Reimagining Sherlock Holmes
The pleasure isn't in fidelity, it's in the possibilities.
It's wasn't the first project to reimagine Holmes, and it won't be the last, but it holds a complicated place among fans for its mix of ingenuity and excess, its wildly uneven track record, and the ultimately disappointing payoff of its promising early episodes. Even the most devoted Sherlock devotees confess that it went off the rails in the fourth season, a train-wreck of wild invention, shameless misrepresentation, and logical deduction that pushed the limits of Doyle's motto: "When you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth." It all came to its apex in the season finale, "The Final Problem," a maniacal mind game that plays like a remake of Saw directed by the Joker. And yet brief moments between Sherlock and Watson drawing strength from one another to carry on, and even a moment of fraternal love between Sherlock and Mycroft, capture the depth of their relationships with an unexpected resonance. It's exasperating to see such affecting notes in such misguided narrative psychodrama.
At least it prompted reappraisal of the American series Elementary, another modern Holmes update, this one starring Jonny Lee Miller as Holmes, as a recovering addict in New York City, and Lucy Liu as Dr. Joan Watson, a former surgeon turned sober companion whose stint watching over Sherlock turns into an apprenticeship and, finally, a true partnership and friendship. Developed for CBS by Robert Doherty, it was initially dismissed by many fans of Sherlock as simply some American knock-off, a familiar network procedural hung on the Holmes hook that paled next to the cinematic flourish of Sherlock and the theatrical energy of Cumberbatch. Well, people have been coming around as they see the depth of Miller's more subdued and internalized performance.
At first no less no less abrasive than the BBC's take, the show slowly revealed a more believably human central character, his eccentricities bound up in his past and the ghost of addiction (and the accompanying feelings of guilt and shame) hanging over him like a shadow. As in Sherlock, this Holmes played the misanthrope to keep people at a distance, and wielded his intellect as emotional armor, but the wounds he left by his arrogance and insensitivity were not simply bandaged over. Miller's Holmes felt his way back to the world of trust and friendship with every personal interaction. The series can also take credit for an inspired and insightful take on Inspector Lestrade (Sean Pertwee). Often presented as a pompous buffoon (and in Sherlock offered up as a rare friend to Holmes), the hapless Scotland Yard investigator in Elementary becomes a fame junkie whose successes have dried up since Holmes relocated to New York City, and he's desperate for just one more fix.
Baker Street Irregulars and other Holmes aficionados embrace the Jeremy Brett series from British TV as the definitive Holmes, and you can't fault them. Doyle's stories were faithfully adapted and Brett looked like he had stepped out of the pages of The Strand. The pleasures of a Holmes re-interpretation, however, are not in the fidelity to the original stories and setting, but in the exploration of the spirit of Holmes—the undercurrents suggested but unexplored in Doyle's stories, the what-ifs inspired by comments and clues, the possibilities of how Holmes would evolve based on his experiences. Sherlock and Elementary are just the two most recent attempts to rethink Holmes for the screen. It's been going on for over a century.
The 1916 Sherlock Holmes was not the first film based on Doyle's great detective, but it is by all accounts the first Holmes feature and in many ways the most important. It is the sole film performance by stage legend William Gillette, as the first definitive Sherlock Holmes (crowned as such by no less an authority than Doyle himself), and the only visual record of Gillette in the famous stage play he wrote. Here Dr. Watson is but a minor character, but in other details Gillette's interpretation informed all incarnations that followed: He elevated Moriarty from minor character to defining nemesis, gave Holmes his signature Meerschaum pipe, and added the term "elementary" to his repertoire.
That same year, Douglas Fairbanks lampooned Holmes in The Mystery of the Leaping Fish, a hilariously surreal detective-movie spoof. Fairbanks bounces through the short comedy as a Holmes-like sleuth named Coke Ennyday who juices up with a syringe of cocaine to jolt himself into alertness and proceeds to gulp mouthfuls of opium and blow fistfuls of cocaine into the faces of attackers in the course of his investigation. It was the first film to carry Doyle's references to Holmes's drug intake out of the pages and onto the screen, albeit for humor rather than drama. It was also the last for fifty years; those drug gags would not get past censors even a few years later.
