Speak the name Sherlock Holmes nowadays and you’ll probably encounter Benedict Cumberbatch’s wildly popular take on the character as seen in Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss’ BBC series Sherlock. There’s also CBS’ Elementary, which is actually pretty good and has its own quiet but loyal viewership.
But my favorite contemporary adaptation is actually Guy Ritchie’s 2009 film starring Robert Downey Jr. and its follow up in 2011, A Game of Shadows.
I know what you’re thinking: blasphemy! Steven Moffat has the most vocal followers, and if you mention for one moment that Doctor Who has become overrated or that Sherlock totally misses the point of the character, you’ll probably get tarred and feathered. I think I see a torch-bearing crowd approaching me right now.
In all honesty, the best incarnation of the character, who matched Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s original detective, is probably Basil Rathbone’s sleek, classy interpretation of the character in the 30s and 40s. Holmes, in the original publications, was polite to a fault (though brusque when he was in the middle of a brainstorm) and enigmatically distant when the situation called for it.
I don’t think they incorporated Holmes’ cocaine addiction into Rathbone’s version of the character (it WAS the 30’s after all…) but in all honesty, in the 19th century, Holmes injecting cocaine was portrayed not as a self-harming act, but something he did to keep himself alert. The modern equivalent would be a coffee-addicted cop pounding two espressos before going on a stakeout.
In terms of modern portrayals, the four big ones are House (2004-2012), Sherlock Holmes/Game of Shadows (2009/2011), Sherlock (2010-) and Elementary (2012-). House probably gets an out since its a thematic remake as opposed to a straight remake. Sherlock and Elementary are modern remakes of the story. And then Guy Ritchie’s duology (soon to be a trilogy if the rumors are to be believed) is the only one to actually retain the original setting.
And in terms of the character, RDJ does a fantastic job. Holmes is not a sociopathic misanthropist who lords his superior intellect over others the way Benedict Cumberbatch’s character does, and RDJ captures that. He’s more of a manic genius whose mind turns to bizarre inventions and strange experiments when left without a case for too long. But around others, he’s polite and aware of his surroundings. I’m quite fond of a scene in SH where he first meets John’s fiance and she asks him to see what he can learn about her just by looking at her. He’s hesitant to do so because he doesn’t want to offend her (and John agrees) but she insists, and when he gives her a rather scathing deduction, it stems from a moment of petulant frustration that John is not going to be in his life as much as he was. He realizes this shortly after and makes a point to treat her with respect afterward. This Holmes is immature, but not cruel and distant.
Plus, the relationship between John and Sherlock is much more nuanced and believable. While Moffat’s version is basically an extended, “But we’re not gay” joke that wears out its welcome fairly quickly, Ritchie’s version is more like a superhero duo who just can’t stop helping one another. John is logical and Sherlock is wacky and the two of them balance each other out really well. It’s less of the psychologically abusive dynamic that Moffat’s characters have, which makes John a more interesting character. I adore Martin Freeman, but I have no idea why his character stays with his Sherlock for as long as he does. Whereas Jude Law, whose doctor-instincts and somewhat-contained enthusiasm for adventures, makes perfect sense with RDJ’s Sherlock whose childlike recklessness both fulfills John’s desire to engage in some derring-do and gives him someone to keep healthy and whole now that he’s not serving in the military anymore. It’s a much healthier dynamic.
Also, the stories allow themselves to have fun. Sherlock is brilliantly written, but it makes a point to let you know how brilliant it is at every turn. You can almost see the giant spectral hand clapping itself on the back as you figure out what has been going on (later seasons of Doctor Who have had the same problems). But with Guy Ritchie, you get the intricate villain plots and Sherlock’s brilliant deductions, but there’s room for good old-fashioned adventure along with it. The story isn’t quite so self-aware, which leaves room for the audience to lose themselves in it, which is ultimately more fun.
Also, and I know I’ll get killed for this one, I prefer Jared Harris’ Moriarty to Andrew Scott’s. The former feels MUCH more like Doyle’s original villain. The latter feels like he was created specifically as Tumblr fan-fiction bait (not that there’s anything wrong with fanfiction, of course, but when a character is so obviously created for that purpose, it fels like a crowd-pleasing gimmick). Now, granted, my FAVORITE version of the character is actually Daniel Davis’ two episode run on Star Trek TNG as a holgram Moriarty made sentient, but Jared Harris does a great job with the character. He’s believably brilliant and just likable enough to be compelling.
Sherlock Holmes is a character we’re going to be reinventing for centuries, so there are many incarnations out there to suit everyone’s tastes, but this one happens to be my personal favorite. There’s no news on when the announced third film will come out (though it has an IMDb page) but I’m happy we may be getting a third one. Guy Ritchie is wonderful and he has a great eye for interesting visuals and snappy editing. I was a big fan of The Man from U.N.C.L.E. even though it didn’t make much of a bang at the box office, but I feel like more people should give his take on the world’s most famous detective a second look. It’s a lot of fun and the effects have aged pretty well. It’s stylish, a great mix of comedy and action, and there are lots of explosions (so naturally, I’m a big fan). Granted, the original stories weren’t so action-oriented, but were more atmospheric, but I’m OK with the more 19th-century-James-Bond angle since there’s still lots of sleuthing and maneuvering and such.
Plus RDJ is wonderful and it’s nice reminding people that he can play pretty much anyone and hit it out of the ballpark.
So go give these two gems another chance. They’re marvelous!