After over 100 years and more than 200 film versions, TV series, comic books, and video games, you’d have thought we’d have had enough of an egocentric, compulsively attention seeking ‘sociopath’ treating his friend and everybody else he thinks is inferior to him (which is basically the entire planet) like shit.
Yet instead of fading away, it seems that playing Sherlock has become a rite of passage for many actors rather like playing Hamlet on stage. From John Gielgud, Larry Hagman and George C. Scott, to Roger Moore, Peter Cook and Leonard Nimoy many have donned the deerhunter, but few have been remembered for doing so. The character was bigger than the actor, even if he was a one dimensional intelligent toff with his obtuse sidekick Watson.
But then Robert Downey Jr arrived in 2009 and reinvented Sherlock film franchise with sexual innuendo and some – purely character driven – nudity. This version of Sherlock heralded other significant changes. New plot twists and CGI enhanced, action packed adventure. Sherlock was funny, self-destructive, a man child. He could be emotional and Watson was his intelligent equal. And they both had enormous…
Suddenly, this was Sherlock. The television series followed suit. BBC’s Sherlock (Benedict Cumberbatch), as well as CBS’ Elementary (Johnny Lee Miller) both use the same characterization. But the change wasn’t as sudden as you might think. How did Sherlock of yesteryear, become Sherlock the surprise success story? Let’s take a look at his evolution…
In this film Sherlock is played by Basil Rathbone who performed in fourteen films and many more radio shows.
He is James Bond in detective garb, charming, intelligent and goes around rescuing fair ladies who faint after running 20 metres. Adventures of Sherlock Holmes was only the second, but last of the Sherlock films to be released by 20th Century Fox who decided that the outbreak of WW2 would make Nazi hunting spy movies more lucrative and the Sherlock Holmes franchise, a waste of time.
It was taken over by Universal Studios, together with the two main actors. Basil Rathbone was a more or less faithful portrayal of Conan Doyle’s Sherlock although far more charming (since movie stars back then had to attract the ladies), but Nigel Bruce’s Watson was altered to make what had previously only been a sideline role into a major part. A move for which Jude Law, Lucy Liu, and Martin Freeman must be pretty grateful.
So you’re John Cleese, in between writing Fawlty Towers series 1 & 2, which looks like it’s going to cost you your marriage to Connie Booth (aka Polly Sherman). The intensity of writing with you, filming with you and well, just being with you has driven your wife insane. You have a choice…
- Go to therapy to save your marriage
- Write and act in yet another Sherlock movie casting your evil bitch of a soon-to-be-divorced wife as leather clad Machiavellian Moriarty who ultimately kills you.
John Cleese cannot of course play ‘Sherlock’ as we know him, he has to play the only character he knows – John Cleese. But he like any other actor wants to try his hand at playing Sherlock and so he turns it into a spoof with a ridiculous representation of a dim-witted Sherlock Holmes grandson of the original Sherlock, who can’t control his weed habit, with the traditional idiot Watson (Arthur Lowe) as the bionic grandson of Dr Watson.
It’s essentially a stoned Basil Fawlty which you might justifiably expect to be funny. It isn’t (and it’s also very racist which apparently they found funny in the 70s). So what does he add to the Sherlock Holmes genre?
Before this film Sherlock was never humorous, he was a serious figure immune to self deprecating humour, because only Watson could be laughed at. This film also proves that you cannot make both Sherlock and Watson stupid, the public just won’t accept it, even from the hand of an comedy icon like John Cleese.
NB. Some years after this film, having gone to a lot of therapy alone, Connie decided to give up her acting career and become a therapist herself.
Murder By Decree (1978)
In Murder by Decree, Christopher Plummer stars as Sherlock Holmes to pit his wits against Jack the Ripper who bizarrely lived around the corner. But this Holmes is charming, cultivated and with a surprising social conscience. He cries, he’s compassionate and only uses a syringe to clean out his pipe.
But symbolism is everywhere, if only you have enough time to invent it. Remember how in Pulp Fiction after having ‘accidentally’ killed Marvin, John Travolta and Samuel L Jackson argue about how to wash the blood off their hands?
Vincent: I washed ’em. This stuff’s real hard to get off. Maybe if he had some Lava, I coulda done a better job.
Jules: I used the same soap you did and when I dried my hands, the towel didn’t look like no fuckin’ maxi-pad.
Tarantino’s intention with this dialogue isn’t initially clear, after all it does nothing to move the plot along and adds little to the characterization. But greater analysis than mine notes the symbolism of Jules’ stages of enlightenment, how he reaches his epiphany after several bathroom visits and how really, you can never wash the blood from your hands. Like Jules and Vincent, in this version Sherlock and Watson have some sequences of dialogue which seem surprisingly out of place.
Sherlock Holmes: Watson, what are you doing?
Watson: I’m trying to corner the last pea on my plate. [Holmes squashes the pea] You squashed my pea.
Holmes: Well, now you’ve got it cornered.
Watson: Yes but squashing a fellow’s pea.
Holmes: Just trying to help.
Watson: I didn’t want it squashed, I don’t like it that way – I like it whole so that you can feel it pop when you bite down on it.
Holmes: Sorry, I wasn’t thinking.
Chasing a pea instead of Jack The Ripper is a nicely ironic play. It’s the in-between, it’s what movie makers usually cut out. But ah…what if this is a metaphor for a criminal and an allegory of Sherlock’s more effective, direct method of analysis. Sherlock sees the best solution as clear as day, will show no mercy and disregard proper etiquette in the process (even if squashing a man’s pea, is just not on). From now on, symbolism in Sherlock becomes important, a way to tell the story instead of how it’s always been done previously… through Sherlock’s monologues interspersed with the occasional ‘Good Lord!’ from Watson (see an excellent analysis of symbolism in modern day Sherlock A Study in Chairs, to see just how important it is now… by someone else who also has too much time on their hands).
