The new Sherlock Holmes -- action hero? Comic bumbler?

Share via

He’s probably the most adapted literary character in history -- and perhaps the only nonexistent person with an honorary degree from the Royal Society of Chemistry. Upward of 70 actors have portrayed him in more than 200 films, since the early days of silent movies.

But there’s not been a major cinematic adaptation of Sherlock Holmes in decades. The classic films of the ‘30s and ‘40s, starring Basil Rathbone as Arthur Conan Doyle’s immortal detective, shut down the production of Holmes films for years, and the Jeremy Brett-starring series on Britain’s Granada Television, broadcast in the ‘80s and early ‘90s, has likely intimidated would-be filmmakers as well.

But heading our way are two very different films starring the Victorian detective.

The first, “Sherlock Holmes,” stars Robert Downey Jr. as sleuth with Jude Law as sidekick John Watson. Though these are two respected actors, the Warner Bros. film will not be a thesp-fest but an action movie based on a graphic novel by Hollywood executive Lionel Wigram, who spent years trying to get the project taken seriously.


The film has finished shooting -- with most of the exteriors in London, Manchester and Liverpool -- and is scheduled to open Christmas Day. “I didn’t want deerstalkers and pipes,” Guy Ritchie, the film’s director, said of the sleuth’s famous hat and favorite hobby. “They’re typical iconic images of Holmes, but we’re starting from scratch.”

The second, still untitled and in preproduction, will go for a comic tone, with “Borat” star Sacha Baron Cohen as detective and Will Ferrell as associate. (Etan Cohen, who co-wrote “Tropic Thunder,” will write the screenplay, with lad-film demigod Judd Apatow as executive producer.)

Columbia executives -- who chose not to contribute to this story -- have said that their movie will be as different from the Downey film as “Austin Powers” was from James Bond. “Just the idea of Sacha and Will as Sherlock Holmes and Watson makes us laugh,” the studio’s co-president, Matt Tolmach, told Variety last year.

The films will be scrutinized, of course, by both general audiences and the millions of rabid Holmes fans the world over. “We’ve had to rely on our parents’ or grandparents’ Holmes,” said Barbara Roden, a member of the Baker Street Irregulars fan group who runs Calabash, a press in British Columbia for Sherlockian research. “I’m hoping we get a 21st century Holmes, one for our generation.”


Evolving Holmes

Holmes himself was a morphine and cocaine addict, a formidable martial artist and a self-proclaimed bohemian who’d gladly stay up all night to puzzle out a case.

As described in Conan Doyle’s 56 stories and four short novels -- written mostly between the 1880s and 1910s -- the sleuth also played by his own rules. “I generally have chemicals about, and occasionally do experiments,” Holmes says to Watson while auditioning him as a potential roommate. “Would that annoy you?”


But he’s been domesticated by the years and come to be seen as what Roden calls “a Victorian fuddy-duddy.” As Michael Chabon points out in his essay “Fan Fictions: On Sherlock Holmes,” Conan Doyle’s stories have been met with condescension for more than 100 years, the suspicion that their popularity came not from quality but from “the bourgeois thirst for a tidy adventure, or nostalgia for a vanished age (Victorian, or adolescent).”

The bias against Holmes crystallized in Raymond Chandler’s manifesto “The Simple Art of Murder.” Though not quite naming the detective, Chandler champions the hard-boiled tradition over writers who rely on “hand-wrought dueling pistols, curare and tropical fish.”

Some of his condescension came from Conan Doyle himself: He once described having written so many Holmes stories that he felt like he’d eaten too much foie gras. Still, for more than a century, these stories have drawn admirers.

“He had something that strikes very few writers,” said literary critic Michael Dirda. “He was able to create a myth. It’s like Tarzan.” Holmes’ image, he said, has become a template beyond crime fiction for such eccentric rationalists as Spock and Dr. Who. “This atmosphere of male friendship, the snug drawing rooms, the fog outside, a knock at the door . . . these are great comfort books.”

