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16 Alternative Takes on Sherlock Holmes


Arthur Conan Doyle's fictional sleuth Sherlock Holmes was first introduced to readers in 1887 in The Strand magazine's serialisation of his first adventure A Study in Scarlet.

Well over a hundred years later and Holmes is still going strong, having become comfortably the most famous fictional detective of all time. Even his death, in The Final Problem in 1893, proved to be only a minor interruption to his career. 

Martin Freeman and Benedict Cumberbatch in front of 221B Baker Street
Martin Freeman as Watson and Benedict Cumberbatch as Holmes in the BBC's "Sherlock"

The demand for more Sherlock Holmes stories was so strong that his creator finally relented in the face of public demand, bringing him back to life for probably his most famous case, The Hound of the Baskervilles in 1901.

Holmes appeared in a total of four novels and fifty-six short stories by Arthur Conan Doyle, as well as in further unofficial adventures by other authors once the character was (mostly) out of copyright. 

In the 20th century, the popularity of Sherlock Holmes transferred to the screen, making him one of the most portrayed fictional characters in film and television, rivalled only by another Victorian creation, Count Dracula.

Many of these film and TV portrayals of Holmes stick to the well-worn template of the detective wearing a cape and deerstalker hat and fighting crime, with the aid of his trusty sidekick Dr. Watson, in foggy Victorian London. But others have taken a different approach, in some cases departing drastically from the version envisaged by Arthur Conan Doyle. 

Here are some of the most significant alternative portrayals of Sherlock Holmes in film and television. They begin with some outings that look relatively traditional, but don't worry - they get weirder!


He Fights the Nazis (and Watson is an idiot)

The 14 film Sherlock Holmes series of the 1930s and 1940s, starring Basil Rathbone as Holmes and Nigel Bruce as Dr. Watson, is probably still the most famous cinematic portrayal of these two characters.

It also seems like a solidly traditional one. I mean, Basil Rathbone even looks like Sidney Paget's famous illustrations of Sherlock Holmes. So much so that he could almost have stepped out of the pages of The Strand magazine. Rathbone's films are still set in foggy London town and Holmes even wears the obligatory deerstalker hat. 

Except that the hat is not from the books, it's a later embellishment inspired by one of Paget's drawings. And the Basil Rathbone series is in fact mostly an updated one. It's just not so obvious now, because it's only been updated to the 1940s. 

Dr Watson (Nigel Bruce) and Sherlock Holmes (Basil Rathbone)
Watson (Nigel Bruce) and Holmes (Basil Rathbone) in a tricky situation

The first two films, The Hound of the Baskervilles and The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, were released in 1939, and both kept the traditional period settings. But the rest of the series, running from 1942 to 1946, updated Sherlock Holmes to the then present day, and it was even known to have him ditch the deerstalker for less conspicuous headgear. 

As most of the series was made during World War II, it was inevitable that Sherlock Holmes would cross swords not only with his usual nemesis, Professor Moriarty, but also with assorted German spies and their allies. 

Nigel Bruce's buffoonish Watson is also a departure from the character written by Arthur Conan Doyle. Bruce's version was increasingly used to provide comic relief in the films, as well as to emphasise Holmes's intellectual superiority and genius. But his Watson is not at all like the intelligent medical man who appears in the original stories, and it only looks traditional now because this characterisation was copied for decades by almost everyone else.


He's Not Portrayed Accurately by Dr. Watson

For an avid reader of the Sherlock Homes stories, the notion that Watson might be an unreliable narrator seems like such an obvious avenue to pursue, and yet it rarely has been in film or TV. 

The Holmes stories are written from the perspective of Dr. Watson, who has prepared them for reading by a general audience, initially in The Strand magazine. But how reliable is Watson as a narrator? Surely he's at least tempted to clean up some of the events, simplify things, leave out anything embarrassing and generally make himself and Holmes look a bit better? He probably wouldn't be human if he didn't.

Colin Blakely and Robert Stephens as Dr Watson and Sherlock Holmes
Colin Blakely and Robert Stephens as Watson and Holmes

That's what is suggested in Billy Wilder's loving 1970 homage to Holmes, The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes. Played by Robert Stephens, this version of Sherlock Holmes is recognisable as the character from the stories. But he's also quite distinct from the public version presented by his chronicler Dr. Watson (Colin Blakely). 

