Some characters are simply too good to retire. When Sir Arthur Conan Doyle tried killing off his character Sherlock Holmes in 1893, the grief and outrage it caused among his readers persuaded the author to revive the great detective for another three decades. Thank goodness he did, but considering that Doyle merely wanted the freedom to move on to new projects, it seems his most inspired creation earned him a life sentence.
Since the author’s death in 1930 – and even before – Holmes and his companion Dr. Watson have not had a moment’s rest. Their adventures have surely been adapted, borrowed, re-imagined, spoofed, spun off and otherwise immortalized more than the exploits of any other characters in the history of fiction. On the page, on the stage, on the radio, on big and small screens alike, they have always found a place among our favorite heroes.
In 1984, Granada Television first aired its Adventures Of Sherlock Holmes series, which for many has become the definitive adaptation of Doyle’s original stories. The late Jeremy Brett, a predatory bird in human form, portrayed the master sleuth with a unique intensity that none before or since have matched. The episodes themselves were intricately crafted period pieces, of the kind at which British television often excels. The show was as moody as it was entertaining, and Holmes often got his feet sticky in a particularly grim case of the week. Though a number of well-known Holmes films preceded this series, none reconstructed Doyle’s text with such attention to detail. Besides Brett’s lauded performance as Holmes, the greatest achievement of the show was to restore Dr. Watson to his dignified position. The most celebrated Holmes movies – the ones starring Basil Rathbone – have long been criticized for demoting Watson (played by Nigel Bruce) to the status of bumbling comic relief. This is not to say Bruce’s character is not lovable and entertaining, but for Doyle purists his interpretation simply does not measure up. Granada’s series featured David Burke, then Edward Hardwicke, as the good doctor. Each actor fashioned the role into a character nearly as charismatic as Holmes himself. This self-assured and adventurous Watson made much more sense as a companion to history’s smartest detective. For ten years, this version of the Holmes legend brought the majority of Doyle’s original tales to life.
With the end of the Granada series, and the death of Jeremy Brett, it seemed that the final word had been written on “classic” Sherlock Holmes. So far, this remains true. However, a number of imaginative writers have conjured up clever new versions of the character. Sherlock Holmes as a strict Victorian (later Edwardian) period piece is over and done with, but the character still has potential in a new context. The only rule is not to stray from the unique faculties that make Sherlock such a distinctive and popular hero. If the story’s focus ceases to be the detective’s brilliant deductive logic, then the magic is lost and the character wasted. If, however, due attention and respect are paid to this detail, the rest is free and open to broader interpretation. The last really interesting attempt of the 1990s was Jake Kasdan’s film Zero Effect, a modest cult hit featuring Bill Pullman and Ben Stiller as a modern Holmes and Watson. For about a decade, Doyle’s detective retired to relative obscurity.
Suddenly, word went around that Guy Ritchie, director of such balls-out heist pictures as Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels and Snatch was making a Holmes and Watson movie, starring Robert Downey, Jr. and Jude Law. Skeptics were right to be skeptical. The director is famous for highly stylized photography, rapid-fire editing, and a tongue-in-cheek attitude toward extreme violence. Is taking Holmes at this speed a good idea? Well, yes actually. At a time when unprecedented swarms of remakes are destroying everything we consider classic, Sherlock Holmes was one of the most entertaining films of 2009. The director’s signature style illustrates Holmes and his particular superpowers in fresh and original ways. When Holmes fixes his gaze on a situation, time slows down to allow the audience to think at his incredible pace, as he guides us through each revelation of the tiniest detail. Even when beating a man senseless, Holmes carefully analyzes the most efficient way to do so.
There is far more ass-kicking in the film than in any other Sherlock Holmes adventure, and the anachronistic style choices keep the film just out of reach of historical drama. This is really a well-executed James Bond film, set at the turn of the century. However, it is faithful enough to the spirit of Holmes to be a very satisfying, if not the most profound, entry into the archives.
