Tuesday, June 11, 2013

of all the sherlocks i've loved before

Sherlock Holmes, the master detective, was created by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle in 1887. Conan Doyle featured this most famous of London's consulting detectives in four novels (A Study in Scarlet, The Sign of the Four, The Hound of the Baskervilles, The Valley of Fear) and 56 short stories. Holmes was a decidedly quirky but engaging character. His incredible powers of observation, his enormous ego, his attention to the most minute details, his love of disguise, his pipe smoking and cocaine habit — all add to this most well-rounded of fictional characters.

Holmes is so well-known that even his address, 221B, Baker Street, London, seems familiar to most. But what really makes the reader connect with the detective is how they get to know him through his friend and colleague, Dr. John H. Watson, who assists him on his cases and keeps a record of them and a subsequent biography of Holmes and his methods.

Basil Rathbone made the deerstalker and pipe look good
The first filmed version of Sherlock Holmes was in 1900, but most people have probably first encountered the detective as played by Basil Rathbone, with Nigel Bruce as his sidekick Dr. Watson. The duo appeared in in fourteen Hollywood productions, from 1939-46:

The Hound of the Baskervilles, The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, Sherlock Holmes and the Voice of Terror, Sherlock Holmes and the Secret Weapon, Sherlock Holmes in Washington, Sherlock Holmes Faces Death, The Spider Woman, The Scarlet Claw, The Pearl of Death, The House of Fear, The Woman in Green, Pursuit to Algiers, Terror by Night, Dressed to Kill

Jeremy Brett practices violin to hone his mental powers

Rathbone, with his eloquent delivery, made for a dashing, impressive Holmes. But his interpretation was supplanted by what many consider to be the definitive version as played by Jeremy Brett, for Granada Television (from 1984-94). Two actors, David Burke and Edward Hardwicke, played Watson opposite Brett in the series. Brett's Holmes is supercilious, brilliant, but also human. The stories were all kept in their original Victorian London setting, although Holmes and Watson go farther afield when the case calls for it. I've seen other actors try their hand at Holmes — Peter Cushing (The Hound of the Baskervilles), Christopher Lee (Sherlock Holmes and the Leading Lady), Christopher Plummer (Murder By Decree), Nicol Williamson (The Seven-Per-Cent Solution), but Brett, more than any of them, seems to have captured the essence of the character.

Robert Downey, Jr. considers his next move
But Sherlock Holmes need not stay rooted in the past. Recently there has been a sudden renewal of interest in portraying a character that most are either overly familiar with — a Victorian-era armchair detective. In director Guy Ritchie's version, Holmes is a kick-ass, take-charge master of deduction, with the wry humor of Robert Downey, Jr. Downey, Jr. is paired with a fractious but devoted friend in Jude Law's Watson. They have so far appeared in two very high-powered entertaining films together, Sherlock Holmes and Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows, and in all likelihood, considering the films' success at the box office, will team up again, if Downey, Jr.'s other alter-ego, Iron Man, doesn't get in the way. Ritchie keeps Holmes in the Victorian era, although with a modern sensibility.

Benedict Cumberbatch considers his latest clue
There have been two other recent interpretations of Holmes, both updating the detective and his cases to the 20th century, while always keeping a nod to the original source material. The most critically acclaimed has been Sherlock, from BBC One, starring Benedict Cumberbatch as the famous detective, with Martin Freeman as John Watson. Created by Dr. Who veterans Mark Gatiss and Steven Moffat, the focus is on an extremely anti-social Holmes, who utilizes the internet and other modern technology to physically separate himself from the world, while enabling him to cerebrally engage from the safety of his rooms and solve difficult cases. Cumberbatch manages to make his Holmes a little creepy and off-putting, and yet a little sexy, too. It's a fine balance, but he really pulls it off. Brilliantly.

Jonny Lee Miller utilizes varying techniques to aid his powers of deduction
On American television, on CBS, there is also now Elementary, featuring Jonny Lee Miller as Holmes. Watson, played by Lucy Liu, has been assigned to Holmes to help him overcome his drug addiction. They are invariably called in to solve some of modern day New York's most puzzling cases. Miller and Liu have a nice chemistry, and while it is not as over-the-top as Sherlock, it is also an entertaining interpretation.

Whatever your poison, Cumberbatch or Downey, Jr. or Brett or Miller or Rathbone, what all of these interpretations of Conan Doyle's master detective prove is that maybe there is always room for a new Sherlock Holmes.
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