This Watson draws out some humanity in Sherlock making him more empathetic and adds useful medical training which actually helps solve the case instead of acting purely as a foil for Sherlock’s brilliant deductions.
Without A Clue (1988)
In a high concept reversal of roles, Reginald Kincaid (Michael Caine) is an alcoholic actor for hire who plays ‘Sherlock’, an alias created by the genius Doctor Watson (Ben Kingsley) in the spoof ‘Without A Clue’.
It’s an interesting premise which nods to Conan Doyle’s own exasperation with his character. Conan Doyle tried in vain to kill off Sherlock (The Final Problem 1893) but reader demand forced him after an 8 year hiatus to bring him back in The Hound of the Baskervilles (1901). In ‘Without A Clue’ when Watson (who after all is the writer of the Sherlock Holmes mysteries) attempts to kill off his invention, he finds it’s not so easy to do; in fact he only gets anywhere when he mentions Holmes (Conan Doyle’s attempt into historical novels was equally unsuccessful).
Would this spoof have occurred without its predecessor from John Cleese? Who knows. But yet another portrayal of the traditional characters might have been too trite for the British public, even in spoof. So Watson finally became intelligent.
Here he was the first intelligent Watson… and we laced it with heavy doses of toilet humour.
‘Sherlock’: You’re making a laughing stock of me! How can I be expected to maintain a character when you belittle me in front of these hooligans?
Watson: Character? Are we talking of the same man who once declared with total conviction that the late Colonel Howard had been bludgeoned to death by a blunt ‘excrement’?
Jeffrey Jones deserves an honourable mention cast as complete ass Inspector Lestrade who is cobra spittingly jealous of Sherlock Holmes. Lestrade takes every opportunity to spy on Holmes and Watson and to steal their ideas. Sounds vaguely familiar.
Young Sherlock Holmes (1986)
Young Sherlock Holmes is a Goonie like adventure and precursor to Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (with an almost exact replica of the human sacrifice scene) by none other than Steven Spielberg. Just as Sherlock is compared to Hamlet, in that every actor worth his salt has to try it out, so apparently does every serious movie director.
But whilst in England where we have a master-servant tradition so ingrained in our society that it never occurs to us to question Watson’s fidelity to his abusive boss, it obviously occurred to American Steven Spielberg to question this relationship. Were they lovers? If not, how might it have occurred? This Sherlock not only brings action-adventure to the table, but also character motivation and back story. Note how in recent genres, all characters have rather complicated pasts which bite them on the bum more than once.
In this eccentric English boarding school tale, Watson plays fag to Holmes prefect. No, American readers not that kind of fag – in England a fag is a junior boy who acts as a kind of servant to a more senior boy. It’s easy to imagine that this might explain perfectly the roles they play for the rest of their lives. Why is Sherlock so hell bent on pursuing Moriarty for his career? Spielberg imagines it might be because he was the murderer of Sherlock’s one true love Elizabeth Ward during those schooldays (and as we all know, high school love lasts forever).
Special mention goes to the humorous sequence with an array of french pastries. Yes, you read right. Because Watson is basically the same character as Chunk in The Goonies. He’s obsessed with food. So much so that whilst every other victim of the evil hallucinatory drugs commits suicide by trying to escape their own nightmares of sword wielding knights, or being choked by their aggressive roast chickens, Watson is attacked by some cream puffs who resemble Pootle Flump.
In fact in the entire ‘death by hallucination’ ploy which kills off five characters in this movie, showcased John Lasseter’s first attempt at blending CG and live-action seamlessly before he went on to found Pixar. The picture won an Oscar in 1985 for Best Visual Effects and ushered in the advent of CGI.
Sherlock Holmes (2009)
The most action packed, CGI enhanced film Sherlock is played by Robert Downey Jr who has always been an obvious choice to play the detective, is it a case of life imitating art or art imitating life? The ego, the drugs and the eccentric personality which is itself deliciously ironic in a meta kind of way. From buffoonery to brutality with overtones of BDSM. The first overtly sexual Sherlock which paved the way for television’s Benedict Cumberbatch to also get his kit off (thank you, thank you, thank you).
Irene Adler: I’ve never woke up in handcuffs before.
Sherlock Holmes: I have. Naked.
In order to write this article was forced to watch Robert Downey Jr for a full two hours because that’s how dedicated I am to my work.
With Dracula-esque villain Lord Blackwood, his contrived occult sorcery and the impossibility of James Bond like technology in Victorian times, it carries off farce without tumbling into absurdity. Watson (Jude Law) is parent to Sherlock’s hilarious arrested adolescent equipped with a repartee only surpassed by comedy writer genius Steven Moffat. Sherlock has become the hilarious, self-destructive, man child of current day adaptations with a brilliantly intelligent and incisive Watson by his side.
In solving a problem of this sort, the grand thing is to be able to reason backwards… That is a very useful accomplishment, and a very easy one, but people do not practise it much…There are few people, however, who, if you told them a result, would be able to evolve from their own inner consciousness what the steps were which led up to that result. This power is what I mean when I talk of reasoning backwards, or analytically.
~ Sherlock Holmes (A Study in Scarlet)
And with that, I’m off to do some more work. I hear Sherlock Holmes 3 is in the pipeline and Robert Downey Jr confirmed on his AMA reddit that it will be ‘the best of the series’.