It's been 125 years since Sir Arthur Conan Doyle first introduced British super sleuth Sherlock Holmes to readers, and, since then, the classic character and his slower-on-the-uptake sidekick Dr. Watson have been reinterpreted in unconventional, inventive, and sometimes downright strange ways. The latest is a just-announced CBS pilot called Elementary, a potential fall 2012 series which will follow a modern day Holmes (played by Jonny Lee Miller) in New York City. Dr. Watson, controversially, will be played by female Asian-American star Lucy Liu. Here's a look at eight of the many efforts to tinker with the Holmes formula:
1. Elementary (2012)
Elementary will be set in present-day New York City. Its Holmes, just returned from rehab, is consulting for the NYPD and living with "sober companion" Watson. Jane Watson, that is, a former surgeon whose license was revoked after the death of a patient. The casting of Liu as Watson is enough to make you "slap your head in despair," says Stuart Heritage at the U.K.'s Guardian. The gender reversal will completely "cancel out the asexual ambiguity of Sherlock's character." How long before a romantic relationship blooms between the central characters?, wonders Joe Cunningham at Indie Wire "Maybe we'll finally see Holmes and Watson going at it."
2. Sherlock (2010)
Another modernization attempt, BBC's Sherlock, which airs on PBS in the U.S., has the duo solving crime in 21st century London. Like the literary character, Watson is injured from war service, only in this case, he sustained the injury in Afghanistan fighting in the post-9/11 invasion. That and other contemporary references (think smartphones) make "so much sense" and translate seamlessly, says Alyssa Rosenberg at The Atlantic, creating a series that is at once unmistakably Doylian and fittingly modern.
3. Sherlock Holmes (2009) and Game of Shadows (2011)
In Guy Ritchie's high-octane, special-effects-and-fight-scenes adaptations of Sherlock Holmes, Robert Downey Jr. plays "literature's greatest detective as a sort of self-loathing action hero," says Bill Goodykoontz at The Arizona Republic. He's a bare-knuckle boxer with six pack abs. And yet, because Downey has a blast in the "rock and roll" role, audiences do too. Not so fast, says Michael O'Sullivan at The Washington Post. "Ritchie and company try so hard to make sure this isn't your father's Sherlock Holmes that it comes across as, well, cartoonish."
4. House (2004)
Astute fans of Fox's medical drama House who notice similarities between Hugh Laurie's smarmy Dr. House, with his penchant for brilliant diagnoses, and Sherlock Holmes are right on the money. The show's creator, David Shore, has gone on record saying that Dr. House was directly inspired by Holmes. Both are experts in their fields brought in when cases prove too difficult for other investigators to solve, and are roommates with their right-hand men (in House's case, it's Dr. Wilson). The similarities extend so far that Dr. House's apartment number 221B is the same as Holmes'.
5. Sherlock: Case of Evil (2002)
In the 2002 made-for-TV movie Sherlock: Case of Evil, the titular detective — here, a womanizing, drug-addicted, self-involved 28-year-old — is far younger than in most other adaptations. And, as played by actor James D'Arcy, he "appears closer to 18," says Mystery File. Portraying "a sexy Sherlock Holmes" is certainly a risk, says Laura Fries at Variety. But by ditching the character's dowdy checkered hat and pipe, and revamping his stodgy reputation, this "slick and sophisticated" movie ultimately succeeds.
6. The Return of Sherlock Holmes (1987)
Lucy Liu isn't the first Jane Watson to join Sherlock on his investigations. In the 1987 TV movie The Return of Sherlock Holmes, actress Margaret Colin played a different Jane, in this case the great-granddaughter of the famed Dr. Watson. When attempting to sell her ancestor's estate, she stumbles upon a hidden basement housing a cryogenic capsule with a man inside. After thawing the body, she discovers that the man is, in fact, Sherlock Holmes. Reanimated in the '80s, Holmes joins Watson on a few investigations. Considering the world didn't end when a woman assisted Holmes that time, says Sarah Anne Hughes at The Washington Post, perhaps we should reserve judgment on Liu.
7. Young Sherlock Holmes (1985)
1985's Young Sherlock Holmes offers a meet-cute scenario for the legendary partners. A young John Watson is shipped off to boarding school, where he meets and befriends Sherlock Holmes, a bizarre and brilliant fellow student. The two begin investigating a series of local murders. "It's the origin story for the world's first consulting detective that Conan Doyle was never considerate enough to write for us," says MaryAnn Johnson at Flick Filosopher. Unfortunately, this "exquisite idea," says Common Sense, yielded a "mediocre result."
8. Without a Clue (1980)
In Without a Clue, Ben Kingsley plays Dr. Watson, who, in this case, is the brilliant one. Not wanting to draw attention to his own sleuthing skills, he hires an actor to play "Sherlock Holmes," the face of their crime-solving operation. Michael Caine plays the actor/Holmes, and "it's impossible not to derive some pleasure out of Caine and Kingsley's effortless chemistry," says David Nusair at Reel Film. Vincent Canby at The New York Times, on the other hand, calls the film "an appallingly witless sendup," arguing that the very premise of the flick "wouldn't support a five-minute revue" — much less a full-fledged movie.
THE WEEK'S AUDIOPHILE PODCASTS: LISTEN SMARTER
- The 11 worst fast food restaurants in America
- I hate Ayn Rand — but here's why my fellow conservatives love her
- Here's the schedule very successful people follow every day
- The weird obsession that's ruining the GOP
- Why Peter Capaldi has a bigger challenge than any Doctor Who in history
- 7 grammar rules you really should pay attention to
- 7 things the world's happiest people do every day
- A scientific fact-check of 2001: A Space Odyssey
- The secret to Gabrielle Hamilton's amazing grilled cheese sandwiches
- Why are so many parents being arrested?
Subscribe to the Week