McGinnis: The many modern faces of SherlockWritten by Jeff McGinnis | | firstname.lastname@example.org
When viewers tuned into CBS’s new show “Elementary” during its debut Sept. 27, its high numbers once more underlined pop culture’s everlasting obsession with the brilliant British detective Sherlock Holmes. Few individuals are as fixed in the public imagination, yet as adaptable to reinterpretation, as the investigator who (usually) lives at 221B Baker St.
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s immortal sleuth has been depicted on stage, radio and screen for more than a century. The “Guinness Book of World Records” names Holmes as the single most performed character in film history, with more than 75 actors taking up the mantle. (One imagines Holmes’ loyal companion Dr. John Watson can’t be far behind.)
The legendary detective clearly retains a tight grip on the public imagination, and all of the most popular modern takes on the character bring their own unique perspective and style to the case files of Sherlock Holmes.
- “Sherlock Holmes,” film series
First released: 2009.
The concept: While maintaining Holmes’ traditional Victorian setting, this series of films aims to deliver a more action-oriented Sherlock, with fighting sequences and pacing that is less Charles Dickens and more Chuck Norris. The end result still retains some elements of Doyle’s work, but by and large follows its own path as a franchise.
Holmes: Played by Oscar nominee and “Iron Man” Robert Downey Jr., Sherlock is shown to be as much a man of his fists as his wits. Downey emphasizes Holmes’ analytical tendencies while still ready for action. The success of the first film further cemented Downey’s comeback as an A-list actor.
Watson: Played by fellow Oscar nominee Jude Law, this Watson, like most modern interpretations, rejects the idea of playing Holmes’ bumbling sidekick. The good doctor is depicted well into his partnership with Sherlock, and has long since adapted to Holmes’ eccentricities. Law’s Watson is on relatively equal footing with Holmes — more of an equal than a tagalong.
Key creative figure: Director Guy Ritchie, who also made “Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels,” “Snatch” and “RocknRolla.”
Relation to source material: Limited. The plot feels less like a vintage Holmes mystery and more like a modern action film that happens to feature Doyle’s characters, though some nifty sequences which show how Sherlock’s mind works fit the material quite well.
The future: A sequel, “A Game of Shadows,” was released in 2011; a third film is scheduled for release in 2014.
The verdict: While in tone and structure the films have little relation to Doyle’s work, they remain very entertaining movies with solid performances and energetic direction. They play like what they are — flicks made for a broader audience, the kind that likes adventure more than intellectual gymnastics.
Where to see it: Both films are available on DVD.
- “Sherlock,” BBC TV
First aired: 2010.
The concept: Updating Holmes and Watson to modern times while maintaining the British setting and telling stories directly inspired (to a degree) by Doyle’s original work.
Holmes: Played by Benedict Cumberbatch, this Holmes is depicted as a committed social outcast with a mind that yearns for challenge and a burning desire to be right. Cumberbatch, a relative unknown to American audiences before the series aired, will soon have a much wider audience — he plays Smaug in the upcoming “Hobbit” movies and will play the unnamed villain in J.J. Abrams’ “Star Trek Into Darkness.”
Watson: Martin Freeman of the original “Office” and the film version of “Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” creates a companion that is just as interesting a character as Holmes, in many ways. An army medic recovering from serving in Afghanistan, his Watson is very much the man of action to contrast with Holmes’ intellect. Freeman will also appear in the “Hobbit” films, in the lead role of young Bilbo Baggins.
Key creative figure: Writer and co-creator Steven Moffat, who is currently executive producer of the wildly successful “Doctor Who” series.
Relation to source material: All episodes so far (six through two seasons) have been based on Doyle stories, though the modern adaptations have felt free to stray considerably from the original structure.
The future: A third season has been confirmed and will be filmed in 2013.
The verdict: It’s likely that fewer American fans have seen this version than the others on this list, which is a shame — it’s easily the best modern Sherlock. Wildly enjoyable with whip-smart writing and acting, there’s a reason this has cultivated such a fervent fanbase.
Where to see it: New episodes (when they’re made) air domestically on PBS’s “Masterpiece Mystery.” Both seasons are also on DVD and available for instant streaming via Netflix and Amazon Prime.
- “Elementary,” CBS
First aired: Sept. 27.
The concept: Another modern take, this time transplanting the still-British Holmes to New York City.
Holmes: Played by Jonny Lee Miller of “Eli Stone,” this Holmes has just gotten out of rehab and is getting used to new surroundings. Miller brings the character blunt charm with a slightly softer edge than Cumberbatch’s performance. (The two have more in common than just Sherlock, by the way — Miller and Cumberbatch starred together in a stage production of “Frankenstein” in Britain where they alternated playing the Doctor and his monster.)
Watson: A rare female companion, this show’s Dr. Joan Watson is played by acclaimed actress Lucy Liu. Rather than being inspired by battlefield trauma, this Watson is a disgraced surgeon assigned to monitor Holmes post-rehab.
Key creative figure: Creator Robert Doherty, who has written for “Dark Angel” and “Medium.”
Relation to source material: Very minimal. Besides the changes in locale and characters, the writing in the pilot is much more modern-American-police-procedural than vintage Holmes.
The future: The debut episode garnered more than 13 million viewers and a 3.1 in the key demographics, which indicates the show may have a solid future ahead of it.
The verdict: It’s tough to rate a whole series based solely on the pilot, the only episode that has aired thus far. What we’ve seen has been a solid-yet-unspectacular re-imagining of Sherlock, with writing that isn’t quite at the level of other versions. But with the creative and acting talent this show has, it could turn into something special.
Where to see it: Thursdays at 10 p.m. on CBS.
Email Toledo Free Press Star Pop Culture Editor Jeff McGinnis at PopGoesJeff@gmail.com.