When it comes to quirky, pithy, and brutally intelligent British detectives, only one name comes to mind these days. And, if said aloud in just the right circles, it may also be followed by an ecstatic “Squee!”
Even if one has never read Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s famous works (I haven’t), Sherlock Holmes has remained a staple of British and American pop culture, if only for the classically condescending line, “Elementary, my dear Watson.”
That’s a line that, by the way, apparently didn’t originate from any of Conan Doyle’s 60 stories, but is loosely attributed to an 1899 stage production, a 1929 film based on the original series, and the famous, WWII-era radio series, The New Adventures of Sherlock Holmes. The writers evidently pieced together two of OG Sherlock’s common phrases, “Elementary” and “my dear Watson,” to create a witty reply that would stand the test of time arguably longer than any single line of actual dialogue written by Conan Doyle.
Apparently, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was a bit of an eccentric. Then again, great artists always are.
Yeah. My mind was a little blown, too.
But it’s a great example of how adaptations of known entities can become just as iconic as the original works. In this case, the Sherlock Holmes character has been incorporated into hundreds of stories and various media.
The copyright in both the United Kingdom and the United States seems a bit tricky, but most of the Sherlock franchise rests comfortably within public domain.
ONE DETECTIVE, MANY PORTRAYERS
As Geek Host Alice surmised, Sherlock Holmes is listed in the Guinness World Records as the “most portrayed movie character.” More than 70 actors have reportedly played the role in over 200 films. That’s probably not even counting global (and likely undocumented) stage performances, or numerous television productions over the past 30 years. Needless to say, the great detective has made his rounds.
Of course, Mr. Holmes received the first of his most recent shots at contemporary relevance when Robert Downey Jr. took on the big screen role back in 2009. The Warner Bros. Christmas flick was directed by Guy Ritchie and scored by Hans Zimmer, while showcasing the ever-charismatic Downey and his not-too-shabby co-stars Jude Law and Rachel McAdams.
Jude Law, famous for more serious fare like Gattaca and The Talented Mr. Ripley, took a more comedic turn as Sherlock’s hapless, old chap. Image: Warner Bros.
Despite the fact that worldwide adaptations had remained steady throughout the years, Warner Bros.’ Sherlock Holmes seemed like a fresh take on an old classic. The film took second on its opening weekend opposite the Blockbuster phenom Avatar, and continued to make a killing in the box office after that. It also scored Downey a Golden Globe Award in 2010.
Fast-forward seven months: In July 2010, BBC premiered its own adaptation from showrunners and Doctor Who fan favorites, Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss. Starring Benedict Cumberbatch, a well-known stage actor, the series launched with highly respectable numbers at the BBC and later became a global smash hit – finding itself in particularly high demand in the States. For the first time in modern television history, Americans finally understood what it was like to have to actually wait for their favorite BBC shows to legally air. (Seriously, mad props to Australia and parts of Europe and South America. We get it now.)
Cumberbatch has starred in his share of acclaimed films since Sherlock’s landing, including War Horse and 12 Years a Slave. Image: BBC
With the show’s explosion in popularity, Cumberbatch, who’d already been cast in award-winning films like Atonement, The Other Boleyn Girl and Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, became something of a household name. A bit rougher around the edges than Downey’s portrayal, a bit more piercing and less roguish in his behavior, Cumberbatch’s Sherlock won the hearts of geeks everywhere.
Along with Downton Abbey, PBS suddenly had hot commodities to tout amongst the usual broadcast and cable networks. Whereas RDJ made Sherlock sexy, Cumberbatch & Co. helped make PBS cool.
A little over two years later, reigning broadcast champ CBS premiered Elementary, starring Jonny Lee Miller, and featuring even further modifications to the Sherlock concept. As those involved in the CBS adaptation had to suspect, this is where a bit of drama began.
A STUDY IN COLORFUL CREATIVE LICENSES
Lucy Liu, CBS Entertainment Chief Nina Tassler, and Jonny Lee Miller. Photo: The Hollywood Reporter
Unlike Warner Bros., BBC brought Sherlock into present day and presented Conan Doyle’s original stories against a modern backdrop. Well, CBS did, too. Only, instead of taking place in London, Sherlock was introduced as a Briton living in Manhattan. And, in the most unexpected – and mildly controversial – twist of them all, John Watson was no longer a male war veteran. Instead, Joan Watson was a female, Asian-American, former surgeon who, of all three Watsons discussed here, seemed to tolerate the least amount of Holmes’ crap.
Then again, maybe that’s because Miller’s portrayal of Sherlock is the nicest of the trio. While CBS’ Sherlock is just as blunt, selfish and matter-of-fact as the others, he also seems to be the most outwardly self-aware. When Lucy Liu’s Watson calls him out on his behavior, he may not acknowledge her truth right away, but he does eventually and with far less reluctance than either of his film or BBC counterparts.
