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The Many Faces of Sherlock Holmes

One of the most beloved characters of all times is Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes. With his 254 depictions, Guinness World Records has awarded the fictional detective a world record for “the most portrayed literary human character in film and TV.” I believe it! Not only has there been 75 different versions of Sherlock Holmes, but countless writers have been influenced with their own characters by the titular character. What makes the dispassionate, cold and rather rude man so popular? I pick out a handful of Sherlock Holmes portrayed since the stories were published in 1887 and explore how their faces built up the mythos we know today.

Sherlock Holmes Header

Growing up I remember, no matter where we lived, on Sundays we’d watch Masterpiece Mystery! There were many different characters and shows but one really stuck with me: Sherlock Holmes. This is when I really grew to love the complexity of a well-developed character. As a writer, developing my own characters, I’ve learned there are three factors that come together to form a character: personality, background and plot. Due to Doyle’s prolific writing there is a wealth of source material in which to derive these three elements for any specific rendition of Sherlock Holmes. Because of this the character traits used to establish Holmes’ personality don’t always have to be the same traits for each production. The same beliefs derived from his background don’t necessarily have to be utilized and there are plenty of different mysteries laid out with different points able to be emphasized in the course of their story’s specific plot. I’ve only chosen versions of Sherlock Holmes I’ve seen. Let’s explore how subtle shifts of personality, background and plot change the face of the most famous detective in all of literature, film and television.

Traditional Faces

Everyone knows Jeremy Brett’s Sherlock (and if you don’t then run out and watch one…go on, I said run!) But for the longest time I didn’t realize Basil Rathbone’s version of Sherlock Holmes and Ronald Howard’s version weren’t one and the same. In my defense they’re both filmed in black and white and both Holmes wear the deerstalker and the Inverness cape! Upon a closer look though there really are several marked differences. These three faces of Sherlock Holmes add much to the cannon of the titular detective, their more traditional bent is neither here nor there. Let’s check them out!

Basil Rathbone

The stereotype of the deerstalker and Inverness cape were also cemented with Rathbone's version even though it was the illustrator of Doyle's stories that started the trend and were really only a factor in that they were added at the time they were both worn during the time.
The stereotype of the deerstalker and Inverness cape were cemented in the minds of fans with Rathbone’s version. In reality they were only added at the whimsy of the illustrator of Doyle’s stories (Sidney Paget) who liked wearing them himself. Still the trend endured and added to the cannon of the legendary detective. (A trend many modern faces discard.)

The obvious difference is Rathbone’s productions were movies made in the 40’s. They were produced during World War II and focused on the patriotic hero side of Holmes. They dealt with the war efforts, foreign spies and war plans; the stakes were high, the outcome of the war in the balance. For the audience these movies helped raise morale and uplifted an entire nation. Moriarty was left out of these almost entirely and it worked well as the concerns of the time reflected the stories portrayed. While Nigel Bruce didn’t portray Dr. Watson accurately from the original stories, his buffoon-ish and bungling (yet helpful to Holmes) persona was the perfect foil for Rathbone’s brisk, all-knowing Holmes. From this point on, there would be zero consideration given to the idea of axing Watson and making Holmes a solo affair. This is a good thing as the Sherlock we know and love today would be nothing without Watson at his side!

Ronald Howard

Ronald Howard as Sherlock Holmes and H. Marion Crawford as Dr. Watson with Archie Duncan as Inspector Lestrade. Even though Duncan's Lestrade was used as comic relief I really loved his version of the Scotland Yard detective.
Ronald Howard as Sherlock Holmes and H. Marion Crawford as Dr. Watson with Archie Duncan as Inspector Lestrade. Even though Duncan’s Lestrade was used as comic relief I really loved his version of the Scotland Yard detective.

Made in the 50’s, Ronald Howard’s production of Sherlock Holmes was a half hour long television series. He and the producer of the series were enchanted by the younger Holmes not yet tapped into by the movies or stage. So where Rathbone’s version is high-strung and out-of-the-ordinary, Howard chose to portray an earnest every man with a laid back manner. His younger version is no less gifted a Holmes, simply less experienced and we get to see him fail but pursue his target until he solves the case. Many times he does this by recreating the circumstances and reasoning out the truth of the crime, doing so based upon his instinct that something is off rather than due to a straight knowledge of how the facts don’t fit. I think Howard is instrumental in showing the world that the great and mighty Sherlock Holmes can be portrayed in totally different manners. It’s this seed that inspires so many others in the story telling profession.

