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The new Sherlock Holmes -- action hero? Comic bumbler?

Two new films based on the detective are in the works. One pairs Robert Downey Jr. with Jude Law as Watson, the other pairs Sacha Baron and Will Ferrell.

May 31, 2009|Scott Timberg

He's probably the most adapted literary character in history -- and perhaps the only nonexistent person with an honorary degree from the Royal Society of Chemistry. Upward of 70 actors have portrayed him in more than 200 films, since the early days of silent movies.

But there's not been a major cinematic adaptation of Sherlock Holmes in decades. The classic films of the '30s and '40s, starring Basil Rathbone as Arthur Conan Doyle's immortal detective, shut down the production of Holmes films for years, and the Jeremy Brett-starring series on Britain's Granada Television, broadcast in the '80s and early '90s, has likely intimidated would-be filmmakers as well.

But heading our way are two very different films starring the Victorian detective.

The first, "Sherlock Holmes," stars Robert Downey Jr. as sleuth with Jude Law as sidekick John Watson. Though these are two respected actors, the Warner Bros. film will not be a thesp-fest but an action movie based on a graphic novel by Hollywood executive Lionel Wigram, who spent years trying to get the project taken seriously.

The film has finished shooting -- with most of the exteriors in London, Manchester and Liverpool -- and is scheduled to open Christmas Day. "I didn't want deerstalkers and pipes," Guy Ritchie, the film's director, said of the sleuth's famous hat and favorite hobby. "They're typical iconic images of Holmes, but we're starting from scratch."

The second, still untitled and in preproduction, will go for a comic tone, with "Borat" star Sacha Baron Cohen as detective and Will Ferrell as associate. (Etan Cohen, who co-wrote "Tropic Thunder," will write the screenplay, with lad-film demigod Judd Apatow as executive producer.)

Columbia executives -- who chose not to contribute to this story -- have said that their movie will be as different from the Downey film as "Austin Powers" was from James Bond. "Just the idea of Sacha and Will as Sherlock Holmes and Watson makes us laugh," the studio's co-president, Matt Tolmach, told Variety last year.

The films will be scrutinized, of course, by both general audiences and the millions of rabid Holmes fans the world over. "We've had to rely on our parents' or grandparents' Holmes," said Barbara Roden, a member of the Baker Street Irregulars fan group who runs Calabash, a press in British Columbia for Sherlockian research. "I'm hoping we get a 21st century Holmes, one for our generation."

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Evolving Holmes

Holmes himself was a morphine and cocaine addict, a formidable martial artist and a self-proclaimed bohemian who'd gladly stay up all night to puzzle out a case.

As described in Conan Doyle's 56 stories and four short novels -- written mostly between the 1880s and 1910s -- the sleuth also played by his own rules. "I generally have chemicals about, and occasionally do experiments," Holmes says to Watson while auditioning him as a potential roommate. "Would that annoy you?"

But he's been domesticated by the years and come to be seen as what Roden calls "a Victorian fuddy-duddy." As Michael Chabon points out in his essay "Fan Fictions: On Sherlock Holmes," Conan Doyle's stories have been met with condescension for more than 100 years, the suspicion that their popularity came not from quality but from "the bourgeois thirst for a tidy adventure, or nostalgia for a vanished age (Victorian, or adolescent)."

The bias against Holmes crystallized in Raymond Chandler's manifesto "The Simple Art of Murder." Though not quite naming the detective, Chandler champions the hard-boiled tradition over writers who rely on "hand-wrought dueling pistols, curare and tropical fish."

Some of his condescension came from Conan Doyle himself: He once described having written so many Holmes stories that he felt like he'd eaten too much foie gras. Still, for more than a century, these stories have drawn admirers.

"He had something that strikes very few writers," said literary critic Michael Dirda. "He was able to create a myth. It's like Tarzan." Holmes' image, he said, has become a template beyond crime fiction for such eccentric rationalists as Spock and Dr. Who. "This atmosphere of male friendship, the snug drawing rooms, the fog outside, a knock at the door . . . these are great comfort books."

The Rathbone films, while celebrated, have their limitations. "Only one of the novels, 'The Hound of the Baskervilles,' is terribly cinematic," concedes Roden. "There are three novels with long flashbacks in which Holmes does not appear at all. And the stories are too short for adaptation, so have to be padded." (They are also grist for a steady stream of literary reimaginings, as varied as Julian Barnes' "Arthur and George" and the work of graphic novelists.)

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