Dec 30 2009 1:20pm

The Baker Street Irregulars: Portrayals of Sherlock Holmes

The character of Sherlock Holmes is one of the most iconic in literature, so easily recognizable that his hat alone conjures up the image of a stuffy Victorian sitting room, a faithful doctor, and a seemingly-impossible conclusion that, of course, makes sense once the clues are explained. Fans of the stories know that Holmes was a little more cutting-edge than cozy, with a great interest in forensics, a pugilist pastime, and a cocaine habit.

When bringing him to the screen, the struggle usually lies in reconciling Holmes the preternaturally-capable investigator and Holmes the unpredictable private man. And, of course, there’s no Holmes without his Watson; the way the good Doctor is handled can make or break an adaptation.

Below, I list some of the best, some honorable mentions, and one or two portrayals that, uh, build character.

In no particular order, The Best:

Basil Rathbone. After two Victorian takes, Basil Rathbone’s Holmes was transported to the modern day, where he still managed to do justice to Sherlock Holmes by way of Bogart. Rathbone’s Holmes was an unflappable man of action who never minded an armed standoff with the bad guys (which was almost always necessary, since his bumbling Watson was regularly tardy with police backup). The dialogue is more hard-boiled and the character development shallower than in other adaptations, but when Holmes’s case load includes keeping a bomb-sight out of Nazi hands, it’s hard to get away with anything flowery.

Jeremy Brett. Iconic. During the long-running series, Brett built Holmes from the ground up. From the cold, analytical investigator to the manic and often cruel private man, Brett will remain for many the ultimate and most deeply-felt Holmes. His Watsons (there were two) didn’t fare so well, often taking the part of the bumbling fool who needs rescuing and/or excessive explanation. (It’s not really a wonder that this Holmes sometimes lost his temper; with friends like Watson, who needs enemies?)

Vasiliy Livanov. Livanov faced a serious challenge in bringing one of England’s most-beloved characters to life in the age of Jeremy Brett—and he knocked it out of the park. This Holmes is repressed rather than reserved, calculating but not cold, with flashes of sly humor that outstrip any other portrayal of the character. In a canon that can make the detective seem less man than superman, his Holmes is relentlessly grounded, a master of the facts. It helps that his Watson is a solid but intelligent sidekick, who helps more than he hinders and actually converses, rather than exposits, with Holmes.

Rupert Everett . It was a bit of a scandal when Rupert Everett was cast for the BBC’s original-case take on Holmes. The case (a lustful serial killer right out of an episode of Ye Olde SVU) was a little prurient for Holmes’s usual, but Everett’s performance left nothing to be desired. He was haughty, withdrawn, easily bored and turning to drugs for recreation, intelligent but not infallible. In fact, his Watson (the excellent Ian Hart) makes several deductive leaps and is instrumental in helping Holmes solve the case. (It’s interesting to note that this adaptation has a much more equal Holmes/Watson partnership and a subplot about Holmes’s unhappiness with Watson’s impending marriage, both of which would pop up a few years later in Ritchie’s take.)

Robert Downey, Jr.  The characterization is unorthodox, the plot a downright mess, but Robert Downey, Jr. doesn’t turn in lackluster performances, and this is no exception. His gritty Holmes teeters on the brink, driven half-mad by his own abilities and frantic whenever anything (boredom, loneliness, attraction) threatens his analysis. With a streak of humor that could be delightful given any quality dialogue to work with, his Holmes promises to be an interesting take on a classic.

Honorable Mentions:

Richard Roxburgh. While not as polished a take as Everett would turn in as his replacement, Roxburgh’s one-off Holmes still managed a quiet magnetism that explains why Watson would stay friends with him despite (well-founded) frustrations. Roxburgh’s Holmes feels genuinely unpredictable; even the well-trodden Hound of the Baskervilles takes on a dangerous edge. (Ian Hart’s Watson is again outstanding, positioning himself as Holmes’s missing conscience.) Unfortunately, there’s a casting snag when Roxburgh meets up with Richard E. Grant as Stapleton, Holmes’s tactical equal—and who, the audience realizes, might make a better Holmes. (Such are the dangers of excellent casting.)

John Barrymore. Back when the movies were silent, it was even harder to get Holmes’s verbosity down to manageable levels without actually projecting the entire story. The movie itself is less than captivating, but Barrymore brings us a university-age Holmes who’s a gentler, self-aware young detective with hints of the jaded investigator he’ll become. (This Holmes makes a list of his own limitations, and smiles about them.) His Watson, sadly, is too busy introducing incredulous title cards to have much of a personality.

For Laughs:

The Great Mouse Detective: this animated musical follows the adventures of Basil of Baker Street, the sharpest mouse in London, and his sidekick Dr. Dawson. Ironically, it contains more of Arthur Conan Doyle’s original social and class commentary than most straight-up Holmes adaptations, as working-class and upper-class rodents face off. (Also, there’s a bat. I...don’t know.)

