One thing that we really gravitate towards in our culture are larger to life heroes. There’s just something about extraordinary people righting problems in the world through extraordinary means that we find so appealing. Or maybe its the idea that all of us may have some untapped power within us that can someday be useful. Having super powers are an interesting concept that has come out of literature and cinema over the years, but not every great hero is defined by this. Sometimes just pure talent can make a hero appealing. And likewise, how we use theses talents that are given to us is also what separate us from being either the good guy or the bad guy. While heroes have been around throughout the whole of our literary history, the idea of dissecting what makes a hero who they are is a far more modern concept. Today, it is no longer the larger than life aspects that we find interesting in our heroes, but rather the things that ultimately make them human. Comic books have done a great job of defining the ideals of a super hero, but to see where these concepts of modern day heroics have came from, you only need to look back at what is probably the first modern super hero: Sherlock Holmes.
Created by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle in the late 19th century, Sherlock Holmes was a character unlike any seen before in literature. He was an eccentric yet extremely intelligent private detective who could solve crimes in ways that most other people couldn’t. The brilliance of Doyle’s creation was that Sherlock’s unconventionality enabled him to observe the world in ways that conventional Victorian society wouldn’t have understood and find the answer in places no one would’ve expected. Not surprisingly, Sherlock Holmes was an enormously popular character in his time and has continued to stay strong in our culture over a hundred years later. Not only that, he has inspired other super detectives throughout the years like James Bond and Batman, who in various degrees are the Sherlock Holmes of their times. Hollywood has likewise seen the value in this character and have adapted Arthur Conan Doyle’s classic stories again and again for the big screen. Thankfully, Sir Arthur wrote numerous novels as well as countless short stories with the character, which has given filmmakers plenty of material to draw from. I’ve looked at a few of these different adaptations and it’s interesting to see how the character has evolved with the times and yet has still retained his popularity. So, let’s take a look at the evolution of Sherlock Holmes on film.
BASIL RATHBONE from THE ADVENTURES OF SHERLOCK HOLMES (1939)
Though there were many films based off of Arthur Conan Doyle’s books during the silent era of film-making (some even written for the screen by Doyle himself), it wouldn’t be until Hollywood jumped in when Sherlock Holmes became a box office success. Produced by 20th Century Fox, the Sherlock Holmes series turned into a profitable franchise that also turned it’s lead, Basil Rathbone, into an A-list movie star. Though he had been around as a contract player at Fox for many years before, Rathbone’s career would be redefined by Holmes. Rathbone could not have been more perfect for the character; perfectly capturing the English-ness of Sherlock Holmes, while still making him appealing for American audiences. Likewise, for Sherlock to work as a character, he needed to have the support of a strong supporting cast, particularly when it comes to Sherlock’s trusty companion, Dr. Watson. Here, Watson is played by British actor Nigel Bruce, and while Bruce’s performance is perfectly fine, there is something lacking in the translation of the character. In these film, Watson is just there to stand by, amazed at Holmes genius, which isn’t entirely true to the original character, who was more helpful in the books. But when it came to Sherlock himself, Hollywood couldn’t have done any better. Rathbone would go on to make 15 movie in the series, and would be the standard on which all other adaptations would be judged by in the years to come.
ROBERT STEPHENS from THE PRIVATE LIFE OF SHERLOCK HOLMES (1970)
Despite the enormous popularity of the Fox/ Rathbone Sherlock films, there weren’t many other film adaptations of the famed detective, until this British production. The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes is fascinating more for it’s production than as an actual film, considering all the problems that happened behind the scenes. The film was made by the legendary Billy Wilder, who was a big fan of the Holmes novels and he wanted to give his best shot at the material in a lavishly detailed production. The film unfortunately went over-budget and over-schedule quickly, and the reported original director’s cut of 3 1/2 hours was sliced down to a little over 2 hours by the studio, making the final film feel disjointed and incomplete. The cast is serviceable enough, but not particularly memorable. British actor Robert Stephens definitely looks the part, but he lacks the charm that Basil Rathbone brought to the role. Watson comes off a bit better, though. Played by actor Colin Blakely Watson is more like the diligent partner from the books here than the befuddled companion that Nigel Bruce had played. Also noteworthy in this adaptation is the presence of Sherlock’s meddlesome brother, here played by legendary actor Christopher Lee. Though not a terrible film by any means, it unfortunately doesn’t work as an adaptation of the classic novels, and seems to be an odd fit for director Wilder, the man who gave us the likes of Sunset Boulevard (1950) and Some Like it Hot (1959).
