He’s more than 100 years old, has spawned generations of derivative literature, and inspired everything from cartoons to colloquial phrases. He’s Sherlock Holmes, a character that people have felt compelled to reinterpret over and over again.
But if you could pick one Sherlock and only one, which Sherlock would it be? If you’re a true fan, I bet you already know (maybe even with some help from the post “Many Faces of Sherlock” at our sister site, Tor.com), but let’s play anyway, because we have interviews and clips to help you decide—it’s the Sherlock Showdown!
The Original: Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Writing
First up for consideration, we have Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s original Sherlock from his six short story collections and four novels. His master character was modeled after Dr. Joseph Bell, a teacher at the medical school where Conan Doyle studied. The stories proved to be consistent sellers and Holmes fame became greater than the man who created him. When Conan Doyle killed Sherlock off in The Adventure of the Final Problem there was a huge and cry. Conan Doyle eventually brought Holmes back for The Hound of the Baskervilles (the story’s timeline pre-dated Holmes death in Final Problem), but it wasn’t enough. Two years later he revived Holmes and continued to write the stories for 24 more years.
Here’s Conan Doyle’s only known taped interview to talk about his work (it also touches on his interest in the paranormal):
The Classic: Sir Basil Rathbone
Sir Basil Rathbone played Holmes in fourteen feature films between 1939 and 1946. Sherlock was arguably Rathbone’s most well known and popular character, and he is often given credit for defining the role. The first two films were set in the Victorian era, like the Conan Doyle stories, but then the setting was updated to the current at the time, 1940s and some even had World War II related plots. With the exception of this first, these films did not use Conan Doyle’s stories for plot. Like Conan Doyle, he eventually found that the character overtook him as he was typecast in the role. You can see Basil Rathbone as Sherlock Holmes in this trailer for Pursuit to Algiers:
The Standard: Jeremy Brett
Jeremy Brett played Holmes in the Adventures of Sherlock Holmes from 1984 to 1994 in a series and two feature films for British television and shown in the US on PBS Mystery!. Brett took great pains to make sure that his portrayal of Holmes was as true to Conan Doyle’s creation as possible. He studied the stories and compiled an intensive file on Holmes likes, dislikes, habits and mannerisms. He made sure scripts adhered closely to the Conan Doyle stories and this work paid off.
Here is Jeremy Brett talking about his role:
The Bad Boy: Robert Downey, Jr.
Robert Downey, Jr.’s delivery of Holmes emphasizes action and adventure more than previous portrayals. He has brought a roguish sense to Sherlock that hasn’t been seen before as he allows his own bad boy persona to slip through, strongly influenced by Guy Ritchie’s direction. You can read a more in-depth analysis of Downey’s portrayal and Guy Ritchie’s vision here. To hear what Director Guy Ritchie, Downey, Jr. and Jude Law have to say about the first film, check out this clip:
Will the sequel be better than the original? We’ll find out soon as Game of Shadows hits the theaters December 16th. The trailer can be found here, and intrepid blogger Lindsay Faye will be risking life and limb to attend opening day and give us her review here on Criminal Element on Saturday.
The Contemporary: Benedict Cumberbatch
The BBC One series, Sherlock, starring Benedict Cumberbatch (Love that name!) in the title role brings Sherlock to 2011 London. In present times this Sherlock prefers his cell phone to the iconic magnifying glass as a tool of detection and he has his own website. Instead of the original Holmes’ nasty opium habit, new Sherlock wears three “patches” at once to quell his nicotine addiction.
The repartee between Cumberbatch’s Sherlock and Martin Freeman is fresh and funny. BBC’s Sherlock Season 2 will air on Masterpiece Mystery in 2012. Here is Cumberbatch discussing the series and his approach to the great Sherlock Holmes:
So there you have a few of my favorite Sherlocks. Which is my one and only? I’ll never tell! How about you?
Deborah Lacy is an avid mystery reader who lives in California.
Wow! Love the Conan Doyle interview. Thanks so much for bring that to our attention. When I was a kid, Rathbone did too many creepy parts for me to like him as Holmes. Downey and Cumberbatch are too young for my image of Holmes. So it’s Jeremy Brett by default.
Is that Conan Doyle interview amazing? Thanks for your vote for Jeremy Brett.
My favorite still are the original stories. I think Basil Rathbone physically resembled Holmes, but the writing of the movies was poor. The Brits do a great job in the BBC productions, but Jeremy Brett was too short and too nervous and strange for me. I found him a disturbing Holmes. The latest Downey is more a cartoon character but still enjoyable. And Cumberbatch is great, but the original stories are the best.
@ Tomm – excellent accessment. It is incredibly hard to choose. I have to say that after much deliberation, I have made my choice…but I’ll never tell.
The profile, the hooded eyes, the[b] voice [/b]- it is Basil Rathbone for me. After the movies he also did a series of Sherlock Holmes radio episodes. (Anyone notice that Sir Artur looks more than a little like Rathbone’s Watson, Nigel Bruce?)