Being that I am a film/TV geek as well, it goes without saying that I have also dabbled a bit in the various screen adaptations of the Sherlock Holmes character, though admittedly at arm's length. The Holmes canon lends itself splendidly to film adaptations; you've got the mysterious, brooding, brilliant antihero, the kind, likable sidekick to balance him out (and not make the audience feel quite as stupid), atmosphere by the bucketful, and an extremely well-written, broad variety of mysteries ready to go. It's amazing to me therefore that Hollywood would feel the need to
I've recently begun dipping my toes into the various incarnations of screen Holmses (Holmsi? Holmssz?) and it's pretty fascinating how the depictions differ. I should just say here and now that until about a year ago I was a die hard Basil Rathbone purist, largely because that is how I was raised and family religions are hard to shake. But I started watching the newer BBC production Sherlock, and when after watching five minutes I wasn't affected by a case of dry heaving, I decided to really go wild and try the Jeremy Brett version (which I had avoided after getting in a heated, acrimonious discussion about the merits of Rathbone v.s. Brett with a friend of mine five years ago). And so, because I am a Virgo and therefore love being organized and making lists and so forth, I offer the following:
*Note: Does not include Gregory House. We get it. He's Holmes. Holmes, House, clever. But still not technically Holmes.
1. BASIL RATHBONE
The Holmes: The first thing we can say right off the bat is that Basil Rathbone has the look down pat, to the point where a number of illustrators for the Holmes book draw upon Rathbone as a likeness. The hawklike face, the tall, thin body, the perfectly clipped British tones are all as if he had stepped from the pages of the books. No one looks quite like Rathbone, and no one looks quite like Holmes either. The Holmes in these films (there were 14 of them, only one, The Hound of the Baskervilles, actually dealt with a plot and the time period taken straight from the books) is considerably warmer and more likable than in the stories. Rathbone's Holmes is cool and brilliant, to be sure, somewhat callous, but is never as antisocial or as ornery as his literary counterpart. Holmes's deep affection for Watson (an honest reflection of Rathbone's actual rapport with his costar, Nigel Bruce) does much to soften his character. Rathbone worked occasionally as a spy during the war, and his own actual ability to don disguises is extremely useful in the various characters he picks up here as Holmes (seeing him as a cockney song-and-dance man is especially entertaining). Special mention must go to Rathbone's interplay with the fairer sex, as is noted in the books he has a way with his female clients but at no point do we actually suspect him of harboring romantic feelings towards any of them.
The Watson: Pretty much the ultimate example of "Bumbling Dr. Watson." Nigel Bruce's Watson is pleasant, doddering, fairly silly and does a lot of talking to himself. He seems to be underfoot for much of the time and does a great deal of "You amaze me, Holmes!"-ing. One gets the sense that Holmes really only keeps him around to make sure that he doesn't walk into the road and get run over by a carriage. That being said, Bruce's Watson embodies the ferocious loyalty of the book character, harboring a mother-hen attitude towards Holmes that is extremely endearing. Whenever Holmes appears to have died in any of the episodes, it is heartbreaking to see Watson numbly moving about, as if lost without his friend. Perhaps this Watson isn't the most capable, but the goodness of the man and the friendship that lies at the core of the series is best exemplified here.
Overall: You may ask, "Bailey, why do you hate the Robert Downey, Jr. version so much if these episodes didn't actually follow the plots of the stories and weren't even set in the correct time period?" The answer is, simply, because it was done with style and a spirit that honored the original. The stories were still intriguing, the adventure fast-paced and the core of the characters (especially Holmes) true to that of the books. The short films after the full-length Hound of the Baskervilles were made as wartime propaganda to bolster British morale (and were therefore set in the then present-day WWII) and usually conclude with Basil Rathbone folding his arms, furrowing his brow and spouting off a little speech about the greatness of England and the necessity of fighting evil. In conclusion, not as true to the books as some, but great fun, wonderful entertainment featuring many fine performances.
