I’m sure you’ve noticed, just as I have, that Sherlock Holmes is a very, very popular character right now. The films with Robert Downey Jr. The popular TV show on the BBC. Even CBS is trying its hand in the Sir Arthur Conan Doyle game, having ordered a pilot for a series called Elementary- a modern-day update of the Sherlock Holmes character (there aren’t many more details about Elementary, so as of now none of us have any idea how it’ll differentiate from the modern-day Sherlock already airing on the BBC).
Holmes is everywhere. And I’d venture to say that this abundance of Holmes is a good thing.
Why, you ask?
Well, it’s simple, really. With numerous Sherlock Holmes adaptations, we get the same character portrayed in different styles, with different actors in altogether different works.
And that allows me to write this article comparing them. So, in a way, we all win.
Let’s continue, shall we?
So the overwhelming opinion I’ve heard across the internet from those who’ve seen both BBC’s Sherlock and the Guy Ritchie/Robert Downey Jr. versions is that the BBC version is the superior one. Critics, more or less, seem to agree- while the Downey Jr. films have favorable scores on Rotten Tomatoes (ranging in the sixties and seventies), the BBC program cleaned up at last year’s BAFTAs (British Film and Television Awards), landing both Best Drama Series and Best Supporting Actor.
Now, having sampled both franchises, my initial reaction to all of this is “well, the BBC one stays truer to the original stories. Therefore it’s the stronger one.”
But that’s not necessarily true.
In the films, Downey Jr.’s Holmes comes off a swashbuckling, globe-hopping adventurer who not only solves crimes, but is also a master of disguise, and expert in hand-to-hand combat, and a charmer with the ladies. In the television show, Benedict Cumberbatch’s Holmes is a weird, reclusive loner, and a genius “consulting detective” with an eye for deduction.
I naturally just assumed that having only read a handful of Doyle’s stories, that Cumberbatch’s Holmes is the more accurate one. And in a lot of ways, it is- most noticeably that the original Holmes was most definitely a friendless loner (who many modern fans think may have had Asberger’s Syndrome) and was definitely not a ladies’ man. But what I didn’t know (or had learned once and then promptly forgotten) was that the original Holmes was also a master of disguise and very skilled in both boxing and swordplay.
So what I instinctively thought- “oh, they’re making him more like an action hero for Hollywood,” wasn’t quite true. Granted, there’s enough unnecessary bullet-time in the films to still argue that point, but that’s not what I’m going for here.
And while it’s easy to see why Guy Ritchie and company altered the character in the way they did (adding in globe-trotting, womanizing elements in order to boost the marketability of the film), why did Moffat choose to downplay the disguises/fisticuffs?
At this point I can only speculate, but I’d like to think my speculations are at least somewhat accurate.
What Sherlock Holmes is famous for, first and foremost, are his powers of deduction (as said powers made Holmes the poster child for the detective novel while shedding light the idea of forensic science as a whole). By concentrating Holmes’ talents into a single category, the BBC s Sherlock seems much more like the iconic detective to those fans (like me) who aren’t experts in Doyle’s writing.
But there’s another reason (again, still speculation, but I’m past all that at this point)- the Sherlock Holmes of the big screen, as a character, doesn’t really have any flaws. Yes, he’s an oddball and an eccentric, but for the most part he comes off as goofy, charming and handsome while also being smarter and more formidable in a fight then anyone else on Earth.
The Holmes of the small screen is nothing like that. He’s a small, peculiar little man who’s charming in his own way but nowhere near the god-among-men status of the Downey Jr. variety. And by having a Sherlock Holmes with real, human flaws, we get a Sherlock Holmes who’s much more sympathetic and dynamic then anything from the films.
Downey Jr.’s Holmes doesn’t really need an assistant, for the most part. Yes, he and his Jude Law counterpart have great chemistry and work well as a team, but they’re more like two cool, dynamic dudes who team up more for a general sense of adventure then out of any real need. Cumberbatch’s Holmes, on the other hand, is pathetic and desperate in more than a few ways, and it’s these weaknesses (along with similar ones in Martin Freeman’s Watson) that creates a real bond between Holmes and Watson. Downey Jr. and Law do work very well together. I’m not trying to knock their performances in the slightest. But there’s an underdog-y warmth in the BBC Holmes and Watson that I think ultimately makes them the stronger pairing.
There are also about a trillion other ways to compare these two portrayals of an immensely famous character- use of the actual mystery plots from the novels, use of the secondary characters, use of the locations and settings and so on and so forth- but I think that’s an article for another date. Really, I just wanted to touch on my feelings for each series as a whole, and the major differences between the Sherlock Holmes of each adaptation.
And I think I’ve done just about that. So, if you’ll excuse me, I have to purchase a deerstalker hat and pipe, then assist my local police force in any way possible.
I’m sure they’ll hate me.
See you next time!