Sherlock vs. Sherlock: A Study in Holmes

Robert Downey Jr./©Warner Bros. Entertainment Basil Rathbone/Twentieth Century Fox Benedict Cumberbatch/Courtesy of Hartswood Films/BBC for Masterpiece
Robert Downey Jr./©Warner Bros. Entertainment Basil Rathbone/Twentieth Century Fox Benedict Cumberbatch/Courtesy of Hartswood Films/BBC for Masterpiece

With the popularity of procedural franchises and quirky forensic detectives, it was only a matter of time before the original “consulting detective,” Sherlock Holmes, matched wits with “Law and Order” and “CSI.” Last year saw two projects devoted to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s famous creationGuy Ritchie’s film “Sherlock Holmes” and the BBC series “Sherlock” — both of which will return to screens, large and small, later this year. And, just weeks ago, Conan Doyle’s estate authorized a new Sherlock Holmes novel, to be published in September. The game is, indeed, afoot.

While Holmes has remained an adaptation favorite almost since first appearing in 1887, the degree of faithfulness to the original canon varies considerably among the plays, radio programs, films, and television shows based on the character. Yet, whether he battles Nazis (in the Basil Rathbone films) or is emulated by a mouse (“The Great Mouse Detective”), his unparalleled ability to impose logical order on chaos remains an appealing constant. The late Victorian world in which he emerged (though Conan Doyle carried on writing the character until 1927) was a transitional one. Rapid industrialization and scientific and technological advances of the previous decades caused a questioning of fundamental cultural values — gender, family, class, religion — that challenged the very foundations of society. In this new and dangerous world of squalid slums, modern crime, the working class, liberated women, and immigrants, Holmes represented a restoration of a safe, middle-class tradition.

Best known for “Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels” and “Snatch,” Ritchie may seem like an odd choice to bring Sherlock Holmes to screen, but his interpretation fits into a body of work that essentially forms one long narrative of male bonding and the criminal underworld. Starring Robert Downey Jr. as Holmes and Jude Law as Watson, the film draws heavily on scenes of action and partnership in the canon, papering over an uneven plot. Ritchie has described how his boarding school rewarded pupils for good behavior with piped-in readings of Holmes stories at bedtime — a nice twist on enforcing Sherlockian order — and, undeniably, his film has the energetic spirit of a boy’s re-imagining.

Departing from the common misconception of the effete detective genius and his bumbling sidekick, “Sherlock Holmes” instead emphasizes their dynamic physicality and equal partnership through thrilling fight scenes and endless comic bickering (“Wear a jacket.”  “You wear a jacket!”). These sequences — the film’s most developed — establish the pair as pillars of stability in a decaying world of murdered women, dirty streets, a morally susceptible Parliament, the occult, even the disbanded Baker Street bachelor pad. As in all buddy cop action flicks, their struggle against the villain takes on larger implications, so that it becomes a battle not just of good versus evil, but for the fate of England and perhaps the world. For all the irreverence of Ritchie’s version, this kind of heroic valor, hardly touched by the human quirks of Conan Doyle’s originals, offers a surprisingly conservative vision, espousing Victorian anxieties about change and nostalgia for an unreconstructed British empire.

If “Sherlock Holmes” fears progression, “Sherlock” wholly embraces it, regarding the trappings of the modern urbanized world — smartphones, GPS, CCTV — as commonplace resources. The three-part series, with Benedict Cumberbatch (“Atonement”) in the title role and Martin Freeman (“The Office” [UK], Bilbo in the forthcoming “Hobbit” film) as Dr. John Watson, sets the canon in contemporary London, with surprisingly little to update. (Watson remains an Afghan war veteran, for example.) With a format that allows the luxury of developing characters and storylines, “Sherlock” remains true not only to the spirit and plots of the original texts, but also to their thematic interests.

As opposed to the film’s apocalyptic death drive, “Sherlock” concentrates on beginnings: John’s recovery from combat injuries, the capabilities of technology, the verve of London, the development of the partnership. United in their boredom with civilian life, Sherlock and John live for the excitement of these possibilities, with an enthusiasm sometimes regarded as unseemly. Nonetheless, the series also acknowledges the dark side of this potential. The opening credits — tilt-shift footage of London, with close-ups of blood cells, pipettes, and magnifying lenses — encapsulate the miniaturization of the world by technology and “Sherlock” deftly plays on the international nature of modern corruption. The cases in each episode are linked narratively and symbolically by the iconography of terrorism: mundane-looking killers, smuggling rings, hostages rigged to bombs, the mastermind behind it all. Though framed as a police procedural, “Sherlock” grapples with the most modern of our “ripped from the headlines” fears and imposes the order that we hope and demand of technology and logic — an order so perfectly embodied by Sherlock Holmes.

Which of these dueling Sherlocks did you prefer? And feel free to discuss other favorite Sherlock Holmes adaptations below.

  • Sherlock Holmes in modern world?

  • Mangler1

    BBC's Sherlock is brilliant and Cumberbach nails the essence of the character. I'm old enough to have seen all the variations and my vote's for him.

  • Lisa

    Downey as Sherlock Holmes was absolutely brilliant casting. Love Jude Law as Watson too; the pair of them have fantastic chemistry. I know not everyone (*cough* my parents *cough*) was a huge fan of Ritchie's Sherlock Holmes, but I for one have quite enjoyed it.