Jeremy Brett

Sherlock Holmes - Jeremy Brett
Jeremy Brett introduced Holmes’ rather eccentric hand gestures and short violent laughter. He would hurl himself on the ground just to look for a footprint, “he would leap over the furniture or jump onto the parapet of a bridge with no regard for his personal safety.” David Burke (pictured here) and Edward Hardwicke, who took over for him after Burke left, both portrayed competent doctor sidekicks in Watson, there to highlight Holmes’ eccentric behavior and his overpowering passion for the puzzle.

This was the face of Sherlock Holmes I knew growing up. It’s also my favorite face of the famous character. What really captured me about the Jeremy Brett version was Sherlock Holmes felt like a real man who could really be out there solving murders and cases. You knew things about Holmes from Brett’s acting alone – his physicality, his emoting, micro-expressions (not the literal ones but the acting ones). Sure he was clever and smug, he had tons of vices, but none of them dominated. All of who he was and is amalgamated into this character, this man. Nowadays they beat you over the head with vices to the point I’m turned off. And if not the vices then that particular character’s pattern. (Like with House or Patrick Jane from The Mentalist.) Brett romanced the vices, made them necessary but not everything. My point is real life isn’t played in absolutes, as much as we wish it were. Brett utilized this fact to blow me away as a girl.

Brett also wowed the audience with passion as Holmes. Whether in a depressive mood or the highest flights of super powered energy he did it with so much emotion and power. He utilized Doyle’s details from the stories, while capturing the character’s dramatic flair for the puzzle. What I like from Doyle’s version is that Holmes was clever: i.e. inventive, original, unique in his thinking. People from Victorian and Edwardian times enjoyed a clever character, someone different from themselves that stood out – in this case for his astute thinking. (As another example of what I mean: Tarzan, written around the same time period, was admired for being different because of how he was raised – by apes.) While there is no way I’d want to be born in the Victorian or Edwardian time period I too enjoy a clever man who is cut from a different cloth so to speak. If I had to pick the most authentic version of Sherlock Holmes, the truest rendition of Doyle’s vision, I’d say Jeremy Brett wins hands down.

Modern Faces

As much as I adore Jeremy Brett, he’s not going to be making any more Sherlock Holmes (he passed in 1995). As such it’s really exciting as a fan of the great detective to see modern faces being developed and explored by different actors and partnerships. Each has added another page to the character of Sherlock Holmes with their interpretation all the while standing on their own in a brave new world (modern times).

Jonny Lee Miller

Lucy Liu. There I said it – that’s what Elementary has going for it. I was excited and wary when CBS decided to take Sherlock Holmes and shove him into a quasi police procedural (what is called a crime drama) set in 2012. I was also really excited and wary by Lucy Liu. Her background as a successful surgeon, turned sober companion, turned apprentice detective was intriguing and gave her immediate depth as a character in her own right.

Lucy Liu as Dr. Joan Watson on her character: "Having been kicked out as a surgeon, having been sort of humiliated. Not only does she have a past, but Sherlock has a little bit of an eye into it, and this is the first time she’s worked with a client that actually broke it down for her. And at the same time she still has to maintain her profession and there’s also a mutual respect that sort of develops by the end of the pilot between the two of them. Because if he is as intelligent as he is, he really wouldn't be able to stick around with somebody and have that person in their presence if they really didn't contribute to his life in any way."
Lucy Liu as Dr. Joan Watson on her character: “Having been kicked out as a surgeon, having been sort of humiliated. Not only does she have a past, but Sherlock has a little bit of an eye into it, and this is the first time she’s worked with a client that actually broke it down for her. And at the same time she still has to maintain her profession and there’s also a mutual respect that sort of develops by the end of the pilot. Because if he is as intelligent as he is, he really wouldn’t be able to stick around with somebody and have that person in their presence if they really didn’t contribute to his life in any way.”

