Not So Elementary, Watson

Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows

a film directed by Guy Ritchie


a television series on the BBC created by Mark Gatiss and Steven Moffat


a television series on CBS created by Robert Doherty

The Game's Afoot (or Holmes for the Holidays)

a play by Ken Ludwig, directed by Aaron Posner
Cleveland Playhouse, November 25–December 24, 2011

The Narrative of John Smith

by Arthur Conan Doyle, edited by Jon Lellenberg, Daniel Stashower, and Rachell Foss
British Library/University of Chicago Press, 138 pp., $15.00
Universal Pictures/Photofest
Basil Rathbone as Sherlock Holmes and Nigel Bruce as Dr. Watson in Sherlock Holmes and the House of Fear, 1945

In the 2011 film Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows—the sequel to 2009’s Sherlock Holmes—the actors Robert Downey Jr. and Jude Law completed their transformation of the great detective and Dr. Watson into Victorian action heroes (with just a touch of “bromance” to their relationship). The two movies (with a third in the offing) might not be your father’s cinematic Sherlock Holmes—for an older generation Basil Rathbone and the doltish Nigel Bruce will always be the denizens of Baker Street—nor are they mine. I remain fond of Jeremy Brett’s neurotic Holmes and the stolid, admirable Watsons portrayed by David Burke and Edward Hardwicke in the Granada series of the 1980s.

More recently, viewers have been transfixed by the six episodes—three in 2010, three in 2012, with more to come—of the BBC’s enthralling Sherlock. Setting the stories in the present, the creators Mark Gatiss and Steven Moffat (best known for revitalizing the classic science fiction serial, Dr. Who) update and rejigger everything and yet remain true to the spirit of the original works. Benedict Cumberbatch plays a kinetic, pallid Sherlock, dressed in vampiric black, and brimming with Asperger’s-like intensity.

The Byronically handsome actor is wildly popular, with one group of female fans being inspired to form the online group the Baker Street Babes and some others even calling themselves Cumberbitches. Taking the more difficult role, Martin Freeman creates a war-damaged Watson who is, despite his steady and romantic nature, at heart an adrenalin junkie. Life with Holmes allows Watson to reexperience some of the exhilaration of battle. Their deepening friendship is beautifully delineated.

Just this September, CBS inaugurated yet another take on Sherlock. In Elementary, Jonny Lee Miller portrays Holmes as a recovering drug addict, heavily tattooed, with a painful past. Dr. Joan Watson, played by Lucy Liu, is his quietly professional minder, hired by a wealthy father to look after a troubled son during the latter’s sojourn in modern-day New York City. Together the duo end up assisting the NYPD, even as details of Holmes’s past gradually emerge. At first, there seemed a little too much about Miller as an emotionally wounded brainiac (à la House or Monk) and not enough Sherlockismo to the CSI-style plots. But you can’t take your eyes off the charismatic actor, or Liu for that matter, and the series has grown better and better.

While all these screen interpretations of Holmes and Watson are, more or less, enjoyable, they have also served to generate renewed interest in the written record: Arthur Conan Doyle’s original, incomparable stories. My own initial encounter with the great detective, more than fifty years ago, remains one of the great reading experiences of my life—and generations of readers can offer similar memories. At the beginning of fifth…

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