One of the great things about Elementary and Sherlock, and even the Guy Ritchie films, is that the character of Watson has finally broken out of the Nigel Bruce mold. Not to completely denigrate Nigel Bruce's contribution to Holmesian film history, but he made the stereotype of Watson as an old bumbler the standard for an awfully long time. Watson ended up being a comic figure, almost the polar opposite of the brilliant figure of Sherlock Holmes. But now we have Jude Law--brave, intelligent, handsome; we have Lucy Liu--a female twist on the character, but a brilliant detective in her own right; and possibly the best actor to ever play Watson, Martin Freeman, whose depth and nuance are really astounding.
And it's more than simply casting fine actors as Watson; the balance of Sherlock Holmes and his trusty companion has been restored. In the canon, Watson is an essential element of almost all of the cases, and Holmes trusts him completely. There is a mutual admiration between the characters that is wonderful. Not that Watson isn't sometimes critical of Holmes, though...I think the recent versions mentioned above have all grappled with Watson's frustration with Holmes. Sherlock in particular has explored a very complex give and take between Holmes and Watson, wherein John becomes devoted to Sherlock as his friend, but is sometimes very angry with his callousness and his inhumanity. In Elementary as well, Lucy Liu's Joan Watson can be highly critical of Sherlock, while he can be quite cruel to her at times; but the mutual admiration and trust are always there. Jude Law's Watson seems to have a short fuse when it comes to Holmes and his idiosyncrasies, but he and Holmes still seem to respect each other.
After all, what do we know about Watson from the Conan Doyle stories? (We don't really know his middle name, but that's a subject for another time...) We know he was an army doctor, wounded in battle (in either the shoulder or the knee, or perhaps both.) We know Holmes trusts him completely, so much that when the King of Bohemia suggests in "A Scandal in Bohemia" that he would rather talk to Holmes alone, Holmes says, "It is both or none." We know that Watson is continually amazed at his friend's deductions; however, Watson never seems to have any problem following Holmes in his reasoning, and he certainly does an excellent job of recording those deductions for posterity. We know that the two men are close enough friends that, even after the good doctor gets married, he still spends a considerable amount of time with Holmes, and always seems ready to drop everything to accompany him on cases. And when it comes to the much publicized issue of Holmes's use of cocaine, Dr. Watson does not hesitate to make his displeasure known to the detective. So it makes sense that portrayals of Watson on film and TV shouldn't distill the character down to a bit of comic relief.
I realize there have been other actors in the past who haven't followed Nigel Bruce's lead in their portrayals of Dr. Watson. David Burke, the first Watson in the Granada TV series which featured Jeremy Brett as Holmes, was a particular favorite of mine. But Brett's Holmes was so brilliant, I often thought Burke, and Edward Hardwicke, who replaced him, were often overshadowed a bit. The lovely thing that's happened in the recent film and TV incarnations of Sherlock Holmes and Watson is that Watson, be it John or Joan, has emerged from Holmes's shadow, and gotten a fair share of the limelight. And interestingly enough, when Watson gets his (her) share of that light, Holmes shines all the brighter.
[This post was originally published on my main personal blog, corybanter.tumblr.com.]
When I saw the first Guy Ritchie adaptation of Sherlock Holmes, starring Robert Downey Jr. as Holmes and Jude Law as Watson, I actually thought it was pretty decent. A little heavy on the action sequences, and light on the deductions, but not bad. Recently, I’ve been trying to sit through the sequel, Sherlock Holmes: Game of Shadows. I still think Jude Law does a pretty excellent job playing Watson, and Stephen Fry is great as Mycroft Holmes, but Robert Downey Jr. is little short of horrible as Holmes. He’s a clownish buffoon of a character, a scruffy action hero who bears almost no resemblance to the Sherlock Holmes created by Arthur Conan Doyle.
Maybe part of my disappointment this time around is that Benedict Cumberbatch and Jonny Lee Miller do so well as Holmes in their respective versions (Sherlock and Elementary), that Downey simply pales in comparison. I was captivated instantly by Cumberbatch’s performance, and having watched all the episodes of Elementary that have aired thus far, I am almost equally impressed by Miller.
I have been a Holmes fan since I was about 10 or 11 years old. My great aunt gave me a paperback Holmes anthology, which I devoured, and my grandfather and I used to discuss Conan Doyle’s creation after I started reading all of the Holmes stories a couple years later. (Grandpa was a big fan of Basil Rathbone’s Holmes…not my favorite.) In my opinion, Cumberbatch and Miller are carrying on the tradition of Holmes actors splendidly, while Downey is a joke. Just my little soapbox speech for today…
UPDATE (1/14/14): I finally managed to make it through the whole film, and it wasn't 100% awful. Still, it was pretty ludicrous most of the way through. Just a suggestion for Mr. Ritchie: that slo-mo "planning out the fight in his head" gimmick was pretty cool in the first Sherlock Holmes film, but it gets tiresome once you've seen it a few times. If I remember correctly, he does it at least three times in Sherlock Holmes: Game of Shadows. Oh, also, can anyone explain why Downey's Holmes has a face that's always in a state of unshaven stubble? (To be fair, Jonny Lee Miller's Holmes almost always has stubble as well.) Final verdict: meh.
I'm a stay-at-home dad, and Director of Music Ministries at a United Methodist Church in Mt. Juliet, TN. And a longtime fan of Sherlock Holmes.