Film's 111-Year Obsession With Sherlock Holmes

Believe it or not, Robert Downey Jr.'s A Game of Shadows is among the more conventional adaptations of Sir. Arthur Conan Doyle's deductive detective stories

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BBC/Warner Bros./PBS

Will Sherlock Holmes ever close his casebook for good? Though the character has been with us since 1887, he’s seen very little rest, with a seemingly endless spate of stories, plays, movies, and TV shows offering new cases to solve (and that’s just the way he’d like it). Today sees the great detective take on yet another mystery in Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows, the Robert Downey Jr.-starring sequel to Guy Ritchie’s 2009 hit.

Sherlock Holmes has long been irresistible to filmmakers, who have adapted the character for cinema well more than 200 times in the past century. We’ve had Holmes on film for nearly as long as we’ve had film at all. The year 1900 saw the release of the silent, 30-second Sherlock Holmes Baffled—technically both the first Sherlock Holmes movie and the first detective movie in cinema history. True to the short’s title, Holmes doesn’t come off very well in his first filmic outing: A thief repeatedly disappears and reappears, seemingly at random, as the detective stumbles gracelessly around his apartment.

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He would go on to more impressive cinematic cases. Like Hamlet or The Importance of Being Earnest’s Lady Bracknell, playing Holmes quickly became a rite of passage for an actor—and a unique chance to leave a personal stamp on one of fiction’s most immortal characters. Between 1921 and 1923, Eille Norwood, whose performances “amazed” Doyle himself, played the detective no fewer than 47 times (the incomparable Jeremy Brett, who took on the character between 1984 and 1994, is close behind at 41). But the most iconic of the early Sherlock Holmes adaptations are the 14 films (produced from 1939 to 1946) that starred Basil Rathbone as Holmes and the rotund Nigel Bruce as Watson, establishing the popular conception of Watson as a clumsy buffoon.

Watson’s incompetence is just one of the many classic “Sherlock Holmes” tropes that don’t appear in Doyle’s original stories. The great irony of Sherlock Holmes is that, despite a seemingly endless string of adaptations, virtually no one has fully realized Doyle’s original conception of the character. If you pulled a random person out of a crowd and asked them to describe Sherlock Holmes, they’d probably mention a deerstalker hat, or a calabash pipe, or say “Elementary, my dear Watson.” But those popular clichés developed over decades of stage and screen performances.

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Sherlock Holmes is one of those rare literary characters who has far surpassed his creator’s original intentions. Tellingly—and despite his best efforts—Doyle himself couldn’t kill off Sherlock Holmes; though Doyle ended “The Final Problem” by having Holmes fall to his death, he eventually capitulated to fan outcry by having Holmes reappear in two more novels and a number of stories, having “faked his death” all along. There are always more dimensions to Sherlock Holmes, and the character has proven endlessly reinterpretable, earning recent homage from writers like Stephen King and Neil Gaiman.

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Scott Meslow is entertainment editor at TheWeek.com.

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