He doesn't dislike women, nor is he uninterested in them romantically, he just distrusts them. He only wears the ludicrous deerstalker hat because the public now expects it, thanks to Dr. Watson. And when he fails to solve a crime and a case ends in a disastrous failure, he's safe in the knowledge that Watson will never publish that tale and the public will never find out, leaving his reputation as a genius untarnished. 

The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes was later described by writer Mark Gatiss as "a template of sorts" for the BBC TV series Sherlock. 


He Only Thinks He's Sherlock Holmes

The 1971 film They Might be Giants stars George C. Scott as a man who believes himself to be Sherlock Holmes. He even wears the deerstalker hat and cape and smokes a pipe. And he is on the trail of his traditional nemesis, Professor Moriarty.

But the fact that he has an American accent and lives in modern day New York should tip us off that he probably isn't actually Sherlock Holmes. He doesn't even have a Watson to aid him in his sleuthing. At least not until he meets a kindly psychiatrist called Dr. Watson. Dr. Mildred Watson, that is, played by Joanne Woodward. 

They Might be Giants is a gentle comic romance about characters who use fantasy as a means of escape from reality. The title references Cervantes' character Don Quixote, the nobleman who attacks a windmill because he imagines it to be a giant.

A similar premise to They Might be Giants was used in The Return of the World's Greatest Detective. This 1976 TV movie starred Larry Hagman as policeman Sherman Holmes, who comes to believe that he is actually Sherlock Holmes after receiving a head injury. 

As in They Might be Giants, Hagman's character finds his crime-fighting partner when he receives medical treatment, in this case by Dr. Joan Watson (Jenny O'Hara). The Return of the World's Greatest Detective was intended as a pilot episode for a TV series, but it didn't get any further than this first instalment. 


Douglas Wilmer as Sherlock Holmes holding up a hand written sign
Douglas Wilmer as Holmes in "The Adventure of Sherlock Holmes' Smarter Brother" 

He Has a Smarter Brother

Gene Wilder made his directorial debut with the 1975 comedy The Adventure of Sherlock Holmes' Smarter Brother. The smarter brother in question is one Sigerson Holmes, a character unknown from the books, but played here by Wilder as a would-be detective who at least believes that he's cleverer than his more famous sibling. Sigerson's name is derived from an alias used by the literary Holmes and referred to in the story The Adventure of the Empty House

Sigerson Holmes is aided in the film by fellow detective Orville Sacker (Marty Feldman) who previously solved the case of The Three Testicles ("You handled the three testicles?" he asks, evidently impressed). The two men become involved in a case that inevitably involves Holmes's nemesis Professor Moriarty (Leo McKern). 

Gene Wilder recruited some familiar actors from Mel Brooks's contemporary comedies, including Feldman, Madeline Kahn and Dom Deluise to appear in the film. Douglas Wilmer and Thorley Walters also put in a brief appearance as Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson.

Wilmer had previously played Holmes in a 1960s BBC TV series, while Thorley Walters was a regular screen Watson, playing him several times, including opposite Christopher Lee in the 1962 film Sherlock Holmes and the Deadly Necklace


He's Suffering from Paranoid Delusions Brought on by Drug Abuse

Based on Nicholas Meyer's popular novel of the same name, the title of The Seven Per Cent Solution is a reference to Sherlock Holmes's cocaine habit, a vice also featured in The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes.

The film stars Nicol Williamson as a Holmes who is dangerously out of control, suffering from paranoid delusions as a result of his drug use. Holmes has even come to believe that his harmless old maths tutor Professor Moriarty (Laurence Olivier) is a criminal genius.

Holmes's loyal friend Dr. Watson (Robert Duvall) decides that he requires the latest psychiatric treatment and so takes him to Vienna to be treated by Sigmund Freud (Alan Arkin).

Nicholas Meyer would indulge in another literary conceit in his next film, his directorial debut Time After Time in 1979. This film starred Malcolm McDowell as The Time Machine author H. G. Wells, who chases Jack the Ripper to modern day San Francisco using an actual time machine. 


