When it was released in 2009, Sherlock Holmes was a bit of a run away success. Robert Downey Jr. and Jude Law, as the titular character and his sidekick Doctor Watson, respectively, formed an action/comedy duo that was both physically imposing and hilarious. Guy Ritchie crafted a movie that plays as if we’re watching what The World’s Greatest Detective’s adventures would have been like in real life had he really existed. The Holmes he and Downey created is rougher around the edges and grittier than previous interpretations.
Was their version of Mr. Holmes accurate and faithful to the original stories? Considering the amount of dedicated fans, there are sure to be many different ideas over what constitutes a proper depiction of Sherlock Holmes. In evaluating the movie’s choices, it’s best to use only the canon created by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle as an objective standard, not just elements that are personally favored, but were added later. This is not to decide if the movie portrayal is one that we personally like, but one that is authentic and respectful.
In A Study in Scarlet, the first Holmes novel published in 1887, Watson describes Holmes as being “rather over six feet” tall and “so excessively lean that he seemed to be considerably taller.” Robert Downey Jr.’s height is listed as 5′ 8½” (1.74 m), so right away we run into a problem. Another quote from The Hound of the Baskervilles (1902) says that Holmes has a “cat-like love of personal cleanliness,” which definitely goes against the unkempt, messy haired, scruffy faced detective from the film. However, also from Scarlet, Holmes conducts an experiment in which he pricks his finger and dresses it with a small piece of plaster. Watson says his hands are “all mottled over with similar pieces of plaster, and discoloured with strong acids.” So perhaps the movie’s Holmes is closer than originally thought.
Grade: C Minus
Without question, the film’s Sherlock has every bit of deductive prowess as his literary counterpart. Consider the scene from the movie in which Holmes and Watson determine facts about the owner of a pocket watch by observing details like scratches and tiny pawn broker’s labels. The dialogue and conclusions are lifted almost verbatim from the first chapter of The Sign of the Four, the crucial difference being that, in the book, Holmes deduces those facts about Watson’s brother, not a red-headed midget.
Some people less familiar with the original stories were surprised by the scenes in which Holmes uses martial arts techniques and also by his propensity to engage in bare knuckle boxing. In another scene in The Sign of the Four, Holmes runs into McMurdo, a boxer, and he reminds him that they’ve met before:
“Not Mr. Sherlock Holmes!” roared the prize-fighter. “God’s truth! how could I have mistook you? If instead o’ standin’ there so quiet you had just stepped up and give me that cross-hit of yours under the jaw, I’d ha’ known you without a question. Ah, you’re one that has wasted your gifts, you have! You might have aimed high, if you had joined the fancy.”
Not only that, but in “The Adventure of the Empty House,” Holmes explains, “I have some knowledge, however, of baritsu, or the Japanese system of wrestling…” a fictional martial art based on the actual self defense technique, Bartitsu.
In the early part of the film, Watson finds Holmes in his room, completely in darkness and firing his revolver indoors. In “The Musgrave Ritual,” Watson describes a similar situation: “Holmes, in one of his queer humours, would sit in an armchair with his hair-trigger and a hundred Boxer cartridges and proceed to adorn the opposite wall with a patriotic V.R. done in bullet-pocks…” (The V.R. being Victoria Regina, Latin for “Queen Victoria,” of course.) And in The Sign of the Four, after taking a dose of his seven-per-cent solution of cocaine, says “My mind [...] rebels at stagnation. Give me problems, give me work…” An identical line is spoken in the movie.
There are multiple instances of quotes being lifted directly from the source material to provide authentic dialogue and situations. And while he only used it for tuneless plucking, the Stradivarius was present for several scenes. The film makers definitely made it a point to keep Holmes feeling like the original.
The relationship between Holmes and Watson in the film is similar to that of an old married couple; the type in which the two involved have known each other for so long that they are both tired of and lost without each other. Their bickering makes for most of the comedy in the movie. In the books, however, you’re more likely to find pleasant descriptions of the friendship between the pair, but sometimes there are hints at what it must be like to be Sherlock Holmes’ friend. The very first lines of The Valley of Fear (1915) are:
“I am inclined to think–” said I.
“I should do so,” Sherlock Holmes remarked impatiently.
I believe that I am one of those most long suffering of mortals; but I’ll admit that I was annoyed at the sardonic interruption. “Really, Holmes,” said I severely, “You are a little trying at times.”
While this pales in comparison to the exasperation Watson in the film experiences, there is still some evidence that perhaps Holmes got on his nerves from time to time.
While sitting in a restaurant in the film, Holmes goes through what’s best described as sensory overload in which we see that his ability to infer lots of information from tiny details may be more of a curse than a blessing when there is no immediate puzzle to be solved. This paints Holmes as something of a tortured soul, seeking out complex riddles in order to experience serenity. There isn’t really much in the books that would lead to a similar conclusion, but one could argue that Holmes’ cocaine use is a sign of his overactive mind. When people with Attention Deficit Hyperactive Disorder take drugs like Ritalin and cocaine, it actually calms them down. Maybe Holmes’ ADHD went undiagnosed because of the lack of medical knowledge at the time.
In the film, when the Temple of the Four Orders members offer Holmes a reward to stop Lord Blackwood, Holmes agrees, but as he says, “…not for you. And certainly not for a price.” In “The Adventure of Black Peter,” Watson explains about Holmes: “So unworldly was he–or so capricious–that he frequently refused his help to the powerful and wealthy where the problem made no appeal to his sympathies, while he would devote weeks of most intense application to the affairs of some humble client whose case presented those strange and dramatic qualities which appealed to his imagination and challenged his ingenuity.” This paints the picture of a man who is not involving himself to chase fortune and glory, but out of his own personal interest, which is impressively honorable. However, it also shows some selfishness on his part, since he is not crusading for justice either, but satisfying his own curiosity above all.
Holmes’ arrogance and sarcasm are spot on in the movie, but the constant squabbling with Watson, while entertaining, was not keeping in spirit with the source material.
Grade: B Plus
So, in review:
Appearance: C Minus
Personality: B Plus
Robert Downey Jr.’s Sherlock Holmes is pretty faithful to the original. When you consider the character’s smug self satisfaction and physicality then his interpretation makes perfect sense, but when you think of Holmes as he’s described in the books, something is missing: the sheer joy that Holmes experienced when working on a case. In the books, Holmes would move frantically and make loud exclamations upon finding something useful. This is a trait that has actually been handled very well on BBC’s Sherlock. Downey’s Holmes seems like most of his satisfaction comes from proving how smart he is to those around him, not from actually finding the clues. And while Conan Doyle’s Holmes definitely loved to showcase his abilities, it was the thrill of the hunt that really excited him. Perhaps in A Game of Shadows, we’ll see more elation from Holmes.
Everyone has a favorite Holmes actor, or at least an idea for how the character should be depicted. What’s yours?