Even though Sherlock Holmes is the character who has become one of the most popular in all of literature, it is impossible to consider Holmes without his trusty companion/sidekick, Dr. Watson. In the earliest days of cinematic adaptations, this apparently was not the case. In the earliest film adaptations of Sherlock Holmes, Watson was given a very minor, or even nonexistent role. But ever since the famous Basil Rathbone/Nigel Bruce partnership of the 1930s and '40s, the story of Holmes has always included Watson. Sure, Bruce gets some flak theses days about portraying Watson as too bumbling, a comic foil for Rathbone's heroic posturing. Certainly some of Bruce's slapstick comedy is a little difficult to watch for long.
I agree with John Trumbull, who wrote this excellent article on the website entitled Atomic Junk Shop: we owe a debt of gratitude to actors David Burke and Edward Hardwicke, who played Watson to Jeremy Brett's iconic portrayal of Sherlock Holmes. They were really the first actors to successfully break out of the "bumbling sidekick" stereotype that had been made so famous by Nigel Bruce.
Not all actors who have played Watson since Burke and Hardwicke have been quite as adept at defying the old Watson stereotype as these two, but some have: Jude Law, Martin Freeman, and Lucy Liu all spring to mind.
After all, where would the Sherlock Holmes stories and novels be without Watson, our trusty narrator? I think most Holmes fans would agree that the tales that have a third person narrator or Holmes himself as a narrator are quite inferior to most of the stories told by Watson. We see most of Holmes's brilliance and ability through Watson's eyes. Sure, every once in awhile Watson shows a bit too much incredulity at Holmes's deductions. But he generally tells the story with grace and flair. He doesn't even seem to mind Holmes's criticisms most of the time. For example, when Holmes says in The Hound of the Baskervilles, "I am afraid, my dear Watson, that most of your conclusions were erroneous," does Watson take any offense? None that he reports in the narrative. Indeed, Holmes often highly praises Watson's gift for stimulating his own deductive powers. As early as A Study in Scarlet, Holmes made the following statement about Watson: "It may be that you are not yourself luminous, but that you are a conductor of light. Some people without possessing genius have a remarkable power of stimulating it.” High praise, indeed.
A lot has been made in recent Sherlock Holmes adaptations of Holmes's cocaine use, and Watson's role in weaning him off the drug. I think the current stereotype of Holmes as drug-addled coke addict is overused much of the time. But certainly, looking at Watson's criticisms of cocaine use, and considering the general public attitude toward cocaine at the time, Watson's point of view seems to have been unusually progressive and forward thinking. Would Holmes's career have had much longevity if the good doctor had not come into his life? One has to wonder...
This article from sherlockcares.com explores the Holmes/Watson friendship quite a bit more than I have in this post. I highly recommend it. I will leave you with this quote from the article...
Bearing in mind that the reflection we see in the mirror is the opposite of what others see, it has been argued that, in fact, our closest friends are not “another self” but those who complement us, whose strongest qualities are those we lack.
An accurate description of the friendship between Sherlock Holmes and John Watson, I think.
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.