We’ve discussed the creator of Sherlock Holmes in a previous post, but with the release this week of Mr. Holmes, starring Sir Ian McKellan as The Great Detective (and the explosion across social media of a teaser trailer for the Christmas special of Sherlock, starring Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman) it seems the time has come to discuss Holmes himself in a little more detail.
Holmes first appeared in 1887 in the pages of A Study in Scarlet, which was a part of the massive (and massively popular) Beeton’s Christmas Annual. At this point, Holmes is approximately 27 (experts have deduced his birthdate to be Jan. 6, 1854) and is essentially That Guy who hangs around in the laboratory of St. Bartholomew’s Hospital, performing odd experiments which generally put everyone off their lunch. Thanks so a lack of funds, he has been trying to find a roommate, but we learn, fairly early on, that no one is willing to live with him…which, frankly, isn’t too surprising when Holmes’ first description of himself is “I dabble with poisons a good deal”.
Fate, however, was kind, and brought Holmes together with Dr. John H. Watson, his best friend of more than thirty years. It is through Watson’s devotion that we learn anything at all about Holmes, but what we see isn’t always pleasant…he is disorganized to the point of being a slob, he is curt and self-absorbed, fires revolvers in the house because he’s bored, has a long-standing addiction to cocaine (which, granted, wasn’t classified as an illegal substance when he was using it, but Watson and Doyle were adamant that the stuff did more harm than good), and faked his own death several times in the interest of a case without alerting his only friend to the fact that it was all an act.
Perhaps some of the appeal lies in Holmes inscrutability. Conan Doyle himself wasn’t too particular about his details, and as a result, we have a man in a deerstalker hat, with a calabash pipe–but no parents, hardly any family, and few memories. We can recognize his face and his catch-phrases with ease, but readers only get brief glimpses of the man himself in the course of the stories, tantalizing details that are all the more powerful for their scarcity. In truth, his flaws may be the very things that make him so loveable. Unlike so many other literary heroes (particularly in Holmes’ era), he isn’t perfect, and doesn’t pretend to be, either to himself or to Watson (who loves him no matter what). Yet somehow, he prevails. He has the power to set the world to rights again, if only a very small scale. And, that assurance, that someone so flawed and so odd, can still succeed, is perhaps the most meaningful aspect of Holmes’ character throughout the ages.
Yet Guinness Book of World Records lists Holmes as “the most portrayed character” in history, with more than 70 actors playing the part in over 200 films since 1900. Indeed, there is a charming scene at the opening of Mr. Holmes when the 93-year-old detective (McKellen) ducks into a movie theater, only to be forced to watch The Young Sherlock Holmes (not one of the best pastiches to hit the screen). So if you are eager to learn more about The Great Detective and the myriad actors who have portrayed him, come in and have a look through our collections!
Basil Rathbone: Rathbone is still the name that most people associate with Holmes on screen, even if only a few of the films were based on actual Holmes stories. He certainly looks precisely like Sydney Paget’s illustrations of Holmes, which may be why he found himself cast in The Hound of the Baskervilles instead of Gone With the Wind, despite lobbying enthusiastically for the part of Rhett Butler. The Rathbone era was also the period when Watson was portrayed as little more than a bumbling oaf, and it seems incredible that Holmes would put up with such idiocy, even if it does make his own cleverness a little more obvious.
Peter Cushing: Stars Wars and Dr. Who veteran Cushing portrayed Holmes for Hammer films (the same studio that made The Mummy and The Horror of Dracula), with Christopher Lee in the role of Sir Henry Baskerville. Though not really the most stellar of adaptations, it’s fun to see Hammer try and do a literary adaptation–and highlights the very real difficulty every Holmes franchise has had with bringing the immortal Hound of the Baskervilles to life.
Jeremy Brett: Though Rathbone may be name people remember, Jeremy Brett’s portrayal of Holmes is considered widely to be the best. Brett captured Holmes’ darker, troubled side with subtle grace, and wasn’t afraid to confront the unsavory aspects of his character head-on. Best of all, Brett, and the rest of the production team, were deeply committed to creating the most accurate depiction of Holmes possible, and their on-set ‘Bible’ is considered a benchmark of Holmesian scholarship. This series also gave Watson his due, emphasizing his intellect and empathy, and reveling in the humor and affection in their relationship.
Robert Downey, Jr: Holmes’ experts and devotees are still a bit undecided about Guy Ritchie’s version of Holmes and Watson. While this certainly is a series that emphasizes Holmes’ stranger tendencies to the point of making him a caricature, Robert Downey, Jr. and Jude Law absolutely capture the long-standing, long-suffering relationship between these two men, emphasizing their mutual co-dependency in way that few other adaptations do.
Benedict Cumberbatch: Currently the most famous iteration of Holmes, Stephan Moffat’s series launches Holmes and Watson into the twenty-first century, which gives this show the room to explore their relationship, and Holmes’ personality, in a whole new light. A number of questions have been raised over the course of this series, including the designation of Holmes as a ‘sociopath’, or his ambivalent relationship with women, but there is no doubt that Cumberbatch and Freeman have made a new generation into Holmes’ aficionados.