Novel-Tea: Who has gotten Sherlock Holmes right?

Editorials featured in the Forum section are solely the opinions of their individual authors.

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle published the first Sherlock Holmes novel, "A Study in Scarlet," in 1887. Naturally, when a series receives as much acclaim as Sherlock Holmes has over the years, a whole slew of adaptations are bound to be made. We’ve seen mostly direct copies of the books, like the 1939 film "The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes," starring Basil Rathbone and directed by Alfred L Werker. We’ve also been given the slightly cringy animated adaptation "Sherlock Gnomes" starring Johnny Depp as the titular gnome. There are so many varying adaptations of Sherlock Holmes, but are any of them actually good?

As someone who’s been a fan of the Sherlock Holmes mysteries since a young age, I have loved watching how many directors can turn a beloved character into something new, for better or worse.

For instance: the Sherlock Holmes films starring Robert Downey Jr. and directed by Guy Ritchie. Now look, I love RDJ. He’s a great actor and it’s intriguing to see what he does with a character like Sherlock. However, I just couldn't be convinced that he was actually Sherlock Holmes. To me it was Robert Downey Jr. playing the role of a consulting detective. There’s a scene where RDJ jumps out of an eight story window into a river. Sherlock definitely did some crazy things in the books and short stories, but this feels like a stretch. (The only thing that comes remotely close is when he jumps off Reichenbach Falls to fake his own death.) This film took popular characters and made up a new story — this is certainly one way to do an adaptation, but I do wish that some directors could just recreate the original Sir Arthur Conan Doyle mysteries more faithfully.

One set of adaptations that come close are The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes films (1939-1946) starring Basil Rathbone as Sherlock. He does a great job of capturing the original character, although at moments he does seem to be more sympathetic to his clients than he is in the books. In the novel "The Sign of Four," Sherlock says, “Love is an emotional thing, and whatever is emotional is opposed to that true cold reason which I place above all things.” Sherlock was never a person who really felt empathy for other people (it’s typically shown as being his one weakness). However, in the Rathbone films, Sherlock often feels empathy for his clients. Other than that (and the lack of British accents) these adaptations are pretty accurate. They take place in the 1840s like the original novels and the crimes are very similar to those of the original mysteries. Watson is also written to be a mostly useless idiot, which is not how Watson was in the original stories, but for some reason I can overlook that a little.

My favorite Sherlock Holmes adaptation has to be the BBC television show "Sherlock" (2012-2017) starring Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman as Sherlock and Watson. Although the show brings the original stories into a modern day (Sherlock was not able to tweet in the 1840s), the show stays true to the personalities and demeanors of the original characters; Sherlock is a borderline sociopath who gets high off of solving crimes, and Dr. John Watson is a man in awe of Sherlock, but who is also irreplaceable in Sherlock’s work. Cumberbatch and Freeman do such a good job with these characters that I wish they were a crime-solving duo in real life. I also think this adaptation is one of the best because it translates the 1840s crimes pretty well to the 21st century. The changes from "A Study in Scarlet" (the first Sherlock Holmes novel) to "A Study in Pink" (the first episode of "Sherlock") were relatively seamless despite the changes to make it contemporary. Towards the later seasons the show gets a little off the rails, but overall it’s an acceptable adaptation.

There are so many other adaptations of Sherlock Holmes out there that deserve a mention. I recently watched "Sherlock Gnomes" for the first time, and it was actually pretty hilarious. Johnny Depp as Sherlock was surprisingly, kind of amazing. Now, it is a kid’s film, so the crime was not particularly interesting, but it was an amusing take on Arthur Conan Doyle’s characters. Of course there’s also films like Mr. Holmes, starring Ian McKellen, which takes place after everyone Sherlock knows has died and Sherlock himself is losing his memory. It’s a pretty interesting take on the original stories, however when I first watched it, I found it a little slow and I’m pretty sure I even fell asleep. (Granted, I was about ten years old.) There’s also the CBS series "Elementary," which takes place in modern day New York after Sherlock’s father decides he needs rehab. The series also makes Watson a woman, turning Dr. John Watson into Dr. Joan Watson. It’s certainly an interesting adaptation, but I don’t quite know how I feel about it.

There are so many adaptations of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s "Sherlock Holmes," some of which I didn’t even get a chance to mention. While I typically don’t enjoy an adaptation of a book or series that I really love, I must confess that I do enjoy some of these Sherlock Holmes adaptations. Some are definitely a pass, but others, like "Sherlock," are adaptations that I go back to time and time again. So keep an open mind if you’re an avid fan of Sherlock Holmes and consider giving some of these films a chance.