Law and Downey take bromance to a whole new level. Image: Warner Bros.
There are other notable differences. While Downey’s Sherlock is as goofy as he is brilliant, Cumberbatch’s seems to be the most impatient, impudent and, at times, mean. Opposite Downey’s Sherlock, Law’s Watson appears willfully ignorant of his friend’s blatant manipulations, whereas Martin Freeman’s Watson seems to hero worship Cumberbatch’s Sherlock even when he doesn’t want to give him the benefit. It’s definitely an interesting balance of power between the two pairs, but those dynamics help set the two versions apart in the bromance department.
When news broke that CBS was throwing their own hat in the adaptation ring, the aforementioned drama took flight after a candid interview Cumberbatch had, where he made no bones about his so-called cynicism regarding the new concept and their casting choice. Since Miller and Cumberbatch once shared the stage during a run of Frankenstein, Cumberbatch indicated that the casting was curious. Apparently a simple and frank interview was all his fans needed to launch the missiles conspiracy theories.
Downey and Cumberbatch finally chat about their respective Sherlocks at the 2014 Producers Guild of America Awards. Photo: independent.co.uk
Later, Cumberbatch decided to clear the air with the Huffington Post, claiming his comments were taken out of context and that he held no ill will against his buddy or Elementary. Since then, when asked even as recently as during the 2014 Television Critics Association tour, Cumberbatch has been nothing but genuinely diplomatic and politically correct at all times.
Whether or not you believe the original publication minced his words back in 2012 (which, to be fair, were cited as huge blocks of text – so, kind of hard to misquote), it’s clear there was some initial concern that CBS was trying to capitalize on the BBC’s success.
Perhaps there were fears that the American network, especially one as powerful as CBS, might even cannibalize the BBC’s global audience.
A TALE OF THREE DETECTIVES
Since the initial drama died down, those fears were proven to be non-issues. That’s not to say that the BBC Sherlock team’s concerns, and those of their fans, weren’t warranted at the time. But Sherlock and Elementary have proven to be two vastly different series, with uniquely different takes on the characters and stories. Luckily, they’ve each also managed to develop and maintain their own audiences at home and abroad.
Despite my feminist leanings, I’ll choose to ignore the “fear” Cumberbatch expressed to TVLine before Elementary premiered, “of the dynamic of male friendship that you’d lose,” by turning John into Joan. Cumberbatch suggested it would open the door to “sexual tension between Joan and Sherlock.” Because, naturally, having a male and female star opposite each other automatically means their characters must fall in love.
At the time of that interview, he must not have realized just how many times it would eventually be suggested that his Sherlock and Freeman’s Watson are an item throughout the show. But I digress…
As for the not-so-subtle accusations of copying, anyone easily could’ve suggested in 2010 that the BBC was trying to capitalize on Warner Bros.’ theatrical success when they premiered their own television series less than a year after the film made its splash. And who knows? Maybe someone did make those claims.
Law, Liu and Freeman each bring something different – including existing fame – to their respective doctors.
Of course, to make the argument that the creators of either television show were trying to “copy” anything completely disregards the series development process. Basically, television shows don’t just crop up overnight. It’s a painstaking process from pilot script to studio to network, and many scripts go years, in varying stages of completion, before they’re even sold.
Plus, not only are there a number of adaptations, new spins and blatant genre rip-offs in television, but Sherlock Holmes is a literary icon. He’s so attractive to studios and networks precisely because no one really owns him.
That’s both the beauty and curse of taking on famous characters. More often than not, you’re not going to be the first or the last to have a crack at them.
Heck, I don’t know what the copyright sitch is, but I’d like to see a modern take on some real-life legend like Albert Einstein. Picture this: Thirty-something, awkward genius, Al Einstein, a descendant of the great himself, must navigate a world of mere mortals, while managing scientific vision and intellect far surpassing his – or her! – peers. Feel free to add your dream cast for both US and UK audiences in the comments section below.
The fact is, adaptations, like music and white noise and CFCs, are all around us. Sometimes it’s easy to stealthily re-work familiar concepts and existing intellectual property without the audience batting an eye. And sometimes you just have to own that you’re deliberately riffing on Sherlock Holmes.
Anyway, invoking the famously infamous line from the late Rodney King is probably wildly inappropriate, and might even be a bit of a non sequitur. So, instead I’ll leave you with a chilling trailer for Danny Boyle’s Frankenstein, the stage production that first brought Cumberbatch and Miller together…
… and was yet another adaptation of one of the most popular characters in literature. Does that qualify as irony, you may ask?
Yes, I believe it does, dear Watson.
Are you SHERLOCKED? Check out E[G]‘s Season 2, Episode 2, “Sherlock Seasons 1 & 2.”