Ritchie’s Holmes is likely to run his course before too long. The harder Hollywood pushes a film franchise, the less time it generally takes to ruin it. We can at least hope Sherlock Holmes 2 will be really cool. With the announcement of Stephen Fry as Sherlock’s “smarter” brother Mycroft, and the promise of teasing his archnemesis Professor Moriarty out of the shadows, we wait with high hopes. But barring some incredible surprises, this vision of Holmes runs the risk of contracting Iron Man syndrome, in which the excitement over a single smash hit sets the bar way too high for future installments. Mind you, Holmes and Watson may fool us all and have several good adventures in store. Disappointment will probably not follow as quickly as Iron Man 2. Listen closely and you can hear Marvel’s Avengers franchise derailing already.
Meanwhile, a new generation of Sherlock Holmes adventures is causing a stir. Hartswood Films, a British production company known for such sitcoms as Men Behaving Badly and Coupling, recently premiered Sherlock, a new series which re-imagines Holmes in the present day. The show is the first output of the company’s new branch office in Cardiff, Wales. Benedict Cumberbatch, a rising character actor with some quality period drama to his name, portrays the titular sleuth. Martin Freeman, of The Office and The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy, plays Watson. Three ninety-minute episodes aired in 2010, first in the UK and then abroad. Based on a very positive response, a second series has been confirmed for 2011.
The creators of the series are Mark Gatiss and Steven Moffat, two notable writers with some diverse and impressive credits to their respective names, including work on Doctor Who. Gatiss is best known for his sketch comedy work with The League Of Gentlemen. Moffat, son-in-law to Hartswood producer Beryl Vertue, previously wrote the popular show Coupling for the company, followed by a freewheeling short-run series called Jekyll, inspired by the Jekyll and Hyde characters of Robert Louis Stevenson.
Ostensibly a modern adaptation of The Strange Case Of Dr. Jekyll And Mr Hyde, this show turns out to be an off-the-wall meta-textual sci-fi conspiracy thriller with a Resident Evil plot and a comic book sense of humor. Yes, indeed. All that and more. Jekyll is an exercise in airy escapist fiction, and who’s to say Stevenson would disapprove? The show’s main appeal is the very entertaining character work by lead actor James Nesbitt – in warring dual roles – and the absolutely stunning Gina Bellman as the doctor’s wife, who finds she has married one man too many. Isn’t that all you need for good television?
Sherlock signifies a maturity of sorts for Moffat’s taste in Victorian fiction. Set here and now, in the age of nicotine patches and smart phones (both of which the detective uses extensively), the show has its details reasoned out carefully enough that the core premise of the source material stays virtually untouched. Dr. John Watson is a wounded veteran of the Afghan war, as in his original incarnation. To make ends meet, he takes a flatmate in London’s Baker Street – an eccentric and brilliant “consulting detective,” who taps Watson’s psychological attachment to his military service in order to coax him along on crime-solving adventures. A modern perspective lends new dimensions to their relationship, and also creates more than a few jokes at its expense (everyone assumes that two male, non-student roommates must be a couple in this day and age).
Sherlock‘s success is in altering the little details without spoiling the important parts. Yes, Holmes uses plenty of gadgets and modern amenities. Not, however, any more than he would have used an encyclopedia or pocket watch a hundred years ago. The technology never does the thinking for him, and therein lies the key to a good adaptation. After that, all the modern details seem clever, not intrusive or contrived.
The most significant change to Doyle’s world is a compelling new portrait of Professor Moriarty. Traditionally a James Bond style “armchair” supervillain, seldom seen but always feared, Moriarty finds new life as a flamboyant psychopath. Forget Sherlock Holmes versus Jack the Ripper. This guy is more akin to the Joker. Now there’s an interesting new match-up! Also, you can spot co-creator Mark Gatiss as Mycroft Holmes, as cordially enigmatic as he’s ever been played.
The evidence is plain. Sherlock Holmes is alive and going strong. With any luck, those with the imaginative powers will continue finding new ways to bring classics to life. Anyone for Dickens? A respectable attempt at a 21st-century Dracula might be due, but could also be an expensive train wreck. If Moffat and Gatiss decide to go for another franchise, I will be rooting for Treasure Island.
What classic literature would you like to see brought to the modern stage? What writers and directors would you hire to do it?