The consistently clever and amusing "Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows" proved one of the biggest box office hits of recent months, reaping more than $500 million worldwide. But the bigger (and better) news for many Sherlock Holmes fans can be found on the small screen, via PBS’s “Masterpiece,” with Sunday's second-season premiere of "Sherlock," the BBC drama in which Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's consulting detective deduces his way through cases in modern-day London.
Neither the latest TV nor movie version – especially Robert Downey Jr.'s interpretation of Holmes as a needy, somewhat neurotic heartthrob who is as much an action hero as a reaction hero – keep to the literary letter of Doyle's Victorian lawman. Nor will a planned CBS version set in current-day New York with Lucy Liu as Watson.
But both the Downey and BBC renderings, with differing ratios of brain to brawn on display, embody the spirit of the original stories – proving there's ample room in Mrs. Hudson's Baker Street house for plenty of Holmes.
Holmes’ enduring appeal goes beyond the elementary. He’s brilliant, but can be annoyingly arrogant. He’s not particularly macho (Downey’s edition aside), but embraces danger. He’s a misfit who fits in anywhere, via disguises. He’s got a great enemy in Moriarty, but an even greater friend (foil and protector) in Dr. Watson.
One major reason why Holmes keeps turning up in live-action versions, from silent films to the classic Basil Rathbone flicks to the current revivals, is that Sherlock-Watson dynamic: Doyle essentially invented the buddy movie before there were movies.
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Downey and Jude Law are a big money-team, and their two outings, filled with violence, humor and clever twists hold an undeniable Steampunk-for-the masses attraction. “A Game of Shadows” left us hankering for a third go-around.
We’ve been thinking, though, a lot more lately about last season’s three installments of “Sherlock.” The initial episode, “A Study in Pink” (a nod to Doyle’s “A Study in Scarlet”), was strong enough to play in theaters, even if we hold no illusions that it would have been a box office smash.
The pulse races when watching “Sherlock,” even if the action is more internal at times than in the Downey movies. Benedict Cumberbatch’s quirky take on Holmes presents us with an asocial geek who may be somewhere on the autism spectrum (though Holmes diagnoses himself as a “high-functioning sociopath”). His mind is almost computer like – aided by use of his smart phone and the Internet – and makes connections we see onscreen. Martin Freeman’s Watson absorbs Holmes’ verbal abuse and constant demands with the resigned weariness of the disillusioned, brooding war veteran he is (like his literary predecessor, he served in Afghanistan). Watson is handy with a gun, but is a reluctant brawler. He limps, though his wounds appear more psychological than physical.
Cumberbatch and Freeman hardly enjoy the fame of Downey and Law. “Sherlock” has yet to generate the buzz of the other recent “Masterpiece” breakout hit, “Downton Abbey.” Still, the show has attracted a loyal following, as has Cumberbatch, whose female fans refer to themselves by a mildly naughty name we won’t repeat here. Freeman probably is best known from the original U.K. version of “The Office” (he played he British equivalent of Jim Halpert), but is poised for a much bigger stardom as Bilbo Baggins in the upcoming two-movie telling of "The Hobbit."
“A Game of Shadows” packed much of its power in the high stakes as Holmes and Watson struggle to stop terror bombings and Moriarty’s plan to trigger a war employing weapons of mass destruction, presaging the horrors of World War I and all to come. The equally psychotic, if less old-school suave Moriarty of “Sherlock” is bent on wreaking havoc of his own, with the modern urban setting imbuing his menace with a stronger sense of immediacy.
“A Game of Shadows,” like Holmes himself, defied conventional wisdom by proving better than the initial Downey-Law effort. The challenge for "Sherlock" is to do the same as it emerges from the shadows cast by the bigger stars and makes its case as the strongest Holmes interpretation of these times. Check out a behind-the-scenes preview below:
Hester is founding director of the award-winning, multi-media NY City News Service at the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism. He is the former City Editor of the New York Daily News, where he started as a reporter in 1992. Follow him on Twitter.