Elementary, My Dear Watson

by Maria Popova

Photography by Madeleine Arch

Who knows if Sir Arthur Conan Doyle suspected that his story of a consulting detective and a master of deduction, Sherlock Holmes, would become an inexhaustible source of inspiration for endless on-screen adaptations when he was struggling to find a publisher for A Study in Scarlet back in 1889.

Hundreds of thousands readers return to the old premise in their desire to step into the shoes of a genius who solves unimaginable riddles for breakfast—and is only troubled in his life by the trivial ways of shallow people and the boredom they bestow upon him.

We are hypnotized by the excellence of Holmes’ mind and mesmerized by his wit. We crave his invincibility at the gunpoint of his ice-cold sense of reason. We want to try on his triumph just like an outfit we know we can never afford.

Demand causes supply, and as a result, thirsty intellectuals are bombarded with Sherlock Holmes adaptations for every whim and age.

We adore classic and elegant adaptations, such as the ones that star Basil Rathbone—who became the quintessential Sherlock Holmes during Hollywood’s Golden Age—across 1939-1946. Faithful to the character Doyle originally created, Rathbone’s Sherlock is a tasteful gentleman. Ironically, this authentic image may seem unfamiliar and odd to those who were introduced to Mr. Holmes through modern adaptations where the protagonist is portrayed as a bad mannered and degrading, yet somehow still charming, sociopath.

“As a huge fan of Doyle’s original stories I like this old adaptation the most. It is one of the few that really stay true to the original narrative and Sherlock’s character. I think many other versions lose this original style and appeal when their creators try to find new angles and apply unnecessary changes.” Ibrahim Mustafayev (Questrom ’17) said.

In 2009, Guy Ritchie decided to abandon the attempts to create classic Sherlock who is true to Doyle’s narrative. In casting Robert Downey Jr. for the role a mischievous and impulsive Sherlock and Jude Law as an incredibly charming and elegant Watson, Richie created a truly dynamic action film, Sherlock Holmes. This Sherlock adaptation became a rare example of an action movie that managed to earn positive reviews from both critics and audiences.

“Ritchie presents us with the most dynamic and human version of Holmes. He makes mistakes. He is impulsive. He is not similar to these godlike and completely not relatable characters presented by so many Sherlock adaptations today. Also, I love the humor in Sherlock Holmes,” said Rami Sued (CAS ’16).

Following Ritchie’s Victorian action movie, in 2010 the BBC created their crime drama television series Sherlock that stars Benedict Cumberbatch as Sherlock Holmes and Martin Freeman as Doctor Watson.. Co-written by Mark Gatiss (who also played Mycroft Holmes in the show), Steven Moffat and Stephen Thompson, the show is set in the heart of present-day London.

BBC’s Sherlock is neither a perfect reflection of Doyle’s original detective, nor is he similar to any of the protagonists in prior Hollywood adaptations. Cumberbatch’s Sherlock is controversial and mysterious; elegant, yet harsh; cold-hearted and rational, yet compassionate and vulnerable. The Sherlock series captured undivided attention of Holmes’s true fans by their commitment to the intellectual detective genre with its challenging deductive riddles. The producers of the show tease and drive the audience crazy releasing only unbearably short three-part series every two years.

“Most of the contemporary off-beat detective series are too focused on relationships between characters. Such series leave no chance for a viewer to solve a crime. There is too much talk and action, but no actual detective in them. In Sherlock, after you find out who is the killer, you realize that all the clues were there and you just didn’t notice them. After watching a couple of episodes you start challenging yourself to find a solution before Sherlock explains it,” Artem Bidnichenko (ENG ’17) said.

Finally, among the all-time favorites is Bill Condon’s crime-drama Holmes, released in 2015. Because of the remarkable performance of Ian McKellen as Sherlock Holmes, as well as the sentimental feelings towards aging and retired Holmes who is challenged by his own mind while trying to recall the details of his last case, the movie earned incredibly high reviews from both critics and the audience.

“This is the gentlest, the most lyrical and reflective version of Sherlock. You feel so compassionate towards him. The way he is losing his clear reason and his famous sharp mind—his everything—breaks your heart again and again in this adaptation,” Stanislava Labetskaya, (CAS/Questrom ’18).

While a viewer’s preference for one adaptation or another may differ, our collective affection for Sherlock Holmes stays unchanged. Whether he is young or old, gentle or rude, elegant or rough, Sherlock always wins us over with his inalterable charm. British or American, Victorian or contemporary, he never fails to challenge us. Every time we watch another variation of the original story, we start feeling a little bit smarter, a little bit braver and just a little bit more mischievous. And of course, it’s our first impulse to answer every question sent our way with playfully self-important, “Elementary, my dear Watson.”