Sherlock as Shakespeare – Wait, What?

Sherlock Holmes first appeared in a world without motion pictures.

That didn’t stop him, however, from becoming one of the most familiar characters to grace the silver screen. In 1900, the first known movie starring Sherlock Holmes appeared. Since then, dozens of films and television series have grown out of the same original stories by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. The world, it seems cannot not get enough of Sherlock Holmes. Some productions address the stories as an adventure, some as a thriller, and many as a mix of both. Others parody the original works, and one added a dinosaur. There really is a side of Sherlock to suit any viewer’s taste.

Faces of Sherlock Holmes

Just as people have a favorite Doctor, many have a favorite Sherlock. The options are vast, ranging from Christopher Plummer to Tom Baker, Christopher Lee to Benedict Cumberbatch, Jeremy Brett to Basil Rathbone, Michael Caine to Robert Downey Jr.

And those are only a few of the contenders for “Best in Role.”

But – why? After so many movies, surely we’d grow tired of the same stories (more or less) and the same characters (less or more). But that’s just the thing – they aren’t the same at all. No two people read a story and emerge with the exact same interpretation. Some may be similar, and many of the Sherlock Holmes films are, but no two are exactly the same. As we draw farther away from the era in which the original tales were written, the more we must rely on imagination to fill cultural gaps. So, instead of growing tired with the same old stories, we find that they change with us. New readers present surprising scenes we thought we knew. Fresh actors, directors, screenwriters, set-designers, etc., transport us into mirror worlds.

HamletThink of it like Shakespeare. Everyone knows how Hamlet ends, but people still go to see it. Everyone knows Sherlock will triumph over Moriarty, but that doesn’t bother fans. Sherlock Holmes even has an advantage over Shakespeare due to the fact that Sherlock and his gang are a single group of characters introduced through numerous canon stories. Although Shakespeare had many beloved characters, they rarely appear in more than one play. Shakespeare’s words are what made his plays immortal, but Doyle’s characters were his legacy. Trying to emulate Shakespeare looks like snobbery, but adding another adventure to Sherlock’s experience feels natural.

Just as people continue to watch new productions of Shakespeare’s plays, we pack out the theater for a new Sherlock Holmes film. We have our own opinions about the source material – Sherlock did/didn’t have a crush on Irene Adler, Watson was an idiot/genius, Sherlock was/wasn’t a gentleman, etc. However, when we watch a film or television show, we are equally interested in the director’s interpretation. How do Holmes and Watson interact? Is Lestrade a friend or a nuisance? What kinds of biscuits will Miss Hudson serve? And, most importantly, can Moriarty scare us?

Let’s be honest: Sherlock Holmes is his own genre. Below are six examples of genre-altering productions. I apologize if your favorites did not make this list, and I happily invite you to express your thoughts about your Sherlock, and his place in genre history, in the comments.

Please read with caution –  spoilers for past films/seasons lurk below.

Sherlock_Holmes_Baffled1 – Sherlock Holmes Baffled (1900): Sherlock Holmes first appeared on-screen in this silent film. Interestingly, this film does not follow the plot of any short story or novel from the Doyle canon. So from Sherlock’s first moment in cinema, he becomes part of a new story. Audiences at the time understood and accepted that this familiar character had stepped into an unfamiliar plot. Granted, it’s difficult to have much plot at all in a film less than one minute long, but a lot happens during those brief seconds.

In the written canon, Sherlock’s mysteries are always passably realistic and never put down to magic or the supernatural. Here, we see the camera bring utter fantasy to – apparent – reality. What could the logical detective make of such impossible thievery? Since this came out at the beginning of the motion picture industry, it could easily be interpreted as the director’s expression of film’s superiority over written media. However, it is just as easy to accept the scene as a quick laugh or a chance to show off a new camera trick. Most early movies were about spectacle rather than story (think jazz singers and crashing trains), and the fact that this short piece managed to include a story at all by intimating Sherlock’s character via props and attire is laudable.

It’s probably best if we don’t read too much into a minute-long film, anyway.

voiceofterror_poster2 – The Voice of Terror (1942): Although Rathbone had already starred twice as Sherlock Holmes in films produced by Fox, this third installment (in over a dozen) is arguably the most important in the series, because when Universal took over for the third picture, they updated it.

The first two movies take place in a traditional Victorian setting, and while they change the plots of the original stories to the usual Hollywood degree, they don’t take risks. In The Voice of Terror, Sherlock Holmes strolls through rubble on his way to Blitz-torn Baker Street, aiding his nation in their fight against Nazi spies, and rescuing a scientist who could change the course of the war. The film has an entirely contemporary setting.

Sherlock_Holmes_and_the_Voice_of_Terror_(1942)_1The old faces are here, pacing through recognizable roles, and dancing through puzzles just simple enough to make the audience feel clever. Sherlock is solving mysteries. Watson is the side-kick. Moriarty is the villain.

