depictions of the detective currently reign supreme at the box office, recent television adaptations have drawn upon the character traits found in Holmes and Watson as well. Fox’s “House,” for example, is a Holmes-inspired show, as Dr. House (Hugh Laurie) uses his superior intellect to solve peculiar medical mysteries. “House” also includes subtle nods to its origins, such as Dr. House’s living at 221 Baker Street, Apartment B—a reference to Holmes’s famous abode of 221B Baker Street—and his addiction to painkillers. Even his name, a synonym for “home,” is an allusion to “Holmes.” Furthermore, Wilson (Robert Leonard), serves as House’s Watson in this largely successful drama.
In 2010, BBC released “Sherlock,” a twenty-first-century update of Sherlock Holmes, the second season of which premiered in the U.K. on Sunday, January 1. Starring Benedict Cumberbatch as Holmes and Martin Freeman as Watson, this miniseries, though containing only three episodes in the first season, promises to be one of the strongest adaptations. It includes many “Easter eggs” for fans of the original canon, such as a clue from the original “A Study in Scarlet” being considered, albeit briefly, before being overturned as a red herring in the first episode, “A Study in Pink.”
In another blink-and-you’ll-miss-it reference, a young man who disappears is named James Phillimore. This alludes to a passing mention in “The Problem of Thor Bridge” of an unsolved case in which Phillimore, after “stepping back into his own house to get his umbrella, was never more seen in this world.” Some of the episodes’ plots are simply amalgamations of a few of Doyle’s originals that have been updated to modern times. Even many chunks of dialogue are lifted directly from the books.
This series also features one of the strongest and most faithful representations of Holmes and Watson’s relationship. Cumberbatch’s Holmes is as dry and misanthropic as Doyle’s, but when Watson enters his life, he noticeably opens up, a trait not readily apparent in transformations such as “House” or in Ritchie’s films. Freeman’s Watson, now blogging instead of writing about his friend’s escapades, is the most appreciative of Holmes’s deductions, muttering an “extraordinary” or a “fantastic” under his breath at each explanation.
Cumberbatch plays Holmes as ambiguously gay or asexual, often saying things like, “Girlfriends? No, not really my area.” And his reliance on Watson for domestic and emotional support is almost husbandly. While Watson claims to be straight, his steadfast devotion and crystal-clear enthusiasm for their adventures, as well as his abandonment of multiple girlfriends to aid the detective, leads many characters to speculate otherwise. Cumberbatch’s Holmes is clearly socially awkward or even mildly autistic, a detail Downey’s Holmes ignores. “I’m not a psychopath,” Cumberbatch tells a police officer. “I’m a high-functioning sociopath.” He is not as flashy or as muscular as Downey Jr.’s Holmes, and his social ineptitude, arrogance, and even flat-out rudeness, merged with his exhilarating genius make him a more interesting anti-hero.