The Many Lives of Dr. Watson

‘Elementary, my Dear Watson’. Although never appearing in any of the Conan Doyle adventures, the phrase ended many of the Basil Rathbone/Nigel Bruce movies searing the image of the hawkishly handsome detective and his bumbling-yet-beloved sidekick in the minds of movie fans for generations. And of course, it’s all due to revamps.

Doctor John H. Watson, as portrayed in the Conan Doyle stories, is an active, intelligent, and very capable man in his own right.  What he lacks is the singular focus to minutia and the non-linear thinking of his good friend, Holmes.  All the Holmes adventures are first person accounts of Watson.  It’s his observations, his views, and his filter that the reader uses.

As the stories were adapted, often very loosely, for film in the 1930’s and 1940’s, the writers built up Holmes by dumbing down Watson.  The formula of the time often had the sidekick take on slapstick or bumbling roles that weren’t at all there in the source material.  But it only works if you have an actor of skill to make the bumbler absolutely endearing.  Enter Nigel Bruce.  For fourteen movies starting in 1939’s close adaptation of The Hound of the Baskervilles, Bruce played the loveable, misguided Watson to the Rathbone’s superhuman Holmes.  Soon, Holmes and Watson were updated to the 1940’s and found themselves battling Nazi spies.  Fun? Certainly.  Canonical? Far from.

Even less canonical, and poking directly at the Rathbone/Bruce movies, is the 1988 film Without A Clue.  In this funny send up of the Holmes stories, Ben Kingsley stars as the genius mystery solving adventurer Dr. Watson with Michael Caine as an actor Watson hired to play the character of Sherlock Holmes.  Both adored, at least by this author, and reviled by many Holmes purists, Without A Clue shows that Conan Doyle’s creations are elastic enough to stand to the most dynamic revamps.

Even now, Watson has been part of two big budget revamps.  Guy Ritchie’s 2009 movie Sherlock Holmes casts Holmes and Watson as steampunk action heroes.  As with all “buddy movies”, the chemistry of Robert Downey’s Holmes and Jude Law’s Watson is at the core, and these actors clicked.  Granted, the plot was more akin to the pulp action stories of a later age, but the relationship between these two brothers in arms rang true.

Elementary, my Dear Watson.

The other high profile revamp is Stephen Moffat’s Sherlock! BBC Series starring Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman as Holmes and Watson respectively.  Where Guy Ritchie’s film was set in the late Victorian era, Moffat shows us Holmes in 21st Century London.  Freeman’s Watson is a broken man, much like Conan Doyle’s original version, that studies and works with Holmes as therapy.  The engrossing performances of Cumberbatch  and Freeman with the taut writing make for fascinating viewing.

Of course, there are much more than just these Five Watsons.  A quick scan of IMDb, shows a multitude of movies and television programs all starring Holmes and Watson, and each one has its own successes and failures.  Like all great characters, the concept of Watson is elastic and fluid, capable of any number of revamps.

Bob Francis

The Many Lives of Dr. Watson