GENE WILDER from THE ADVENTURES OF SHERLOCK HOLMES’ SMARTER BROTHER (1975)
Speaking of people named Wilder, actor and writer Gene Wilder took his own stab at making a Sherlock Holmes film. Though, unlike previous efforts, this was not meant to be a serious adaptation. As you can see from the title, this movie is not about Sherlock Holmes, nor is it about the character’s actual brother from the books, Mycroft. No, in this movie Gene Wilder is playing an entirely made up character named Sigerson Holmes, who basically is looked at as the “black sheep” of the Holmes household. In this movie, Sigerson means to show how much smarter he is than his brother by solving a case on his own, with some very disastrous results. Sherlock does appear in the movie, played by actor Douglas Wilmer, but he’s primarily a secondary character at best. This film is not meant to be a true adaptation of Doyle’s novels as it is obviously a parody, but still one that draws inspiration from the subject that it’s mocking. Wilder is typically zany here, and is well supported by other comedic actors like Madeline Kahn and Marty Feldman, but the movie doesn’t have the same comedic balance that say Young Frankenstein (1975), another parody film that Wilder headlined, had. Apparently this film was passion project for Wilder (he wrote and directed it as well), which kind of explains why the final product lacks focus. It’s interesting more as a parody of the archetypes of a Sherlock Holmes mystery than as story on it’s own.
NICHOLAS ROWE from YOUNG SHERLOCK HOLMES (1985)
This film was the first serious production by a major studio for the classic character in many years, and even included the involvement of Steven Spielberg as a producer. Directed by Barry Levinson and written by future Harry Potter-helmer Chris Columbus, Young Sherlock Holmes takes us back to the detective’s youth, showing how he would become the man he was destined to be. With a young John Watson by his side (played by Alan Cox), teenage Sherlock uncovers a mystery surrounding a mysterious cult, which soon leads to some supernatural encounters. While the film is lavish and impressive, I couldn’t help but feel like there were some missed opportunities in the plotting of the story. One, the film doesn’t develop the characters of Sherlock and Watson much, and instead just paints them in broad strokes, showing that they’ve always been the way they are from the very beginning. Two, the film gets bogged down in it’s production values, choosing to indulge in spectacle, particularly towards the end. The thing that does work best in the film however is Nicholas Rowe’s performance as Sherlock. For the first time since Rathbone’s portrayal, we see the awkward social misfit whose genius comes out in unexpected ways in this version. Tonally, the film gets the character right and in that regard it succeeds as an interesting version of the character.
BASIL from THE GREAT MOUSE DETECTIVE (1986)
It seems like an odd choice for Disney to translate the world of Sherlock Holmes into animation, given the original’s sometimes violent nature. Thankfully, they had the childrens’ books by author Eve Titus to draw from, which themselves were loving homages to Doyle’s original work. But, make no mistake. Even though they are portrayed as mice and the story is based around an entirely different character, this is still a Sherlock Holmes film at heart. Following the adventures of Basil of Baker Street, The Great Mouse Detective is a sadly under-appreciated animated film, overshadowed by some of Disney’s more famous productions. It follows all the basics of a Holmes mystery perfectly and Basil is just as appealing as the famed detective itself. Despite the G-rating this film received, it is also surprisingly dark and frightening at times. Basil is voiced by Barrie Ingham, who does a great job of capturing that Rathone-inspired cadence in the character, bringing all the charm as well as all the narcissism and eccentricity that Holmes was famous for. The film also features the great Vincent Price in the role of the villainous Ratigan, in what is probably one of the best vocal performances in any Disney film. For many people in my generation, this movie was probably our introduction to the world of Sherlock Holmes, and it’s not an unworthy way to start out either. Also of note, Sherlock Holmes himself does appear in silhouette in some scenes, and his voice is supplied by non other than Basil Rathbone, through archive vocal tracks taken from the original movies.