But there are cars rather than carriages, ties rather than cravats, and electric lights rather than gas lamps. Oh, yes, and there is not a bustle in sight. It’s worth noting, however, that the politics addressed in the story turn the film into a sort of pro-Ally propaganda piece, ending with a nobly-poised Sherlock waxing verbose on the glory of the British Isles as planes rumble overhead.

Though this was Sherlock’s first overt leap into the future, it would not be the last, and this film set a precedent for later writers and directors, who would bring this experiment into fashion half a century later.

Robert Downey Jr Holmes3 – Sherlock Holmes/A Game of Shadows (2009/2011): These big-budget action flicks are easily the glitziest presentation of Sherlock and Watson’s adventures. They are also some of the most polarizing. With big stars and big explosions, the movies are a visual treat and pack lots of witty sass to boot. They capitalized heavily on pop culture’s obsession with the steampunk subculture, allowing even more artistic liberties than a Hollywood film usually touts. The films roared along a delicate balance between history and fantasy, building a hyper-sensualized world of machines and mysticism that would engage twenty-first century audiences without entirely flouting the 1800’s setting.

Robert Downey Jr. and Jude Law made a truly dashing team, and most of those not won over by their smirks and smiles fell for the pair’s snarky banter. Though this was hardly the first production to highlight the duo’s complex partnership/friendship/bromance, it primed audiences to expect and even anticipate more complex character development between Sherlock and his Doctor than many earlier series had delivered.

Regardless of its mixed reviews, this film helped kick off a wave of new productions, sparking a sort of Sherlockian Renaissance, which has carried through to the present day.

Sherlock4 – Sherlock (2010): This BBC series was born out of pure fan-love, and though its creators initially had low expectations, it has become one of the most popular versions of Sherlock ever made. Like The Voice of Terror, the big twist in this production was its ‘update.’ Fans of Sherlock Holmes had already seen the detective do the time warp, of course, but this series kicked off its run with a masterful blend of modern tech and classic intrigue that played more to the story than the current events to which it referred. Sherlock doesn’t stop to talk about the greatness of his nation, and no rousing music plays as propaganda floods the screen.

Honestly, this series is downright artsy. The cinematography, like the setting, conforms to modern tastes, and though the makers never shied away from opportunities to salute the source material, they weren’t afraid to weave in new ideas.

Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman star as Holmes and Watson, and their portrayal of the sleuthing duo won them plenty of acclaim and even more attention. The later seasons (in American terminology), have had trouble scheduling filming due to the demand for both actors. Every hero, however, needs a villain, and Andrew Scott ensured audiences would return for the second season with his alarmingly original portrayal of Moriarty.

This innovative series will continue to surprise us – and bend the rules. Photos released for a special later this year indicate that the episode will take place in a Victorian setting.

Jonny Lee Miller Holmes5 – Elementary (2012): Like Sherlock, which launched the year before, Elementary takes place in the present day. Unlike previous updates, however, this series upped the ante by changing Watson’s gender and ethnicity. Sherlock is played by Jonny Lee Miller, and Joan Watson is played by Lucy Liu.

The series also plays out in New York, which is fitting, since the series is designed to appeal to American rather than British audiences. Unlike Sherlock with its three carefully orchestrated episodes per year (or two, or three…), Elementary follows the same regular programming of most American television shows, and conforms to plots comparable with many police dramas.

The series met with critical applause and derision for its decision to alter Watson’s character in addition to its New York setting. Imagine the surprise when the show’s writers pulled another unprecedented stunt, combining the character of Irene Adler with Moriarty, played by Natalie Dormer.

Though it takes many risks, the show has a strong cast and has grown a strong fan following. It is also a landmark series in the Sherlock genre, opening doors to character alteration in the same way The Voice of Terror paved the way for era updates.

sherlock-holmes-ian-mckellen-first-look-mr-holmes-hd6 – Mr. Holmes (2015): Like Pride and Prejudice, the stories in Doyle’s original canon have generated a number of independently written novels, and it was only a matter of time before fans of the screen turned their attention back to the writing world. This film, starring Sir Ian McKellan in the title role, is born from a book, A Slight Trick of the Mind, by Mitch Cullin, which came out in 2005.

While most versions of Sherlock’s story focus on reimagining his glory days solving crimes with Watson, this tale steps over the existing canon to imagine an older Holmes struggling with the ghost of an unsolved case. Since nearly all recent productions have portrayed Sherlock and Watson in their twenties or thirties, this film marks another important shift in genre.

Though it has already appeared in the film festival circuit, the film will not be released in the UK until June, and those of us in the United States won’t see it until July 17th. However, in true Sherlock fashion, the piece is already making a stir on both sides of the Atlantic.

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