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Is this the Sherlock Holmes the World Knows?

Or 5 Losses from Modernizing the Quintessential Detective…

Modernizing an old character is a simple way to gain a ready audience. Why? Because canon sells movie tickets. Canon banks on a protagonist’s already established mythos, relationships and personality as well as the always evolving premises, settings, story lines and character arcs. An audience is excited by a re-imagined character and a sequel for the same reasons: because they feel it will mirror the excitement and power of what they already know of the protagonist while taking them on a completely different journey. A Game of Shadows has both. Does it bank on canon or does the audience start to doubt whether this Sherlock Holmes is really is the character we know and love?

Sherlock Holmes - Loss Banner

I know quite a few autistic children and I have one quite close to my heart as well, my little 6-year-old nephew who we affectionately call Boo. He’s really learning to talk and write right now which is so exciting! From experience I can say with authority that autistic kids focus on one thing over all else. For Boo, his love is sound. As a baby he could duplicate a whole string of random sounds after hearing them once. Once. Now he’s quite obsessed with associating the words he sees around him with forming sounds. I bring him up because Guy Ritchie used autistic to describe his version of the quintessential detective.

2009’s Sherlock Holmes only had one problem: he appeared to have two focuses his relationship with Irene Adler and his obsessive desire to solve unsolvable puzzles. Since she was introduced right off and we have nothing else to gauge his relationships with women on we have to assume what we are presented with to be accurate. This version of Sherlock Holmes has regular and typical relationships with women. Irene Adler having been the one that got away. I find it highly doubtful an autistic Sherlock Holmes to obsessively love and focus on both puzzles and women. Canon states the quintessential detective finds women to be a distraction from his true focus: puzzles. So a woman only interests him when they are an intricate part of a puzzle; once solved he moves on, he’d only continue to be interested if she were to continue to be a puzzle.

This is certainly doable with Irene Adler. But she’d need to be presented in a much more complex and developed story that isn’t possible with such a broadly stroked version of Sherlock Holmes. In modernizing the quintessential detective a vital piece of canon was left out of the first movie and building upon it for the sequel developed a major fault line in the story. For those who first meet Holmes in 2009, good production choices hide many of these flaws. While these might have little effect on overall enjoyment of A Game of Shadows it created five losses in the canon of Sherlock Holmes, weakening the powerful quintessential detective known and loved across the entire world.

This map dumbs down Moriarty as much as Holmes map dumbs the quintessential detective down. As for Moriarty at least he has stupid goons that need the map - it's a thin reason when he'd direct them without telling them his plans - but at there is basic logic involved to somewhat support the production choice.
This map dumbs down Moriarty as much as Holmes’ map dumbs down the quintessential detective. As for Moriarty at least he has stupid goons that need the map – it’s a thin reason when he’s the type to direct them without telling them his plans – but at least there is basic story logic involved to somewhat support the production choice.


With an action movie the action scenes are enlarged and dramatic scenes that can be morphed into action scenes are made over. The quieter, thinking moments are slimmed down and used as bridges between the action. With a mystery the story is introduced with a murder, then another, showing the detective gathering clues along the way until he sees the connections. By necessity this demands a string of dramatic scenes. Ultimately, through its production choices, we see A Game of Shadows is an action movie, and as such they reduced the mystery to the point it’s practically eliminated from the story all together.

On the other hand, Sherlock Holmes is the quintessential detective. To solve this problem in modernizing Holmes the writers decided to tell us the mystery instead of show it. They tell the audience up front the mystery is “a complex web of connected murders and thefts that only Sherlock Holmes can see the connections between.” We get a single, short dramatic scene where Holmes tells Watson he sees a connection between them all and that it could quite possibly be his greatest case ever.

This extremely simplified the mystery. The audience already knows who did it – Moriarty. We already know he’s killed a bunch of men in powerful positions over natural resources. And now it’s clear that Moriarty has taken on terrorist activities. Holmes wants to know why…uh, duh, shouldn’t he already know, isn’t it obvious? To my mind this equals no mystery. With no mystery we have no detective. With no detective then just who is Sherlock Holmes if not the quintessential detective?

