Sherlock Holmes, the fictional creation of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, first appeared in publication in 1887 and was featured in four novels and 56 short stories. The first novel, A Study in Scarlet, appeared in Beeton’s Christmas Annual in 1887 and the second, The Sign of the Four, in Lippincott’s Monthly Magazine in 1890. The character grew tremendously in popularity with the first series of short stories in Strand Magazine, beginning with A Scandal in Bohemia in 1891. A further series of short stories and two novels were subsequently published in serial form between then and 1927. The stories cover a period from around 1880 up to 1914, but the film versions of the character have been endlessly updated and transported to different times and places, battling wits with everyone from Jack the Ripper to Nazis along the way. Apparently, Sherlock Holmes is the “most portrayed fictional movie character” in cinematic history with 75 actors playing the part in over 211 films. Holmes’s first screen appearance was in the Mutoscope film Sherlock Holmes Baffled in 1900, his most recent in Sherlock Holmes: Game of Shadows, the second Holmes film directed by Guy Ritchie and starring Robert Downey Jr.
A staple television character over the years as well, the latest small screen adaptation comes in the form of Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss’s contemporary updating of the famed detective stories for the BBC. With both the latest Ritchie/Downey Jr. film and the second BBC series releasing to DVD and Blu-ray at roughly the same time, it made sense to draw comparisons between these two variations of Conan Doyle’s creation.
Sherlock Series 1 and 2 (BBC)
Despite numerous adaptations for stage and screen, there’s never been a truly modern Sherlock Holmes, one that factors in the myriad of technological and societal changes witnessed in the intervening century (the 1971 George C. Scott film They Might Be Giants probably comes closest, but and that was 40 years ago). This is the genius of Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss’s adaptation. Their Holmes isn’t the Victorian-era detective who knew things we never could, but rather a eccentric genius who solves crime through a combination of keen observation and modern technology. This Sherlock rewards viewers both familiar and unfamiliar with the source material, and the updating of 19th century mysteries to the 21st century is rather ingenious. Out of the gates, Sherlock’s assertions seem nearly impossible to bridge (a nice cue from the original Conan Doyle stories), but we’re ultimately drawn in by Sherlock’s logic and deduction and ultimately trust him as much as Watson does.
As characters, Holmes and Dr. Watson are only as believable as the actors playing them – in the late ’30s and early ’40s filmed versions, for example, Basil Rathbone made for a plausible Holmes, but the bumbling Watson, portrayed by Nigel Bruce as comic relief, undermined the complex relationship between them that often motivated Sherlock to action. Conan Doyle never intended for Watson to be Holme’s intellectual equal, but it was often the Doctor that saw the simple things that Holmes might pass over. The casting in this version is superb. Martin Freeman brings a dignity and realism to the role and he makes a worthy Dr. Watson while Benedict Cumberbatch, perhaps the best Sherlock Holmes since Jeremy Brett, plays him as an alternately composed, lonely genius and a powder keg ready to explode when the game is afoot. There’s also an undeniable intimacy to this adaptation that allows the writers to explore the dynamic underpinnings, both good and bad, of Holmes’ and Watson’s unique partnership. In a word, both characters are palpably human and the audience can’t help but care what happens to them.
Throughout the first series there’s also the presence of the quintessential Holmes villain, Professor Moriarity. Conan Doyle actually used Moriarty as more of a mechanism than a character in the original stories. His involvement existed mostly in the periphery, a shadowy whisper that rarely took form, but sat at the very heart of a vast criminal enterprise. By embellishing and fleshing out Moriarty as a recurring character in the series, Moffat and Gatiss have created a cunning and unscrupulous foe for Sherlock to lock horns with and it works, even though Holmes purists might disagree. Connections between them build slowly in Series 1 and the cliffhanger at the end of Episode 1.3 finds the two facing off with Watson’s imminent demise seeming almost certain. Series 2 includes the next three installments and a quick summary of Series 1 is worth considering because the opening episode begins exactly where the first season left off. The balance of the Episode 2.1 is a sexed-up reworking of A Scandal in Bohemia, with a series of compromising photos at the centre of a blackmail plot to undermine the government and Royal Family. Episode 2.2 is an adaptation of the Hound of the Baskervilles and the third and final episode, The Reichenbach Fall, a clever take on the original Conan Doyle story once again pitting Moriarty and Holmes against one another, this time in a fight to the death.
It’s difficult now to imagine why someone hasn’t tried this sort of modern adaptation before. Series co-creator, Steve Moffit, said that it was the time and not the character that had grown stale and this series seems to verify the contention. Sherlock suffers from a couple of weaker episodes (the second episode in both seasons doesn’t measure up to the others), but overall this is a terrific reworking of the Sherlock Holmes legacy – fresh and imaginative despite over 100 years of nearly constant reinvention.
Sherlock Holmes (2010) and Sherlock Holmes Game of Shadows (2011)
Director Guy Ritchie, who at first glance seems an odd choice for the material, manages to transform Conan Doyle’s legendary deep thinker into a plucky action superhero, a fitting metaphor for our time if there ever was one. Robert Downey Jr. brings his perpetual man-child charm (or annoying Johnny Depp-like overexposure, depending on your viewpoint) and – presto-change-o! - Sherlock Holmes is a movie franchise that’s spawned one sequel to date with I’m guessing a few more to come. The plots are incoherent, the action relentless, all of the director’s cinematic ticks remain present and accounted for, the CGI is intrusive, the… well, who cares really, the list goes on and on and none of it matters because Ritchie and Co. hit the bulls-eye with this one. The audience simply love them.
This is the A.D.D. Holmes, shaped and molded by countless focus groups and test audiences to appeal to a generation widely viewed as being incapable of paying attention to anything that doesn’t include a massive explosion every few minutes. Cinephiles may alternately cringe at the obviousness of it all and weep for the future of humankind all the way to the end of their audience-approved 128 minute running time (not surprisingly, both films clock in at almost exactly the same length), but truth be told, these versions of the Holmes legend are keenly representative of the kind of big Hollywood movies that people want to see these days. They are all at once familiar and yet removed from the daily cycle of bad news that blankets our end-of-days 24-hour media bombardment. Downey Jr.’s portrayal of Holmes is fundamentally the same as his other recurring character (Tony Stark of the Iron Man/Avengers Marvel franchise) – a brilliant, 40-something smart-ass kook who acts like he’s 14 and needs a constant chaperon… because that’s precisely what the audience wants – to be free, if only temporarily, from the buttoned-down drudgery of modern life. At times, Jude Law, who plays Dr. Watson, seems almost embarrassed by the proceedings, but that could just be my imagination. The patter between Holmes and Watson is quippy and full of the kind of banter that passes for dialogue these days and while it isn’t Shakespeare, it serves the cause well enough.
Yes, despite their goofiness, these Holmes works in that peculiar modern blockbuster way. While the relentless momentum and utter banality of the entire exercise may grate on some, this is a ride not a piece of cinema and on that level, both movies deliver the goods to the audience they’re intended for. Thoughtful and provocative filmmaking exists in a different strata than the one Ritchie’s Sherlock Holmes occupies and they needn’t (nor should they be) measured using the same yardstick. As a result, the vast majority of critical ratings for Ritchie’s Sherlock Holmes movies are negative while the audience ratings are predominantly high. Understandably, there’s not much in the way of middle ground from either cohort.
So there you have it, two divergent versions of a character created 125 years ago that still manage to appeal to modern audiences. That the BBC and Hollywood variations both work, albeit on very different terms, speaks volumes to the resiliency and timelessness of Conan Doyle’s famous creation.
Depending on your mood, either one might just be suit the bill.