Post CEFR level: B2.1
When Arthur Conan Doyle published the first volume of Sherlock Holmes, A Study in Scarlet (1887), he had no idea that he would be overwhelmed by the fame of his own character. The writer even tried to ‘eliminate’ Holmes as one of the criminals of his novels, but he had no luck, and the fame of the brilliant investigator accompanied by his friend, Dr. John Watson, overcame that of his creator. The novels and the short stories were only the beginning, because the two detectives went through all the forms of media: radio plays, black and white cinema, cartoons, dozens of increasingly refined contemporary film adaptations and several TV series, each with its own original take.
As time went by, the lens, the hat, the cape got lost, but what remained fixed is the method: rigorous, abductive, infallible. Which actors have portrayed Sherlock Holmes and John Watson over time and how are they different compared to the original characters? Among the interpretations, in the forties the British actor Basil Rathbone impersonated a Sherlock Holmes who looked very similar to the literary description, so much so that he became the face then adopted on many book covers and in drawings even during the following decades, and that face remains still today the most famous.
The first films with this actor were The Hound of the Baskervilles and The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes (both released in 1939). Between 1940 and 1946 followed a further 12 movies with these two actors (Nigel Bruce as Dr. Watson), an impressive number, very similar to today’s TV series but… almost 80 years ago!
Over the years, the cinema has never forgotten the brilliant investigator and the film version of some books, such as The Hound of the Baskervilles has more than twenty different releases (only among the most famous ones). The character’s fame has also given rise to several parodies, including the Disney cartoon The Great Mouse Detective (1986), where two intrepid little mice have to solve a kidnapping case and The Adventure of Sherlock Holmes’ Smarter Brother (1975), a comic film that mocked Holmes’ infallible ability to understand any clue.
Television has recently offered two very successful series: the first is Sherlock (2010-2017), starring Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman. The series is set in the present day, it uses many special effects related to the language of social media but keeps the original residence (modernized) in Baker Street 221b.
The second is Elementary (2012-2019), set in New York City, which features Sherlock Holmes (Jonny Lee Miller) as a brilliant detective but also a former drug addict. He works for NYPD (and in much friendlier relationships with the Chief Inspector than the literary version) and his roommate is a she-Dr. Joan Watson (Lucy Liu), who helped him with his rehabilitation and who accompanies him in his unpredictable adventures with a much more active role in the investigation thanks to her medical and scientific knowledge. The setting is original, because the two share a historic building in New York almost without furniture, a real investigation laboratory, which somehow resembles the original British Victorian residence. The series was the longest running television series, with 154 episodes. But in the future Sherlock Holmes will probably come back to visit us again.