The thing is I don’t have a problem with basic story lines. Actually a basic plot framework seems to be part of this Holmes’ canon. I do have a problem with the connections all having already been made. I have a problem with the only two clues Holmes has to pursue coming from Irene Adler. This creates story inconsistencies and leads to bad writing choices. First of all, canon states as a super villain Moriarty is supposed to be smarter than Holmes. No way would Holmes already have everything figured out. Absolutely no way would Moriarty allow Adler to mess up this many times. He’d have “killed” her after she rejoined him at the end of the first movie. At the core of Moriarty’s character is a desire to leave no connection to himself, however small, however vague. Yet everything that motivates Holmes is directly connected to Moriarty through Adler. And Moriarty would have known this even more so than Holmes.

Modern movie-making loves to create stories that are all about a protagonist taking out a masterful villain. I don’t personally like this kind of mystery, but it doesn’t mean it can’t or shouldn’t be used. As a writer, I find the technique lazy and rather boring though. In this case, I know what was done, who did it, and I easily can figure out from those two points why. No Sherlock Holmes needed. The point of the mystery, the reason Holmes is even willing to take it on is because he’s the only man who can solve the case! While I enjoy the action spin on the character, ultimately the action should be leading Holmes to make the connections in the case, unrelated connections. He should be behind Moriarty on the facts and be unable to connect to Moriarty through Adler. This story setup actually makes this protagonist/villain duo look a lot stupider than they really are. And stupid Holmes and Moriarty are not! All due to bad production choices leading to bad writing choices.

This beautiful bit of production crazy while great on the screen is terribly insulting to the smartest man in the room. I'd have rather seen him violently playing the violin and forming the map in his head. At least then I'd feel like it had a connection to Holmes-o-vision.
This beautiful bit of production crazy while great on the screen is terribly insulting to the smartest man in the room. I’d have rather seen him violently playing the violin and forming the map in his head. At least then I’d feel like it had a connection to Holmes-o-vision.


Telling has it’s place: when a detective makes a break, for example. Many times the research involved to make that break is told to us so we don’t have to watch the boring search through information. The audience gets to come in as the detective and his partner are getting out of their car to go confront a witness, etc and through dialogue we get told why we are there with them.

In Holmes canon, the greatest thing about his cases is when he reveals to Watson and the audience how he made his own breaks in the mystery. It’s one of Holmes’ funnest traits because it’s always through some quirky research tactic. It could be totally random facts he read in the newspaper or a disguise he reveals to Watson that he used to garner facts to back up his hypothesis. Sure he tells in his reveal of how he went about his research but he does so in a fun and smart way.

Due to poor writing choices, we don’t get any of that sense of fun in connection to the mystery. By using telling to explain what Holmes figured out, without using the how, the audience looses the Holmes aspect of the mystery. Without how Holmes made the connections we don’t see how slight those connections really were. Because the mystery is so easily explained the quintessential detective doesn’t seem very special either. It’s these fun research tactics that support Holmes being Holmes, legitimizes him.

Because movies are so visual, if story pages can be replaced by one visual then the production moves to do just that. It’s why we all love the movies – a picture is worth a thousand words. In the above photo you see what they replaced one of the quirky research tactics with… a large map and red string. This seems like a plausible way to visually show Holmes connections…there’s really only one problem…Sherlock Holmes! Serial killers create picture maps like this and aren’t particularly smart in doing so. It’s to help them focus and remind them of what they know. The smartest man in the room has no need to visually show himself the connections and he’s not about impressing Watson or anyone else.

In fact, Watson and any others have to take Sherlock Holmes on faith because his connections are so tenuous. It’s the incredible way that he makes those connections that clue them in that what he’s saying must be right. Without how Sherlock does it all we have left is gallivanting about, homoerotic suggestions and a hyperactive Robert Downey, Jr. If a little more thought had been taken in making production and  writing choices creativity would have kicked in. For example, a better way to visually show the connections in the mystery would be to form the map in his head while he violently played the violin in a haze of smoke. With a series of short, Downey crazy clue giving scenes preceding this scene we’d establish the mystery. Not much more screen time is used and we’d solve the problems created by unsound production and writing choices while retaining the quintessential detective’s canon!