Nicholas Rowe and Alan Cox holding pipes in Young Sherlock Holmes
A two pipe problem: Nicholas Rowe and Alan Cox as the younger Holmes and Watson

He's Still at School

The 1985 film Young Sherlock Holmes suggests an alternative backstory for Holmes and Watson. Instead of meeting as young men when Watson is seeking lodgings in London, the two meet as teenagers when they are pupils at the same boarding school. 

The film sees the young Holmes (Nicholas Rowe) and Watson (Alan Cox) investigate a series of suspicious deaths in a case that plunges them into a distinctly Spielbergian adventure - unsurprisingly, as Steven Spielberg was executive producer on this film. 

Young Sherlock Holmes is notable for its use of some very early CGI effects by Industrial Light and Magic. It also provides Holmes with a teenage love interest in the shape of Simon Ward's daughter Sophie Ward, and a supporting role for Nigel Stock, probably best known as Dr. Watson in the 1960s BBC series.

The film was re-titled Young Sherlock Holmes and the Pyramid of Fear in some markets in the hope that it might sound a bit like the previous year's hit Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, and it does have at least one sequence clearly inspired by that film. 


He's a Dog

You can rely on the Japanese to come up with one of the weirdest spins on the Sherlock Holmes stories. 

The animated childrens' TV series Sherlock Hound featured Holmes, Watson and the other characters as anthropomorphised dogs although, disappointingly, Holmes became a corgi instead of the more appropriate bloodhound. Sherlock Hound ran for two series from 1985 to 1986.


He's Been Brought Back to Life in the 1980s (or 1990s)

In the 1987 TV film The Return of Sherlock Holmes, the great detective is found cryogenically frozen in the modern day. When Dr. Watson's country house is put up for sale by his descendant, Jane Watson, played by Margaret Colin, she finds Holmes chilling out in the freezer. Holmes (Michael Pennington) is then defrosted and the two head off to the US for a mixture of crime-busting and fish-out-of-water comedy. 

A similar premise was used in 1994 Baker Street: Sherlock Holmes Returns, which was made in, er, 1994. Anthony Higgins, who had previously appeared as Moriarty in Young Sherlock Holmes, played Sherlock this time, in another American TV movie hoping to transfer to a full series.


Michael Caine and Ben Kingsley in "Without a Clue"
Michael Caine and Ben Kingsley in "Without a Clue"

He Was Made up by Dr. Watson

The 1988 comedy Without a Clue is one of the cleverest takes on the Holmes stories yet, and a logical development of the "unreliable narrator" concept explored in The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes. 

In this version, Sherlock Holmes doesn't actually exist. He is the creation of Dr. Watson (Ben Kingsley), a crime-busting amateur detective. Watson invents the character "Sherlock Holmes" to stop his unorthodox detective work from interfering with his more respectable medical career. 

But eventually the public expects to see this Sherlock Holmes, and so Watson hires an alcoholic actor, Reginald Kincaid (played by Michael Caine), to take on the role. The two men become involved in a plot to flood Britain with fake bank notes by Holmes's traditional adversary Professor Moriarty (Paul Freeman).


He's an Ass-Kicking Action Hero

Robert Downey Jr. had just enjoyed a huge hit with the Marvel superhero effort Iron Man when he made Sherlock Holmes in 2009. So maybe it's no surprise that his version of Sherlock Holmes is a distinctly more action-oriented one than we are used to seeing. 

Directed by Guy Ritchie, still best known for his London geezer crime flicks, Snatch (2000) and Lock Stock and Two Smoking Barrels (1998), Sherlock Holmes and its 2011 sequel Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows are action-packed thrillers with a lot more "flash, bang, wallop" than Arthur Conan Doyle probably envisaged.

Dr. Watson (Jude Law) and Sherlock Holmes (Robert Downey Jr.)
Men of action: Dr. Watson (Jude Law) and Sherlock Holmes (Robert Downey Jr.)

He might also be surprised by Robert Downey Jr.'s description of Holmes as "the first superhero". In this version, Holmes is even known to enjoy a bit of bare knuckle fighting, although in fairness, he is an expert in martial arts in the books. Downey Jr.'s Holmes is ably assisted by Jude Law, whose resourceful Watson is at least not that far away from Conan Doyle's version.


He's Alive and Well and Living in Modern London

The most original and influential 21st century take on Holmes so far is the BBC TV series Sherlock, created by Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss (who also appears in the series as Sherlock's brother Mycroft). 