2. JEREMY BRETT
The Holmes: Much as David Suchet did as Agatha Christie's little Belgian detective Hercule Poirot, Jeremy Brett created a performance as Holmes that has widely been regarded as the ultimate iteration of the character. After watching a few episodes of The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes with him, I must agree that Brett's Holmes is closest to that of the book. He isn't nearly as likeable as Rathbone's Holmes, but embodies perfectly all the angular brilliance, the focus, the eccentricities and the showmanship that make Holmes such a fascinating character. He, like Rathbone, is blessed with an long face and thin body that pay homage to Conan Doyle's physical vision of the detective. He is unafraid to include the moments when Sherlock spouts off just to seem clever for cleverness's sake, and whereas it is easy to imagine Rathbone's Holmes being invited to a garden party and behaving himself very well, Brett's Holmes seems almost hyperfocused and a wee bit unhinged. It's unsurprising for us to find him living alone in relative isolation. Conan Doyle famously didn't actually like his creation, and attempted to kill him off before the public demanded that he return. In Brett we see Holmes's coldness but also his intrinsic fascination--like Doyle, we may not like him but we are always intrigued by him and keep watching just to see what happens next, how exactly he will solve the puzzle.
The Watson: David Burke and later Edward Hardwicke held the role, and for the most part Watson serves as a fairly effective foil for Brett, though don't be fooled--this is one hundred percent Sherlock's show. Watson is neither bumbling nor exactly on Holmes's level, but occasionally we are given a taste of the world-weariness and exasperation that comes with being Sherlock Holmes's roommate. Because the Holmes here is fairly cold, the friendship is more understood than blatantly stated. We never really see Holmes through Watson's eyes so therefore we never completely identify with him, but we see that he is kind and trustworthy and it is not hard to understand why Sherlock wants him around. The Watson in this series is much as he is in the book, stalwart, strong, intelligent and capable, an ordinary man in extraordinary circumstances.
Overall: The series has a beautiful production and covers a considerable amount of the Holmes canon, though occasionally strays somewhat from the actual plot. Of all the Holmes adaptations, this is the most true to the source, and is always well-acted and well-crafted. Definitely required watching for anyone who loves Holmes, or, for that matter, a great mystery.
3. BENEDICT CUMBERBATCH
The Holmes: Let me just begin by saying how much we should all rejoice that in this crazy world of ours there are two people in Britain who decided to name their child as something as Dickensian as Benedict Cumberbatch. That he would later grow to become modestly famous is little surprise to me; a name like that must be shared with the world and this is something I believe God understands. Come on, let's all say it. Benedict Cumberbatch, Benedict Cumberbatch, Benedict Cumberbatch. It's like stepping in a puddle. It makes you smile. Cumberbatch.
Anyway, Benedict Cumberbatch is the star of Sherlock, starring Benedict Cumberbatch, which is the modern adaptation of the Sherlock Holmes mysteries starring Benedict Cumberbatch. This Holmes is young, uses a cell phone and GPS with aplomb, and darts all around London solving crimes. With someone as young as Benedict Cumberbatch in the role, Holmes's eccentricities occasionally can come off as youthful snippiness or pleas for attention rather than the innate essence of the character, but Benedict Cumberbatch does an excellent job of jumping in with both feet and owning the character--we get the sense that this Holmes is a prodigy who is a bit too smart for his relative age and station, which makes it all the more funny when the more senior members of Scotland Yard find themselves stumped by his logic. Holmes here is slovenly, snobbish and opinionated, but strikes a fine balance between Rathbone's gentleman Holmes and Brett's cold, calculating analytical machine. You can feel affection for this Holmes but you certainly wouldn't want to be his flatmate.
The Watson: The Watson here is where I believe the show really shines--Martin Freeman in this role is sympathetic, intelligent, exasperated but also undeniably fond of Holmes (and vice versa). The series is brilliant enough to keep in one small detail in Watson's backstory consistent from the book to the screen--the fact that Watson has just returned from Afghanistan. The symmetry of it provides an excellent crossing point between source and product. Instead of writing his stories down in his record, Watson blogs. He hobbles around on a cane, until Holmes sharply points out that his "wound" is psychosomatic. Undoubtedly intelligent, he is fascinated and maddened by his friend in equal measure. As Freeman portrays him, we get none of the Nigel Bruce bumbling, but we also get more of a human being than the Watson in the Brett series--he is more of an actual character rather than a mere foil. Freeman is able to find the innate humor of the situations in which Watson finds himself, and the natural rapport between Benedict Cumberbatch and Freeman, sort of an odd-couple tough love with all the inherent bickering, is one of the many joys of the show. Watson is the character with which the audience is meant to identify and no one does this with more sharpness or believability than Freeman.