Production wise I felt it rather lazy to use a similar dress with the similar colors for both "chase" scenes. In Sherlock Holmes the disguise was a bum and you can see Downey in partial makeup while he was a chinaman in A Game of Shadows. Writing wise the choice to use the same technique - following Irene Adler -was the more detrimental bad choice of the two.
Production wise I felt it rather lazy to use a similar dress with the similar colors for both “chase” scenes. (Yes, it’s hard to believe, but the first picture is from the first movie and the second picture is from the second movie!) In Sherlock Holmes the disguise was a bum and you can see Downey in partial makeup while he was a china man in A Game of Shadows. Writing wise the choice to use the same technique – following Irene Adler – was the more detrimental bad choice of the two.


In order to communicate to the audience a sequel is possible, many times writers leave dangling details in the end of a story to flow into a sequel. These dangling details in 2009’s Sherlock Holmes was a radio part Moriarty stole (the shadowy man in the carriage) while Adler was distracting Holmes with the poisoning of Parliament. The only tie between the first movie and A Game of Shadows is that the “shadowy man in the carriage” and Professor Moriarty are one and the same man. No mention of the radio part or its use is tied up. We don’t even get Sherlock’s take on why Moriarty stole it or what he concluded or figured out later with more investigation.

The thing about Sherlock Holmes is, his intellect is all in the details. He’d never have dropped finding out why Moriarty stole that radio part. We all know about the radio part, it’s easy to reintroduce in a new scene and we can show how Holmes made the connections, fixing some of the story problems. This is another disconnect between Ritchie’s Holmes and the real Sherlock Holmes. Each and every one of these elements are a lost opportunity for the writers to set up the story in a way that will reflect both the protagonist and villain characters. It should have had to do with the new mystery and could have been the means to gather the clues that lead to the violin/map scene above.

A puzzling scene in A Game of Shadows is when Holmes trails Adler in a Chinaman disguise leading to a trap/fight sequence. The scene is all a ploy so she can deliver a package without leading Holmes to the recipient or another clue. It is very reminiscent to a scene in Sherlock Holmes when Holmes trails Adler disguised as a bum and almost gets shot but in doing so gets a glimpse of the master criminal. The similarity between the two scenes is another detail dropped in the sequel: Irene Adler’s history with Holmes.

First off, when writing we avoid creating such similar scenes in two different parts of a series unless we WANT comparisons. (Such as in the Star Wars series: it made character sense to duplicate the Cantina scene from the first movie in the second trilogy to show the connection between father and son.) With men like Holmes and Moriarty isn’t it an essential part of their personality that they be creative in their tactics to jockey with one another? YES! Otherwise they couldn’t possibly be the smartest men in the room. Similar scenes shout, nay screams a lazy writer and an even lazier character.

In comparing these two scenes we can see the writers forgot what they had established in Sherlock Holmes with the naked Holmes handcuffed to the wall scene. Irene Adler knew the quintessential detective’s tactics well enough to get the jump on him. This is part of Ritchie’s Holmes canon. We were to assume that Adler knew Holmes had a propensity for following people and used that knowledge to lead him into a trap in A Game of Shadows. The first flaw with this assumption is that she should have realized in the first movie that Holmes followed her to that meeting with the shadowy man in the carriage and moved to block him in some way.

The second flaw with this scene is a detail oriented Holmes would know not to trail Adler a second time. Besides the fact she might have realized he followed her later, Holmes KNEW the shadowy man in the carriage (Moriarty) KNEW he followed Adler. He almost got shot by the man in the first movie after all. By having Holmes use a different tactic but with the same outcome we could assume that Adler had some “inside” information on Holmes. In other words, Moriarty could have warned her about Holmes and that is why she was able to trap him. Sherlock Holmes has many techniques up his sleeve and showing him using a different tactic is more fun and emphasizes his canon that his methods are what makes him the quintessential detective. (Even when they don’t always work because Moriarty is even more detail oriented than he is!)