ROBERT DOWNEY JR. from SHERLOCK HOLMES(2009) and SHERLOCK HOLMES: A GAME OF SHADOWS (2011)
Sherlock Holmes has stayed in the public consciousness continuously over the years, but the films that brought him back to popularity in a big way recently were these two productions, both directed by Guy Ritchie. Riding high off the success of the Iron Man franchise, Robert Downey Jr. took on the famed character, this time bringing out more of the oddball aspects of the character. The Ritchie Sherlock Holmes films are by no means faithful adaptations of the classic novels, nor are they trying to be. These movies give us Sherlock Holmes, the action hero, and less of Sherlock Holmes, the super sleuth. But, with an actor as skilled and as charming as Downey, it’s a version of the character that is still worth watching. Despite the bombastic nature of Ritchie’s direction, the film does do a good job of portraying the character himself. Holmes is once again the social misfit who can see the world differently from others, which Downey especially indulges in with hilarious flourish. Better yet is the portrayal of Dr. Watson in the movie, this time played by Jude Law. Watson, like Sherlock, has been beefed up into an action hero, which I think works better in Watson’s favor, showing him as more of an equal to Holmes than as his faithful helper. They may not be true to Doyle’s original vision, but these films are still enormously fun, and they especially do right by the characters, helping to modernize them for contemporary audiences.
BENEDICT CUMBERBATCH from SHERLOCK (BBC SERIES) (2010-present)
I may be cheating a bit by including this version of the character in this profile, considering that it comes from a TV series and not a movie. But given that each episode of this current BBC series is feature length, I feel that it deserves a place among it’s big screen peers. The Sherlock TV series took the risky direction of taking Arthur Conan Doyle’s classic stories and adapting them into a modern day setting. Remarkably, show creators Mark Gatiss and Steven Moffat have managed to make the setting work and it shows that Doyle was clearly ahead of his time as a writer. Probably the biggest reason for the shows success is the casting of Benedict Cumberbatch as Sherlock. The actor just feels custom made for the role, and he has come to own the part just as strongly as Basil Rathbone did many years ago. I particularly like the way that Sherlock tries hard to connect with people on a human level in the show, even though it annoys him when interferes with his methods; something that has never been explored effectively from the novels until now. Another great part of the show is the casting of Martin Freeman as Watson. Like Jude Law’s version of the character, Freeman’s Watson is less of an observer and more of Sherlock’s other half; someone there to ground the detective into the real world. Cumberbatch and Freeman have unmatched onscreen chemistry, which I think has really been the reason for the show’s success. Thankfully, the series has become a huge success both in it’s native England and abroad, and it did it by staying true to it’s roots, while at the same time making it work for modern tastes.
Few other characters have had the lasting legacy that Sherlock Holmes has had over the years, and the best thing about it is that it’s just getting stronger. Amazingly, Arthur Conan Doyle was never as proud of his Holmes novels as he was over his work in historical fiction. I’m sure what the author couldn’t see was the way that his hero would inspire many other characters over time. Though Sherlock’s talents were plausibly built over a lifetime of work, it nevertheless made him stand out as extraordinary to readers. I’m sure that comic book writers were inspired Sherlock’s extraordinary gifts when they created heroes of their own. While some had supernatural talents that far exceed anything that Holmes was capable of, they nevertheless follow the same example of making those talents work for the greater good and the ultimate truth. Likewise, the idea that any hero is susceptible to going the wrong way in life based on their decisions was also one that was explored in Doyle’s novels. You can see examples of equal but opposite villains in many comic book narratives throughout history, which harkens all the way back to the dynamics between Sherlock and his arch-nemesis James Moriarty. It’s a strong legacy that continues to get stronger and is reaching another high point today with the Guy Ritchie films and the BBC series (which ends it’s 3rd season here in America this weekend). Like the best characters in our cultural history, Sherlock Holmes will always be timeless and will continue to stand out as one of cinemas defining heroes.