Overall: The show's many updates from Holmes's classical period to the modern day may seem a bit gimmicky, but the show's core--the relationship between Holmes and Watson is so effective here that it is definitely worth a watch. And Martin Freeman demonstrates that he has all the understated charisma to effectively anchor a series in a lead role (HOBBIT HOBBIT WOO WOO). There were only three episodes in the first season of Sherlock, featuring a fantastic appearance by Andrew Scott as Moriarty. It'll be interesting to see where the series progresses.
|WHAT THE FUCK.|
4. ROBERT DOWNEY, JR.
Warning: Review contains excessive amounts of profanity (which, I should note, were later censored because my own mother became offended even though really all the swearing was just a result of my passionate love for honoring classic literature which isn't too bad a reason if you think about it but I did it anyway because she told me she didn't spend eighteen arduous years raising her daughter just to be one of those angry people on the Internet)
The Holmes: Let me just say this. I love Robert Downey, Jr. Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang? Fantastic. Love it. Iron Man? Fell asleep twice, but I laughed really hard at the parts when I was awake. He's a funny man. But my entire beef with these films are that they are NOT Sherlock Holmes. I do not understand why, if Hollywood decides to go f*ck up a book series to the point of unrecognition, they cannot just go and start a new f*****g franchise with a different name. Oh, wait! That would be original. I forgot. Unless something has a 3 or 4 or a Transformer tacked on its ass, no one's going to go pay to see it, right?
I'm sorry. Really, I should admit that I've only seen the trailers. Why have I only seen the trailers? Because the movie looked really bad. For one thing, if Downey, Jr. was to play anyone, I would rather see him as Watson because Downey, Jr.'s humor is best when it's subtly mocking either himself or someone else. Holmes would never mock himself, and only seems to be dimly aware about how he appears to other people. Downey has a self-conscious quality that would work fantastically well as Watson--and besides, Holmes's humor is sharp, rather than witty. Downey is all wit. That's another reason why this movie sucks. And I get it, it was really cool when they slowed everything down and showed how Sherlock worked out how he would punch a guy or whatever, but Sherlock Holmes is not an action hero. I repeat, he only springs into action whenever it is absolutely necessary, and even then it is so seldom that it actually has a dramatic effect. Perish the thought! I suppose it is too much to ask that we actually be given a hero who uses his brain more than he uses his right hook. Really f*****g great role-modeling, stupid f*****g studio system!
I'm really sorry about that one. How about having a climax on some dumb-ass f*****g crane thing with Professor Moriarty? Who the f**k cares? It's CGI and we've been over it since Return of the King. Also, Irene Adler. Know why she was effective in the book? BECAUSE SHE WAS IN LIKE THREE SCENES NOT THE ENTIRE F*****G THING. Everybody talked about her and whispered about her and the reason why she was important to Holmes was because SHE GOT AWAY FROM HIM AND BESTED HIM. I think Rachel McAdams would be a great Irene Adler! Sure! But she doesn't need to be in the entire f*****g thing just because she has a pair of nice ****s! She was his adversary, not his f*****g sidekick! Less is more for cripe's sake! ****s!
The Watson: is Jude Law.
Overall: Hey, let's blow some s**t up and f**k up one of the best intellectual literary characters of all time and make him a wisecracking action beefcake. Let's cast JUDE LAW as Doctor Watson! Then let's make a sequel! High-five! Now let's see what other parts of Bailey's favorite childhood stories we can bastardize.
Hey, wait! Why don't we cast JENNIFER MOTHERF*****G GARNER AS MISS MARPLE?!??
I'm not kidding.
*(At this point, Bailey got up, walked around for ten minutes and got a glass of water, then came back and felt much better)*
Anyway, to conclude, there will always be good and bad with any literary adaptation. Holmes is such a classic character with so many unique traits and features that it is always fun to see where an actor chooses to go when they approach playing him. But (and I don't mean to sound like Wishbone* here), the best thing I can recommend is to go, grab one of the books, plop in a chair and experience his world yourself. And then go check out one of the aforementioned screen adaptations and see what you like best. There's something for everyone! (Except the last one, for reasons I believe I have made clear. Or sort of clear, if you can read around all the expletives and actually make out a coherent sentence.)
For now, the game's afoot (and I'm a leg!)
*As a matter of fact, Wishbone made an extremely good Sherlock Holmes in his adaptations of Hound of the Baskervilles and A Scandal In Bohemia. My favorite line is when he's following Irene Adler and then is like, "Now may be my chance...but I do have this strange fascination for chasing cabs."
** I made a joke today. What filter does a depressive filmmaker use? Sadturation.