To be honest Jonny Lee Miller does an okay job of taking basic Holmes cannon, putting a modern twist on it (thanks writers!) and playing out the crazy in such a way that it feels like a totally different face of Sherlock. (The modern twists being he really is a drug addict, he loves tattoos, i.e. pain and sex with prostitutes. Oh and he’s more than willing to dance to daddy’s demands while he needs a place to live and has no money.)

Where Elementary really shines though is with Dr. Watson. Totally developing Watson in a never thought about or considered direction he is a she. And they’re friends. Friends who care about each other but don’t have sex. YES! Women and men can be friends and it not be about amorous desires. He needs her but emotionally, this is such a move forward, that in our modern world, in a modern rendition of Sherlock Holmes with a female partner we can focus on something other than a sexual relationship.

Robert Downey, Jr.

Everyone in the world knows Robert Downey, Jr. and everyone in the world has at least heard of Sherlock Holmes. Why not pair the two together in the only modern movie rendition of the 125 year old detective? I can see why Guy Ritchie found this appealing. You think of a character being over a century old and you can convince yourself he needs updating. In today’s world it isn’t such a special thing to be unique. Everyone’s unique we are told. No today it’s more important to do. It isn’t enough for Sherlock to be able to detect where no one else can. It isn’t wowing enough for him to go about solving his cases with creativity and clever machinations. No, now Holmes has to single-handedly stop, catch, confront the villains himself. I can see how this idea excites fans of action movies everywhere. The only thing I ask as a fan of Sherlock Holmes is to include clever deducting and creative machinations during the course of the plot – not just in the first couple minutes of the movie.

This is a perfect snapshot of this Watson and Holmes' relationship. Rather overtly selfish on Sherlock's part and rather overtly long suffering on Watson's part yet they are inextricably tied together. It's not that Sherlock isn't selfish, he is a bachelor after all - he's just overly so, almost petulantly so.
This is a perfect snapshot of this Watson and Holmes’ relationship. Rather overtly selfish on Sherlock’s part and rather overtly long-suffering on Watson’s part yet they are inextricably tied together. It’s not that Sherlock Holmes hasn’t always been selfish, he is a bachelor after all – this face is just overly so, almost petulantly so.

An action quality, while certainly a trait of Sherlock Holmes is by no means the essence of a man, any man, let alone a famous detective known for his intellect as well as his physical prowess! Changes to his personality were not the only updating that went into this face of Holmes. Everyone knows in today’s world that men have to desire sex, it can be with a man or a woman but in no way, shape or possibility can a man crave puzzles more than sex. To me this is another step in the James Bond direction and away from the Sherlock Holmes direction. It’s an essential piece of his background that was stripped from him along with his intellect. Plot wise, the third corner of a developed character, we are all about action, fighting and chasing. If we can push aside thinking for any of these three then let’s do it! While Downey does an excellent representation of a modern Sherlock Holmes it’s also a terribly shallow detective. If you’re wondering why I still included Downey’s version, it’s simply that the visuals take your breath away, especially the way Ritchie visually portrays Holmes thought process during fights. Holmes-o-vision will live on in every fans memory even if not as our preferred face of the many portrayed detective.

Benedict Cumberbatch

Sherlock Holmes - benedict cumberbatch
Cumberbatch said of Holmes, “There’s a great charge you get from playing him, because of the volume of words in your head and the speed of thought—you really have to make your connections incredibly fast. He is one step ahead of the audience, and of anyone around him with normal intellect. They can’t quite fathom where his leaps are taking him.”

The best modern face of Sherlock Holmes I’ve ever seen was set in present day London and was a BBC One TV series (running in America on PBS) called Sherlock. Benedict Cumberbatch plays Holmes and Martin Freeman plays Watson. It’s all about the mystery, the puzzle that he has to put together like a ticking time bomb. This version has people whose skills he calls upon to help him at times and in a funny twist he’s stopped smoking and uses a nicotine patch. He uses modern technology to solve cases and yet manages to hold onto all the little details that make Holmes, Holmes.

Martin Freeman as Dr. John Watson in their apartment after Sherlock has thrown himself off the roof at the end of series 2.
Martin Freeman as Dr. John Watson in their apartment after Sherlock has thrown himself off the roof at the end of series 2. It really speaks to the relationship between the two men.

