I originally read the Sherlock Holmes cannon back in college. I enjoyed the stories but didn’t love them. Doyle tends to be a bit long-winded and, even when young, I found Holmes’ methods to be more dramatic than scientific. They make for good stories but real crimes are not solved by scuffs on boots and cigar ashes. Often times, the solution to the mystery was either very obvious or not accessible at all until Holmes revealed the extremely esoteric path he followed to suddenly present the solution. My favorite story was Hound of the Baskervilles, which I found wonderfully creepy.
But, over the last decade, I’ve slowly become a Holmes devotee. I re-read the stories when I bought my Kindle and thoroughly enjoyed them. Doyle is still long-winded, but I enjoy the digressions and back stories. And while Holmes’ methods are still more dramatic than scientific, they are fun. I enjoy the journey. And I thoroughly enjoy the character, who is one of the most wonderful in fiction. I think Steven Moffat described him best: Holmes is a man who wishes he were some sort of god.
And that brings me to the point of this post: Holmes is back in the public eye. We have had two movies from Guy Ritchie and a BBC series. And, thanks to Netflix, I’m now watching the classic Granada television adaptations. There a million portrayals out there and I should probably watch the Rathbone films before I even think of blogging about it. But I thought I’d go ahead and address the big question: which Holmes do I prefer so far?
And the simple answer is: all three of them.
The Jeremy Brett television series is the most faithful to the books, virtually a transcription. This is a little bit of a weakness as it tends to be staid and predictable to those who have read the books. The style is very classical and slow. What elevates it to excellent television is Brett, who simply embodies Holmes. His portrayal is as precise as a scalpel. Every gesture and word is exactly as one would envision from the books. There’s a very understated joy in the performance that makes the Holmes character so fascinating.
The Ritchie films are a cut below and probably my least favorite. That’s praising with faint damnation as I enjoyed both films, have the first on blu-ray and will probably buy the second soon. Robert Downey, Jr. is great in the role and has a fantastic chemistry with Jude Law. I wasn’t that taken with Rachel McAdam’s Irena Adler, especially the ridiculous way she was killed off. But Jared Harris’s Moriarity is a wonderful portrayal. And I like the way Holmes’ thinking is portrayed — with rapid edits and quick bursts. This reaches a climax in Game of Shadows when he and Moriarity both think out their moves in advance. I found myself grinning like an idiot in the theater.
The weakness, I think, is that they make Holmes a little too eccentric, especially in the first film. I can not imagine Holmes living in squalor or being so disheveled and mumbling. But … that’s their interpretation (or, more likely, Downey’s). If I can put my image of Holmes aside — and I usually can — I don’t have a problem.
But I think my favorite is the recent Moffat-Gattis effort on BBC. With six movies down and at least three more to go, it has been a pure pleasure to watch them unfold. It combines the best of both worlds: by moving the stories to the present and adapting them, yhere’s enough new to keep the audience on their toes and enough winks and nods to the fans to keep them happy. The casting has been strong and the secondary characters — particularly Lestrade and Adler — have been outstanding. The portrayal of Holmes’s thoughts, his use of technology, his controlled eccentricities — all are perfect. And the dialogue and plotting are as sharp as you would expect from the team that has made Doctor Who one of the best shows on television.
But what makes it great are the two leads. Cumberpatch embodies Holmes the same way Brett did — as a precise arrogant genius who borders on sociopathy. His portrayal is much more sarcastic than Brett’s but flows from the same vein: portraying Holmes as man who thinks of himself as more than human. And Martin Freeman is simply one of the best Watsons. There is a tendency to make Watson kind of dumb so that Holmes looks smarter. Good productions — like the Ritchie films and Granada series — stay away from this. Freeman’s Watson is smart, tough and can (almost) match Holmes quip for quip. The chemistry between them is so good, the constant jokes about them being gay partners don’t hit a false note.
We’ll see if Moffat and Gattis can keep the ball in the air for another series (and if Ritchie can). But … so far … it’s a great time to be a Holmes fan.