It’s easy to see that poor production choice came to play here – a simple chase scene is easy for the crew to set up and the “twist” ending creates a simple complication to enliven a simple audience’s expectations. And who doesn’t love a fight scene, am I right or am I right?!?! In fact it made Moriarty and Holmes seem rather lacking in smarts again. The most essential piece of canon for Sherlock Holmes is that he is the smartest man in the room, except when Moriarty is in the room with him! It all boils down to the details. A little more creativity and better writing and production choices and we’d have nailed an essential aspect of the quintessential detective’s canon.

In this picture you can feel how the gypsy elements gets lost amongest the competing modern elements. It's not balanced like the first movie and by swamping one element of your visuals you swamp another area of your story.
In this picture you can feel how the gypsy elements gets lost among the competing modern elements. It’s not balanced and is a symptom present throughout the whole of A Game of Shadows. By swamping one element of your visuals you swamp another area of your story, creating a muddy mess of a Victorian Sherlock Holmes.


A Game of Shadows over simplified Sherlock Holmes world as compared to 2009’s Sherlock Holmes. The first movie had this great supernatural angle to the mystery and touches of the arcane that reflected a modern perspective of Victorian London. The first element they stripped out of A Game of Shadows were the moments of drug use and the violin. While neither supernatural or arcane they contributed to this perspective, making the light touches in the mystery feel more powerful than they really were. The modern angle of this Holmes’ world needed to be balanced with modern takes on his old-fashioned habits.

Many historical timeline movies try to modernize their story using the industrial/military angle. We saw this in Captain America: The First Avenger – it’s been done a lot and isn’t so creative (and that isn’t the only example). We even have a similar series of scenes, in both movies, where the protagonist breaks into a munitions factory. (The industrial edge worked better in Captain America where the plot had an integral connection.) Some of the best plot moments in Sherlock Holmes had the supernatural feel, even when it’s background was in science. It felt more Holmes-like and created a great contrast, especially with Ritchie and Downey’s over-the-top action version of the character.

The mysticism and old world feel a gypsy traditionally adds to a story wasn’t successful without the arcane feel the drugs and violin added. The violin could have been included easily with the gypsies – Holmes was ever capable of getting along with the lower elements. The drugs could have been used on the ship instead of the trite peering out into the ocean when yearning after Adler. The gypsy plot points were so weak they crumbled under the power and sheer modernity the terrorism and Nazi military added to the world. The sheer weight of the Nazi elements pulled the movie out of balance, like it was “dumbed” down or stereotypical-ized.

This can all be connected back to the loss of the mystery. Some of these were writing choices and some of them were production choices. Either way choices were made that dumbed down the Sherlock Holmes world and thereby dumbed down Sherlock Holmes.

I love Stephen Fry and he's mad funny in this scene with Watson's Mary but Mycroft is smarter than Holmes! And while Naomi Rapice looks the part of the gypsy she's woefully underutilized - there just isn't enough room for her character or enough arcane plot to support her role.
I love Stephen Fry and he’s mad funny in this scene with Watson’s Mary but Mycroft Holmes is smarter than Sherlock! Where was that brilliance? And while Noomi Rapace looks the part of the gypsy she’s woefully underutilized – there just isn’t enough room for her character (with Irene Adler) or enough arcane plot to support her role.


If you push aside all these other weaknesses that lessen Sherlock Holmes and his world the worst of the bunch are the secondary characters. The draw to a sequel are new secondary characters that are or are not derived from canon. With A Game of Shadows we had two actors most would resoundingly cheer are major draws: Noomi Rapace and Stephen Fry.

The expectation being that Mycroft, a canon favorite, would add not only humor but depth through a wonderfully complex and difficult relationship with Sherlock Holmes. If you can believe it Mycroft is even smarter than Holmes. He’d a bit on the lazy side and caught up in his part of the bureaucratic system.