  • Pingback: Women on the Verge: Tragic Heroines, Then and Now « Word and Film : The Intersection of Books, Movies, and Television()

  • Mintie

    BBC's Sherlock is definately my favorite of the three. The original Basil Rathbone films being my second choice and Ritchie's S.H. my third (I thought it was dismal, at best).

    Benedict Cumberbatch is a flawless Sherlock, the use of technology and related visuals are brilliant and the storylines are modern and engaging. I'm waiting on tenterhooks for BBC to film more episodes.

    • Tagtech

      I agree completely with Mintie. Thanks also for getting "tenterhooks" right!

      • skylinecbw

        I'm with Mintie - the BBC version is so refreshing and tightly woven together. Unlike the Richie version, which was fun and roller-coaster-esque, the BBC version is refreshingly realistic. In the face of the collective rubbish of celebrity TV, reality TV, and hero shows completley devoid of reality, it is wonderful to see some effective, engaging, and visually impressive story telling. I was beginning to this the craft was dead...

  • Deb

    Sir Basil Rathbone was the real deal. Everyone tries to copy his looks, speech, and mannerisms.

  • Jim

    I loved Cumberbatch's Sherlock, but why no mention of Jeremy Brett's brilliant--some would say definitive--characterization for the BBC in the 1980s and 1990s?

  • Allyson

    I purchased a DVD set of 39 episodes filmed in France starring Ronald Howard, son of actor Leslie Howard. The episodes were produced in the mid 1950's.....the black and white adds to the creepy atmosphere of each episode; Christopher Lee prefaces each disk with a commentary. I think Mr. Howard makes a fine Holmes. I've only seen one episode with Mr. Brett.........a later episode........and I was put off by his tonal imbalances: shrieking and subdued; was that typical of his interpretation?
    I love Mr Cumberbatch and Mr Freeman and the updated version - it was weird that they don't make ANY reference to the literary characters [Dr. Watson, I have a flat mate for you - his name is Sherlock Holmes; no one bats an eye. Lestrade is in the New Scotland Yard, etc], they slip seamlessly into 21st century sensibilities.
    As for Guy Ritchie's adaptation, I'd watch Robert Downey, Jr
    wash a car! He was great - I'm looking forward to the next film.
    I'm probably most familiar with Basil Rathbone's films.
    I also enjoyed 'Without A Clue' with Michael Caine and Ben Kingsley and 'Young Sherlock Holmes' by Steven Spielberg.

  • Kristina

    Jeremy Brett is by far the best Sherlock Holmes hands down!!

  • Jade

    I read the original adventures of Sherlock Holmes and I must say the film was very disappointing the actors were absolutely rubbish the story was very inaccurate and in some parts the film seemed more Georgian than Victorian! also Sherlock seems almost stupid and way to confident the comical aspect was not taken seriously however I love the bbc's Sherlock series even though it is set in the present the characters were very simaler to the original and i found it much more entertaining the tv show is how Arthur Conal Doyle would have written it today the film is nothing but cheap explosions and a load of hollywood rubbish!

  • Jacquelyn V-R

    I enjoy this article and the picture but am insulted that the writer didnt even consider one of the best actors to play as holmes... Jeremy Brett. His version of holmes was said to be the version that Doyle himself would have loved. Everyone forgets Brett. Everyone except Benedict Cumberbatch though. He also loves Brett's version. I guess the writer of this article needs just a little more info about holmes. Woops! lol its important to gather ALL info before writing something such as this. Just thought id let you and the world know. 🙂 but other that the writers forgetfulness of the great actor Jeremy Brett, it is a well written article. 🙂

  • Jara

    Firs, sorry for my bad english (I´m learning this lenguage yet XD)
    Second, I read all the relates of Sherlock Holmes, and it´s one of my favourit books, i really love it!!

    The film of Sherlock Holmes (which protagonist is Robert Downey Jr.) present a caracter who isn´t sherlock holmes. I want say, that this Sherlock holmes is not really a Sherlock Holmes.

    I think that "Sherlock" (BBC) get the true personality of Sherlock of Conan Doyle. He´s really a Sherlock.

  • Manuela

    Basil Rathbone - the only true performer of Sherlock Holmes. Perfect in appearance and looks, brilliant and unsurpassed for all time.
    What do I care about the accuracy of the adaptation of Arthur Conan Doyles stories as long as I can enjoy the unique charisma of Basil Rathbone and the wonderful relationship between him and Nigel Bruce.

    Brett doesn't even look like the real Holmes (he had to dye his brown hair black and has no aquiline nose) and is just cultivated boredom. And I don't like his sometimes mannered behaviour at all.

    This BBC guy is only a hype created by media for teenagers and other people who don't want to grow up like was Harry Potter before (does anyone still speaks of him?) and will be rightly forgotten in a few years.

    As for Robert Downey jr. it is the best to draw a veil of silence over this performance.

    And by the way: please don't reply to my post as no one can convince me otherwise!

  • NewSexy

    I live Guy Ritchie's adaptation! He brought a lively Sherlock Holmes alive! He takes my vote!

    As a Sherlockian lover however, I cannot say no to the BBC version! It's also much more than solving crimes... it's friendship!

    It's amazing to live with these adaptations back to back! I'm waiting for movie 3 and season 4! Let's not pick! They are both great!