Running from 2010 to 2017, the series deliberately did away with the Victorian period trappings that, as Gatiss and Moffat saw it, had come almost to overwhelm Sherlock Holmes himself. 

Dr. Watson (Martin Freeman) has still left the army with a war wound after serving in Afghanistan (plus ├ža change), but in this updated version he now details Sherlock's adventures on his blog, while the characters are rarely without their trusty smartphones. 

Often going for humour over actual detecting, the series' episode titles riffed on the names of some of the original stories, including The Empty Hearse (instead of The Empty House), The Sign of Three (instead of The Sign of Four) and His Last Vow (instead of His Last Bow). 


Jonny Lee Miller and Lucy Liu sitting on couch
Jonny Lee Miller and Lucy Liu in "Elementary"

... Or is it New York?

The success of the BBC's Sherlock inspired a transatlantic variation in Elementary. This CBS series was first broadcast in 2012 and stars Jonny Lee Miller as Holmes. 

In this version, Holmes has been transplanted to modern day New York and his Watson is a woman. As in The Return of the World's Greatest Detective, this is yet another Dr. Joan Watson, but this time she's played by Lucy Liu.

Rhys Ifans also appears as Mycroft Holmes, and Sherlock's nemesis is now a woman, Jamie Moriarty, played by Natalie Dormer.


He's a Garden Gnome 

As if the punning title of 2011's Gnomeo and Juliet wasn't bad enough, this spin-off stars a garden gnome with the name of "Sherlock Gnomes", who investigates when garden gnomes start disappearing. 

Johnny Depp provides the voice of Sherlock Gnomes, while Chiwetel Ejiofor voices Dr. Watson. Presumably the writers couldn't think up a gnome pun for Watson and for that, perhaps, we should be grateful.


John C. Reilly and Will Ferrell in "Holmes & Watson"
John C. Reilly and Will Ferrell in "Holmes & Watson"

He's Will Ferrell

No, it's not much of a joke, but that's the premise of 2018's Holmes & Watson, a comedy with John C. Reilly as Dr. Watson and Will Ferrell as Sherlock Holmes. Still, it could have been worse, I guess. It could have been Adam Sandler.


He's a Japanese Girl

The BBC's Sherlock update has a lot to answer for, as it also seems to have inspired this Japanese TV series from 2018. 

Miss Holmes starred Yuko Tekeuchi and Shihori Kanjiya as female Holmes and Watson analogues sleuthing their way around modern day Tokyo.

Miss Holmes has inevitably attracted enthusiasm from those who can't quite hide their disapproval and disappointment that Conan Doyle didn't think to make Sherlock Holmes a Japanese woman instead of a boring old white man in the first place. 


Henry Cavill, Millie Bobby Brown and Sam Claflin
Henry Cavill, Millie Bobby Brown and Sam Claflin

He Has a Younger Sister

Enola Holmes stars Stranger Things actress Millie Bobby Brown as Sherlock's younger sister Enola, who investigates when her mother Eudoria (Helena Bonham Carter) goes missing. 

Teenager Enola is so plucky and heroic, she could almost be the star of her own Young Adult series. Which is exactly what she is, as Enola Holmes is based on the novels by Nancy Springer and apparently intended to launch a series of films. 

Superman and The Man from UNCLE actor Henry Cavill plays the handsome young Sherlock Holmes, seemingly ready for his GQ photo shoot. Sam Claflin appears as his older brother Mycroft who, unlike Enola Holmes, does appear in the original stories. 

Enola Holmes was intended for theatrical release, but cinema releases have been thin on the ground in 2020, so it premiered instead on streaming service Netflix.

Comments

  1. Well done! Holmes is so embedded in our consciousness that he can stand up to any and all sorts of homaging, pastiching, and spoofing. (Have I created new words?)

    "The Private Life" and "Without a Clue" have been on my mind recently. There's something about this time of year that leads us to mysterious Victorian stories. My special needs son gets out the DVD of The Adventures of the Great Mouse Detective to put on a loop.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Hmm, no I think those are real words!

      There's definitely something particularly appealing about Holmes at this time of year. I think it's partly that sense of Watson inviting you to join in on one of their adventures, from the comfort of your own armchair.

      I read a non-Doyle Holmes story that inexplicably used a third person narrator and it just didn't work at all, so much of the flavour is lost.


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