Who is Sherlock Holmes, in the stories by Arthur Conan Doyle? Above all, he is an eccentric. He is exceptionally untidy. In the words of his roommate Dr. John Watson, in “The Musgrave Ritual,” Holmes “keeps his cigars in the coal-scuttle, his tobacco in the toe end of a Persian slipper, and his unanswered correspondence transfixed by a jack-knife [on] his wooden mantelpiece…” For another, he sometimes shoots his pistol at the wall. He is cold and unsociable, and, apart from his admiration for the clever Irene Adler of “A Scandal in Bohemia,” he is averse to women. In addition to smoking cigars—and a pipe—he uses cocaine. He plays the violin. He is an expert boxer. He is skilled at disguise. He is skilled at the analysis of all sorts of physical evidence. Most famously, he uses deductive reasoning in his cases. But—while Holmes prizes himself on the use of cold, unemotional reason, he maintains a close friendship with Dr. Watson, who writes in “The Adventure of the Three Garridebs,” that he “caught a glimpse of [Holmes’s] great heart as well as…great brain.”
But how has Sherlock Holmes been portrayed? (That is—by only four actors who have played Holmes: Basil Rathbone, Jeremy Brett, Benedict Cumberbatch, Robert Downey, Jr.)
Basil Rathbone, who played Sherlock Holmes onscreen in the ‘40s, is a gentlemanly Sherlock, with not an eccentricity in sight. In the 1939 film of The Hound of the Baskervilles, he is unfailingly polite, saying things such as “Yes, please, go on.” and “Won’t you sit down?” and “If you don’t mind.” He is logical—specifically deductive—but not coldly so. He does show skill at disguise, fooling his own partner, Dr. Watson (Nigel Bruce). Mostly, he has the look of Holmes—tall and gaunt, with a long nose—and the accessories of Holmes: the ever-present pipe and “infernal violin,” the deerstalker cap and tweed cape. Holmes, as played by Rathbone, is a handsome, dashing man of the world.
Jeremy Brett’s Holmes, of the 1980s-1990s Granada TV series The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, is as handsome as Rathbone’s Holmes, but he is more eccentric. Brett’s Holmes grimaces and twitches and makes odd hand gestures. He sits, knees up in an armchair, and contemplates for long stretches of time, once telling Watson, “It is quite a three-pipe problem. I beg you won’t speak to me for 50 minutes.” He is then suddenly up and moving fast. All the while, he has a languid drawl. He is not much less polite than Rathbone, but he does smoke a lot, far more than those around him. While handsome, he is rather bony and fierce, with keen eyes. “Reptilian” comes to mind to describe him. Overall, Brett’s Holmes is less GQ than Rathbone’s Holmes.
Benedict Cumberbatch’s Holmes, of the 2010-2017 BBC TV series “Sherlock”, is even more eccentric than Brett’s Holmes. He lies around in his pajamas and walks onto and off the coffee table. To Watson’s dismay, he shoots at the wall. Even more to Watson’s dismay, he shows no compassion for a crime’s victims. Cumberbatch’s Holmes considers such compassion a waste of time and energy; rather, he is quick to solve crime. His detecting shows versatility. In addition to deductive reasoning, he readily play-acts to get the information he needs, and he uses all scientific technology available—and, given that Sherlock is set in present-day London, there is plenty of scientific technology available. Meanwhile, his remarks—like “I can’t be the only person in the world who gets bored” or “You see—you just don’t observe”—demonstrate extreme impatience and conceit. Cumberbatch’s Holmes, not unlike Sheldon Cooper of “The Big Bang Theory,” is singularly freakish.
The Sherlock Holmes of Robert Downey, Jr. is closer to daredevil Ethan Hunt of the Mission: Impossible movies than to the more cerebral Holmes of Rathbone, Brett, or Cumberbatch. In a scene of a boxing match, in the 2009 movie Sherlock Holmes, Downey’s Holmes uses both brains and brawn to defeat his hulking opponent. Generally, there are many fight scenes and chase scenes in the movie, in which Downey as Holmes must be especially strong and fast on his feet. Meantime, he is humorous, often engaging in witty repartee with Watson or cracking jokes while fighting the bad guy or just smiling puckishly. Also, he is very attracted to Irene Adler. In these ways, Downey presents a whole new Holmes, but not in all ways. He plays the violin, while he thinks. He smokes a pipe. He uses disguise. He often uses deductive reasoning. Here is Conan Doyle’s Holmes. Overall, Downey’s detective is an appealing amalgam of old and new.
Four actors playing Sherlock Holmes, while retaining Holmes’s core characteristics (like deductive reasoning), have come up with widely different portrayals of the detective. Apparently, the character of Holmes is not set in stone. And this (after a double-take) is a godsend.
Thomas Gagnon has published essays and reviews in Wilderness House Literary Review and alternative literary blog, The Boston Area Small Press and Poetry Scene. He has published articles about art exhibits in South End News and poetry in cross-disability literary journal Breath and Shadow.