Christopher Lee. Lee’s tireless quest to portray every important character ever written for the screen made a brief pit stop at Baker Street, as Lee played a semi-retired Holmes for two TV miniseries. His Holmes, awesomely, is exactly like his Saruman (and his Dracula), so when he sits down to dinner with Morgan Fairchild as Irene Adler (!) there’s the delightful sensation that he could banish her to the top of the tower at any moment. (Sadly, he never does.)

How about it, Baker Street aficionados? Is there a particular Holmes that goes straight to your heart (or any that make you just want to stab someone)?

Genevieve still thinks Michael Fassbender was one of the creepiest Holmes villains ever. She babbles more about movies over on her blog.

Fade Manley
1. fadeaccompli
I still have very fond memories of The Great Mouse Detective. As a child, I got the impression that Sherlock Holmes was some sort of very dry, boring literature that adults liked for inscrutable adult reasons, and that cartoon convinced me that it might be worth giving the series a shot after all.

I can't explain the bat either, though.
Eugene Myers
2. ecmyers
It's high time I rewatched The Great Mouse Detective!

Brett will always be my Holmes, but I also liked Michael Caine as a bumbling detective in the comedy Without a Clue. I'll have to try to track down Livanov's films, and I've been meaning to watch The Silk Stocking for a while. I'm just too busy going through the gorgeous boxset of the Granada episodes...
Eugene Myers
3. ecmyers
Also, have you seen the Matt Frewer Holmes films? I can't quite do it, but I'm certainly curious about how he might portray the consulting detective.
Mike Conley
5. NomadUK
Christopher Plummer did Holmes in Murder by Decree, in which Holmes goes up against Jack the Ripper. I love this film, maybe just because of the Ripper angle, and the thought of the great detective dealing with this case.

Plummer's Holmes, though, is a gentle, smiling soul in this outing; he doesn't have the hard, intense edge of Brett or Rathbone. He and Watson, played as a bit of a slow learner by James Mason, whom one can never dislike in any role, are chums, and he has a clear affection for his trustworthy if dim companion. It's hard to see Plummer's Holmes as a coke addict, ringmaster of the Baker Street Irregulars, or someone who can sweat the truth out of suspects the way Brett's version can.

The best performances are, however, from Donald Sutherland and Genevieve Bujold; both are on-screen only briefly, but remain completely memorable.

The story is great; I just wish they'd given Holmes a bit more of an edge, and Watson a few more brains. Plummer (who played the Duke of Wellington against Rod Steiger's Napoleon) and Mason (who played Rommel, Captain Nemo, and Philip Vandamm, the evil Nazi spy, in North by Northwest) would certainly have been up to the task.
April Vrugtman
6. dwndrgn
One of my favorites has to be Young Sherlock Holmes. I found it to have great atmosphere, clever thinking and the exact amount of 'out there-ness' that it needed. One of my favorite movies, period.
7. jmd
I also loved the Young Sherlock Holmes movie. Not quite canon, but rather well played by the young actors and a decent storyline with the "exotic" Egyptian element.
8. Squidhelmet
Yeah, I thought for sure Nicholas Rowe would get a shout out here!
Emmet O'Brien
9. EmmetAOBrien
John Cleese and Arthur Lowe in The Strange Case of the End of Civilisation As We Know It are technically the grandsons of the original pair, but it works very well anyway, in a comic sort of way.

Also, The Seven Per Cent Solution.
Madeline Ferwerda
10. MadelineF
I really liked the Holmes in "The Adventure of Sherlock Holmes' Smarter Brother", the Gene Wilder movie. It was incredibly sweet the way he was taking care of his younger brother while using his disguise skills to stay out of the spotlight. A bit apocryphal, sure, but I can see Holmes being thoughtful and understanding of human nature like that.

I'm pretty picky about Holmes portrayals, and haven't found any major ones that work for me. I mean, there are these books, and it's pretty clear what's going on in them, and years of history of visual media screwing it up is no excuse to keep along that path! I have hope for the new movie; will finally get to see it tomorrow.
Erick Chase
11. TheMarchChase
How about Tom Baker in the BBC's '82 version of Hound of the Baskervilles?
Arachne Jericho
12. arachnejericho
The Holmes adaptation I like best---and even better than the originals, and even more than Jeremy Brett's Holmes, much as I love the early Granada Holmes series---is the BBC radio show adaptations by Bert Coules. Sound only, but every single canon story is covered, and many of the bad ones actually made decent or even good. Coules managed to adapt "The Lion's Mane" into an actual good story. That's like turning lead into gold.

The relationship between Holmes (Clive Merrison) and Watson (Michael Williams) is not only very reflective of the original material, but also improved upon in terms of its portrayal; sort of the ideal mix of getting the plot right and getting the characters right. With Doyle there was always a certain amount of... inconsistency with respect to the characterization of both Holmes and Watson, so adaptations have to deal with that.

Also, Bert Coules loves to yank the chain of Holmes/Watson fans. He does it in a much more subtle way than the New Movie, but it's very much there, all the same.

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