John Barrymore took on the role in the 1922 Sherlock Holmes, also adapted from Gillette's play. While Barrymore has the profile and the intent, intelligent focus, this is a Holmes mystery without the deerstalker cap, the Meerschaum pipe (Barrymore's Holmes prefers cigars), or the faithful Watson (in this version a college buddy) at his side. Gustav von Seyffertitz’s Moriarty is more like Barrymore's Mr. Hyde of 1920 than the sophisticated criminal genius we're used to, but born ham Barrymore has fun playing up the master-of-disguise part of the persona.
When it comes to Holmes canon, Basil Rathbone, with his hawk-like aqualine features and piercing eyes, is the quintessential big-screen Sherlock. He's crisp and sharp and thoroughly logical, but he's also at times playful and always devoted to Nigel Bruce’s somewhat slow and befuddled Dr. John Watson. Their first two features, The Hound of the Baskervilles (1939) and The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes (1939), are period pieces set in Victorian England, but their sequels brought the characters forward in time to solve mysteries in World War II-era England. John Rawlins ably directed Sherlock Holmes and the Voice of Terror (1942) but it was Roy William Neill, taking over the series as producer and director with Sherlock Holmes and the Secret Weapon (1942), who defined its style and atmosphere, instilling the 1940s setting with an old-fashioned flavor—cluttered sets, musty furnishings, a London fog licking every night scene—that suggests the Victorian era in a London at war. While this series turns the capable Watson of the stories into a lovable buffoon, Rathbone and Bruce have a marvelous onscreen chemistry that lasts through fourteen features and a radio series.
Billy Wilder's The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes is a sly, bittersweet, autumnal film that approaches the Holmes legacy with both a sense of humor and a sense of respect. Robert Stephens plays Holmes as a genial, witty fellow well aware of his reputation and quite a bit more socially deft than later incarnations, and Colin Blakely's jolly, loyal Watson is nothing like the buffoon played by Nigel Bruce. Wilder teases the homoerotic readings of the Holmes-and-Watson relationship in one cheeky scene of what turns into a melancholy tale about a logician hiding the heart of a wounded romantic. It's also the first film since The Mystery of the Leaping Fish to acknowledge Holmes' weakness for cocaine on screen. It's an aside that Nicholas Meyer spun into the central design of his novel "The Seven-Per-Cent Solution," which was adapted into a 1976 film directed by Herbert Ross. Nicol Williamson plays Holmes to Robert Duvall’s Watson, a stalwart friend who engineers a mystery to draw Holmes to Vienna. Alan Arkin provides the modern spark in this Victorian world as Sigmund Freud, who delves into Holmes's cocaine addiction and emerges with the first self-consciously revisionist rewriting of the Holmes mythos and psychological reading of Holmes's obsessions.
Robert Downey Jr. gives a wily performance as the arrogant but brilliant Holmes—a strapping, scrapping, impish prankster—in Guy Ritchie's Sherlock Holmes (2009) and A Game of Shadows (2011). This is more Ritchie than Doyle, high-energy stuff of breathless momentum and speed-ramping flourishes engineered to dazzle the eye and distract from the rickety plots. But for all the faults you may find in Ritchie's attempt to remake the world's greatest detective as the action hero in an adrenaline spectacle, the characterizations are entertaining. Downey's Holmes is a highly eccentric genius with a bare-knuckle edge and a low threshold for boredom, and Jude Law gives Watson, a war veteran and fledgling forensic scientist, a strength and a wit missing from previous incarnations (at least until Sherlock and Elementary).
Mr. Holmes (2015), starring Ian McKellen as a ninety-three-year-old Sherlock in retirement, is the most melancholy of all Holmes movies, about a man losing his memories and at times his ability to focus. Ostensibly a mystery of the forgotten last case that prompted the great detective’s retirement, it’s really about all those human experiences Holmes is least equipped to confront: friendship, compassion, human connection, the reasons to continue living as his sharp intellect loses its edge. It’s fitting that his best friend is a spirited and curious schoolboy (Milo Parker), and he’s most alive while they’re up to mischief. Directed by Bill Condon (who first collaborated with McKellen on Gods and Monsters) and based on the novel “A Slight Trick of the Mind” by Mitch Cullin, it’s a bit tidy for a film that challenges Holmes’ belief that explanations are solutions with the unpredictable messiness of real life, but even Holmes deserves a happy ending.