The Ever Evolving Icon
What is it about a fictional character first introduced to the public in Great Britain in 1887 that has kept him being reincarnated, with generationally-correct upgrades, over and over again in film and on television? Who is this literary hero whose portrayal over the past century by such past masters as Basil Rathbone and Jeremy Brett to today’s vanguard talents Robert Downey, Jr. and Benedict Cumberbatch has inspired such a continuing outpouring of fan appreciation?
Every generation will forever have their “true” Sherlock Holmes. Basil Rathbone in the 1940s will no doubt remain in heavy rotation on TCM as the “final word” in the Holmes persona. More objective film scholars consider Jeremy Brett’s interpretation of Holmes on British TV from 1984-94 to be truest to the Conan Doyle stories and definitive. The Holmes brought to BBC TV in 2010 and still enthralling fans today in the USA as well as Britain is a modern-day version of the detective played by Benedict Cumberbatch as a sort of brilliant eccentric yet very cool outsider. And then we have Robert Downey’s fan-pleasing Holmes whose adventures are left in the Victorian era but are anachronistically supercharged with 2012 high-tech Hollywood effects, not to mention Holmes’ acquisition of a flippant tongue and cynical sensibility seemingly borrowed from James Bond.
So many different Sherlock Holmeses!
Yet they all work so well with their respective fans.
What’s the common thread?
When Conan Doyle created Sherlock Holmes back in 1887, he equipped his detective “super-hero” with all of what were the cutting-edge “powers” just then coming into vogue: Holmes is as an early forensic scientist, pre-dating the CSI shows by a hundred years; he is a master decipherer of trace evidence, fingerprints, ballistics and handwriting; he plays violin, but is also adept in the martial arts. He outwits his opponents with “deductive reasoning,” usually summing up his amazingly inerrant analyses with, “You see, it’s elemental, my dear Watson.” (Watson was his ever-present sidekick and witness to his genius, thus establishing the “superhero sidekick” well before Batman’s “Alfred.”)
Sherlock Holmes was, in 1887, the closest thing to a Superman, Batman, or X-Men. In fact, those later heroes and many more all cribbed pieces of his cool persona for their own identities.
I think the reason Sherlock has remained so iconically popular with audiences for over a hundred years is that his character speaks to a deep desire in so many of us: the dream of being able to not only make practical use of, but to actually be a master of all the latest resources, all the newest information, all the most current science and technology – not to mention being engaged at the same time in the fine arts at a scholarly level.
Sherlock Holmes won his battles against evil because he was able to possess and utilize all the newest, breaking science and technique available. So of course, in our times of overwhelming informational overload and finding ourselves in a neverending state of tech device and data catch-up, the Holmes character attracts and engages us. He is truly our Renaissance-Futurist role model. From Rathbone to Downey, he is the ultimate evolving icon, the Forever Master of our ever-accelerating ever-evolving high-tech and super-science society.
Questions for the Reader
Does it bother you when the depiction of a favorite fictional literary character is radically altered in film or on TV over and over again? Or does it all depend on the quality of the depiction and the story?
Most of the muscle-bound comics superheroes beginning in the 1930s-40s also seemed to possess great intellects along with their dominating physiques. Do you think this was because of being influenced by the Holmes character of 30 years before? Or just a coincidence – since if as character has a super-strength body, why not a matching super-strength brain?
Which Sherlock Holmes novels or short stories have you read?
In which way do you prefer your adventure story hero to achieve his/her final victory:
- His/her superior intellect; puzzle-solving skills.
- Physical strength and fighting skills, and a little good luck.
- A mix of both brains and brawn.
- Through lone wolf personal action; breaking of rules & protocol.
- Through leadership of a team of relative equals.
- Other - Please Elaborate. I would love to know which story ending achievement tropes I might have left off of this list.
Who was/is your favorite Sherlock Holmes -- and why?
- Basil Rathbone
- Jeremy Brett
- Peter Cushing
- Christopher Lee
- Robert Downey, Jr.
- Benedict Cumberbatch
- Vasiliy Livanov
If Sherlock Holmes and Liara T'Soni are the District 3 Tributes in the 74th Annual Hunger Games. Who survives and why?