I love how this Dr. Watson is a moral compass for Holmes. It makes sense that in modernizing the detective that he’d become more corrupt like our modern world. Watson’s ethics and fatalist realism is a perfect counterpoint to Holmes’ flurry of words and thoughts. The story lines are extremely modern as well. Plots are pumped full of emotional connections as well as the traditional puzzles to up the ante. I love this version of Holmes and Watson but I really struggle with the psychotic version of Moriarty. It has no rhyme or reason to me and leaves Sherlock simply reacting with Watson as collateral damage. They are pushing the envelope though, this isn’t just a whodunit anymore, it’s a bit of a thriller as well.

Best Character Ever Written

Sherlock Holmes is arguably the best detective, if not character ever written. His popularity is assured nevertheless. This is due to the great wealth of details in his personality, his background and his plot that all come together into this fascinating man. The canon has deepened with age as each rendition of Sherlock Holmes has subtly focused on one or another of these elements. As a writer its fascinating to examine how removing one belief from Sherlock makes him more a spy than a detective, how changing the sex of his partner makes him real and how pushing his plot to the edge modernizes a timeless man. Depending on how personality, background and plot are utilized in scripts and come together with production elements you’ll prefer one face of Holmes over another. For me, when an actor’s passion combine with authenticity to character I cheer! In the end, writing matters as the details chosen build the man. We might not agree which version is best but I believe there’s room in the world for all the faces of Sherlock Holmes. He’s that powerful of a character.

What versions of Sherlock Holmes have you seen and which was your favorite? Did Downey represent Sherlock Holmes or create a totally different character based on Doyle’s protagonist? Is TV’s House or Patrick Jane from The Mentalist a better interpretation or a worse one of Holmes? Does modernity win out over any loyalty to character authenticity?

Fun Faces

These are two fun faces of Sherlock Holmes that I’ve never seen but would love to get my hands on! If you’ve had a chance to see them then please comment below and tell me what you think.

Tantei Opera Milky Holmes

This is a Japanese anime series paying homage to the detective fiction genre, with the four female leads named after famous fictional detectives: Sherlock Holmes, Nero Wolfe, Hercule Poirot and Cordelia Gray. Set in the near future chosen people are born with supernatural abilities known as Toys. Those who use these Toys for evil are responsible for a wave of crimes and necessitate employing Toy-using detectives to help solve them. In the Yokohama District, Opera Kobayashi runs a detective agency named Milky Holmes, made up of four budding young detectives, Sherlock Shellingford, Nero Yuzurizaki, Hercule Barton and Cordelia Glauca. They end up losing their Toys during an encounter with the Thieves’ Empire. Taken away from their rich lifestyle and thrown into an attic, the girls must try to regain the use of their Toys or else face expulsion from Holmes Detective Academy.

Sherlock Holmes - Tantei Opera Milky Holmes

For some reason Sherlock Shellingford, the airhead leader is particularly clumsy yet always caring. Her Toy gives her telekinesis. How does that pay homage to Sherlock Holmes, I don’t know, but I’m certainly intrigued.

Sherlok Kholms

I couldn’t believe when I saw even the Russians had developed a television series based on Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes! I love foreign produced TV shows and find them a fascinating glimpse into their culture.

Sherlock Holmes - Russian

Set in England in the 19th century. 27-year-old Sherlock Holmes meets with Dr. John Watson, an experienced doctor who has just returned from the war in Afghanistan. In order to save money, they share a flat in central London with Mrs Hudson. Watson is surprised to learn that his new friend is a private detective. The Doctor quickly becomes involved in Holmes’ investigations. Considering his young friend to be a genius, Watson decides to write about the detective’s talent, and discloses the mysteries to the whole world in each episode, which often embellish events. For example, Sherlock Holmes smokes cigarettes, but Watson comes up with the idea of the famous pipe for effect. Later, he even tries to get Holmes to smoke it for real. Set to premiere in the autumn of 2013 on Russia-1, it stars Igor Petrenko as Sherlock Holmes and Andrei Panin as Doctor John Watson.

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8 thoughts on “The Many Faces of Sherlock Holmes”

  1. I enjoyed reading your perspective of all the different Holmes, and Watson. I liked the Basil Rathbone, version, the best of all, and I always tried to figure out who done it.

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