…he has no ambition and no energy. He will not even go out of his way to verify his own solutions, and would rather be considered wrong than take the trouble to prove himself right. Again and again I have taken a problem to him, and have received an explanation which has afterwards proved to be the correct one. And yet he was absolutely incapable of working out the practical points…
Sherlock Holmes, speaking of his brother in “The Adventure of the Greek Interpreter”

The conclusions of every department are passed to him, and he is the central exchange, the clearinghouse, which makes out the balance. All other men are specialists, but his specialism is omniscience.
“The Bruce-Partington Plans”

Sounds like a pretty incredible source for Sherlock to go to in order to solve what is quite possibly his greatest case ever. With the mystery solved though Mycroft has no salient points to make or puzzling aspects to unwind for his brother. In fact, my new violin/mind map scene would be better played out with Mycroft than Watson. Watson being so concentrated on getting married and Mycroft being able to add his political two cents and Sherlock being ever so not political in nature himself it makes much better sense. Instead Mycroft tries to force Sherlock into facing his best friend’s marriage and then prances around naked in front of said wife.

The sad fact is Stephen Fry can act – he has real chops, but much like Cate Blanchett in Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull his character was odd and rather shallow, it didn’t bank on any of his canon. The problem with his Mycroft was they relied too much on the actor and his humor to define the character instead of making powerful writing choices. Yes, Stephen Fry was a great production choice, but Mycroft is such a rich character, any booby could portray him. It’s not that he wasn’t funny either, he was, it’s just funny wasn’t enough to make the character work.

Noomi Rapace as Simza has practically the exact opposite role of Fry as Mycroft but ends up being the same kind of obstacle for Holmes. A completely new character, her role was to add some mysticism to Sherlock’s world and the plot as well as take the place as the token female in the later half of the movie. The character started life with flaws as it was a total plot development and flopped doing anything but getting Holmes from point A to point B. Much of the actions her character could have fulfilled were stolen by Irene Adler. She at least should have been worked in as the love interest for Holmes since him being a ladies man was made part of his canon in 2009’s Sherlock Holmes.

Even good actors struggle to create something out of nothing. Noomi Rapace really can act. (In the end, this failure pushed me to see the Swedish Tattoo and I don’t regret it in the least!) Yet she brought zero to the role of Simza. A gypsy is lively and passionate and boiling with supernatural power. At times I was sure she didn’t even speak English, like she was puzzled or not up on what was being said around her. Another major problem was Rapace had zero chemistry with Downey. Totally miscast for the part, relied upon to develop the feel and tone of her character yet with little to work with from the script she was behind the 8-ball before she even got on the set. A total production misstep, choosing an actress by popularity rather than by what’s best for the story. It’s essential to make writing choices that strengthen and better a story so poor and sloppy production choices only lessen the movie and don’t destroy a movie.

Sherlock Holmes - Loss End Banner

Good writing choices bank on canon. Consistency to an already established world is essential for the essence of a character to shine through new material. This doesn’t mean Sherlock Holmes can’t be modernized. He can be. It means remaining true to those details that make the character in the same way one must remain true to those details that made a sequel’s source movie so popular.

Writing the script is the first step, it’s the foundation. Production choices then come into play. They directly come to bear on how the audience is communicated the cannon and the developing story. They can strengthen well made or highlight badly made writing choices. Either way, in the process of modernizing Sherlock Holmes writing and production choices have the power to add to or weaken the quintessential detective. If foolishly made the audience losses the power of canon, until we aren’t really certain why Sherlock Holmes was so special in the first place!

Did you love Robert Downey, Jr.’s Sherlock Holmes? Who was your favorite secondary character and why? Did you enjoy the Nazi terrorist plot that “hid” Moriarty’s real motivation? Did Noomi Rapace seem like a real gypsy? Who is the smartest man in the room? And is this really the Sherlock Holmes the world knows and loves?

3 thoughts on “Is this the Sherlock Holmes the World Knows?”

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