In a speech delivered in 1941, Nero Wolfe author Rex Stout proclaimed that, “Watson was a woman” (for a full transcript, click here). There have been occasional attempts to adapt the canon to fit this idea, most notable of these being the 1987 TV-movie, The Return of Sherlock Holmes, featuring Margaret Colin as Jane Watson. In Sherlock Holmes Returns (1993), Watson was absent but the Great detective was given a female sidekick in his place. News now reaches Fedora that Stout’s theory is going to get another wrinkle in a new TV series. Elementary is the proposed title for the new US show in which Johnny Lee Miller will play Sherlock Holmes and Lucy Liu will co-star as Dr Watson. But how radical an idea is this? Well …
It arrives hot on the heels of the magnificent Sherlock, Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss’ inspired update-cum-re-imagening-cum-hommage to the great characters and stories created by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. After 100 years of pastiches and adaptations, this seems like a good opportunity to reflect again on the depictions of the friendship between the great consulting detective and his great friend – what is the bond that ties them together?
Some of my favourite pastiches on the Sherlock Holmes mythos have taken considerable liberties with the original and, at the best, as is the case of Sherlock, bring something new to the table. There are so many spin-offs from the original sixty tales that one could spend a lifetime trying to get through them all. In my personal pantheon I would certainly include these books and movies, offering as they do intriguingly multi-faceted depictions of the greatest of literary detectives:
- 12 Basil Rathbone/Nigel Bruce films for Universal (1942-46)
- The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes (1970)
- The Seven-Per-Cent Solution (1974) by Nicholas Meyer (filmed in 1976)
- Without a Clue (1988)
- Zero Effect (1998)
- Murder Rooms: The Dark Beginning of Sherlock Holmes (BBC, 2000-01)
- The Final Solution (2005) by Michael Chabon
The Rathbone and Bruce films, set largely in wartime Britain, are a curious re-imaging set in a parallel world in which the 1940s closely resemble the Victorian age and are tremendous fun – for generations these were probably the best known film version of the stories and novels.
Nicholas Meyer single-handedly kicked start a new breed of postmodern pastiches with the success of his novel, The Seven-Per-Cent Solution (1974), in which Holmes subjects himself to psychoanalysis under the care of Sigmund Freud. In David Pirie’s Murder Rooms we actually look at fictional cases involving Doyle and his mentor Joseph Bell rather than Holmes. These postmodern approaches lent themselves to at least one delicious parody in Without a Clue (1988), in which Watson (Sir Ben Kingsley) is an author who creates a fictional detective and then gets an actor (Sir Michael Caine) to play the role. I also recommend Zero Effect (1998), which tales the Watson and Holmes dynamic and re-creates it for the 90s, with great humour and intelligence.
Which is to say, there seems to be plenty of scope for imaginative new approaches to the great adventures of Sherlock Holmes – I for one will certainly be greatly interested to see just how Elementary turns out when it arrives on the airwaves in the Autumn.