The Rathbone films, while celebrated, have their limitations. “Only one of the novels, ‘The Hound of the Baskervilles,’ is terribly cinematic,” concedes Roden. “There are three novels with long flashbacks in which Holmes does not appear at all. And the stories are too short for adaptation, so have to be padded.” (They are also grist for a steady stream of literary reimaginings, as varied as Julian Barnes’ “Arthur and George” and the work of graphic novelists.)

In the revisionist 1970s, Holmes saw two major attempts to rethink the myth. Billy Wilder’s parodic “The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes” hinted at a homosexual relationship between sleuth and sidekick. And “The Seven-Per-Cent Solution,” scripted by Nicholas Meyer from his own novel, looked at Holmes’ drug addictions and his attempt to kick with help from Sigmund Freud.


But the most-seen adaptation of the last quarter century, the boarding-school-set “Young Sherlock Holmes” from 1985, was squeaky clean, closer in spirit to the other ‘80s films by executive producer Steven Spielberg than the work of Oscar Wilde, with whom Conan Doyle had much in common.


Something different

Ritchie, for his part, intends to take Holmes in yet another direction. He calls it his attempt to make “an action film with an intelligent backbone. Back then, Holmes was one of the first martial artists in the West.”

“In old Hollywood, they had a phrase that I like,” said Joel Silver, producer of “Sherlock Holmes” as well as the “Die Hard” and “Matrix” franchises. “They had ‘rug actors’ and they had ‘dust’ actors. Cary Grant was the greatest rug actor, and made movies inside, in rooms with rugs; John Wayne made films outside, in the dust. . . . Robert Downey Jr. can do both.”

This fits Ritchie’s sense of the detective himself. “Robert Downey and I were in sync with who this guy was,” the director said. “He was able to transcend all the levels: The class system didn’t hold him back. He would have been an excellent criminal. He could surf socially at both levels -- on the street and in the palace.”

For Ritchie, whose career has seen ups and down since his debut with “Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels,” the film is a chance “to do an English character with an American budget.”

The director said his interest comes largely from his preteen years in boarding school: “When we behaved well, they put on Sherlock Holmes,” piping radio plays over the school sound system. “So I have a nostalgic fondness for Sherlock Holmes.”


And though he’s seen some of the old films here and there, he has very few visual or cinematic associations with Conan Doyle’s world. Instead, he’s created in his mind, since childhood, his own vision of Holmes and Watson. Silver said he’s hoping for “the Valhalla of our business, aiming at all four quadrants,” meaning both younger and older members of both genders.

He may be in luck: The idea of an action-oriented detective doesn’t seem to rumple Holmes’ literary followers. “Conan Doyle was very interesting in bare-knuckle boxing,” Dirda points out, “and wrote a novel about prize fighting in early 19th century England. And he was once asked to be a referee for a fight involving Jack Johnson.”

Roden concurs, calling Holmes “the original action hero. . . . He was someone willing to go to the worst parts of London, to mix it up with people others would cross the street to avoid.”

The comic film, though, may have a hard time satisfying the purists. “The Ferrell-Cohen one, I’m hoping it’s not too much about frat boy humor,” said Roden.

In some ways, though, the Columbia version could be closer to the tradition of Holmes films. There’s often been at least a thin vein of comedy in those movies, and sometimes more.

Baron Cohen, despite dim-bulb characters like Bruno and Ali G, is a fiercely intellectual (and Cambridge-educated) comedian, and it’s not hard to imagine him slipping effortlessly into the Sherlock-as-genius role. And if Ferrell offers his usual clueless-guy routine, it might not be far from the bumbling Watson portrayed by Nigel Bruce in the classic Rathbone films.


The Bruce performances are a sore point for many Sherlockians, though, because Conan Doyle portrayed him as intelligent guy who’d served in Afghanistan and (unlike Holmes) held a marriage together.

There are, of course, fans who will never be satisfied, and the new movies are unlikely to change that. “There are a lot of Sherlockians for whom the only film they would like would be an actor sitting on a stage and reading the stories,” said Roden, who doesn’t see it that way. “The books are still on the shelf,” she points out. “Pull them off and read them.”