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.