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Into The Hive Mind: Investigating Pastiches, Adaptations And Sherlock Holmes Beyond The Canon

Christine Bancroft |
March 5, 2013 | 5:28 p.m. PST


Basil Rathbone, who played Sherlock Holmes from 1939-1946 in films and on radio, is one of the most-recognized Holmes.
Basil Rathbone, who played Sherlock Holmes from 1939-1946 in films and on radio, is one of the most-recognized Holmes.
In contrast to my previously held belief that only my editor and my mom read my columns, it appears that some people actually read my articles. So here is the second of three columns about the "Sherlock Holmes" fandom, this week's covering a few of the adaptations and pastiches. 

Obviously, it would be ridiculous (for me and for you) to have an article on every single adaptation, so we'll have a quick glimpse into a handful of films, radio or television series and novels that might be worth investigating. 

And if your favorite pastiche or adaptation isn't included on the list, feel free to comment below and say what your personal favorite is. 

Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce: “The New Adventures of Sherlock Holmes” on radio (1939-1946), 14 films from 1939-1945

This film series, produced first by 20th Century Fox and later by Universal Studios, is arguably one of the best-known adaptations of the duo. With Sherlock Holmes and Doctor Watson by Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce respectively, the two appeared in 14 films and over 200 radio episodes as the characters. 

The first films, both released in 1939, “The Hound of the Baskervilles” and its sequel, “The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes” were both set in Victorian London. Most other early adaptations set their stories contemporaneously with the era of the films’ production. However, after moving from 20th Century Fox to Universal, the next 12 films, starting with “Sherlock Holmes and the Voice of Terror” in 1942, reverted to previous adaptations’ example instead having the two living in World War II-era London. This allowed for wartime propaganda to feature into the stories, with the next three films featuring Nazi villains and has Holmes assisting British intelligence. There are elements of “His Last Bow” in the film, and the series itself is noted with what would become the trend of blending elements of several canon stories to make a “new” tale. 

The immensely popular corresponding radio show, “The New Adventures of Sherlock Holmes”, ran from 1939 to 1946 as a part of a longer-running “Sherlock Holmes” radio series (which ran from 1930 until 1950). It featured similar elements from the films, with the updated setting and a mesh of original and canonical elements; however, they notably differed in that they retained the stories’ Victorian setting. After Rathbone stepped down from his role in 1946, allegedly due to fear of typecasting, Tom Conway took on the role in the radio show alongside Bruce, who continued as Watson until 1947. 220 episodes were recorded with Rathbone and Bruce, of which approximately 150 survive and 50 are available for free on the Internet as public domain.  

After the first few films, the villains are less obviously politically-oriented; after 1943’s “Sherlock Holmes Faces Death”, the war is never again mentioned in the series. Additionally, the somewhat common but incorrect conception of Watson as a bumbling fool is rooted in Bruce’s portrayal of the canonically competent doctor. That being said, the film series are still some of the most famous representations of Holmes and Watson; four of the films are public domain (although the DVDs are of somewhat low quality) and the trailers for all 14 films can be viewed here

Jeremy Brett, David Burke/Edward Hardwicke: Granada’s “Sherlock Holmes”, 1984-1994

Jeremy Brett, pictured here with his (second) Watson, Edward Hardwicke, is perhaps one of the finest Sherlock Holmes, and probably my favorite.
Jeremy Brett, pictured here with his (second) Watson, Edward Hardwicke, is perhaps one of the finest Sherlock Holmes, and probably my favorite.
Rathbone may be one of the most famous Holmes...es, but Jeremy Brett is the definitive Sherlock Holmes (in my opinion). Mostly adherent to the canonical stories and elements, 42 canon stories were represented in the series’ 41 episodes, with the 40th episode mixing elements of “The Adventure of the Mazarin Stone” and “The Adventure of the Three Garridebs,” hence the discrepancy. 

Although the show is titled “Sherlock Holmes,” it is often referred to simply as Granada, the name of the production company. Alternatively, the show’s incarnations of Holmes and Watson are sometimes called "Granada!Holmes" and "Granada!Watson" online, where the inclusion of the exclamation mark implies a difference from the original (for example, "RDJ!Holmes" is of the Guy Ritchie films).  

36 of the episodes are 50-minutes long, with 5 feature-length specials, which were 120 minutes on average. There were seven seasons (called series, in the UK), corresponding with the short story anthologies. The first, “The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes”, has 13 episodes in two series running from 1984 to 1985; the third and fourth series, “The Return of Sherlock Holmes”, ran from 1987 to 1988 and had two specials, “The Sign of Four” (1987) and “The Hound of the Baskervilles” (1988). Fifth and sixth series, “The Case-Book of Sherlock Holmes”, from 1991 until 1993, had the final three specials: “The Master Blackmailer”, “The Last Vampyre” and “The Eligible Blackmailer”. The final series, during which Brett was in failing health, was “The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes”, taking place in 1994. Brett passed away due to heart failure in 1995, although he had said that he had not planned to continue with the role. 

Also, there were two Watsons, both of whom were more closely tied to the canonical characterization than Nigel Bruce’s Watson of the 40s. The first, Burke (who had played the role of the villain in a 1965 BBC television adaptation of “The Adventure of the Beryl Coronet”) left the role in 1986 and suggested relatively well-known actor Edward Hardwicke to succeed him, which he did for the remaining eight years of the series. Additionally, Brett and Hardwicke played their characters on stage in the West End play in 1989’s “The Secret of Sherlock Holmes.”

Brett (whose family happens to be friends with my own family’s mutual friend, so that’s one degree of separation between us, I guess) added elements of his own life and personality to his portrayal of Holmes. He famously suffered from manic depression, which he spoke out on during his later years; Holmes occasionally exhibits mood swings similar to an individual with bipolar disorder, between manic wit and epiphany and periods of discontented lethargy. Although his story, poor health and relatively early death were tragic, he is the definitive Sherlock Holmes, in my mind and the minds of several others, and his performance is remarkable. You can watch the Granada series on Netflix, both the episodes and the feature-length specials. They’re all there, for your enjoyment.   

Vasily Livanov and Vitaly Solomin: “The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes and Dr Watson”, films (split into 11 episodes) from 1979-1986

For whatever reason, the Soviet Union in 1979 decided to make their own adaptations of the “Sherlock Holmes” stories, and turns out, they’re really damn good. Vasily Livanov and Vitaly Solomin, the eponymous characters, stick very close to the text of the canon, and although the location (and language) of the stories may have changed, in many ways, the Soviet adaptation outweighs some poorer Western adaptations. 

While overall the series sticks to canon very well, there were some deviations from the text, such as the omission of any mention of Holmes’ cocaine habits (Soviet television restrictions prohibited any mention of drug use) and an increase of comic relief material. 

If you don’t mind subtitles (which you shouldn’t, because if you can read the canon, you can read a few subtitles), the series itself is still immediately recognizable and hugely entertaining. Keeping that in mind, a second Russian “Sherlock Holmes” series is set to debut later this year, although they will be using largely original material “inspired” by the stories rather than adapting the individual stories themselves. 

Livanov became an honorary Member of the British Empire (MBE) in 2006 due to his contributions to film, television and theater, and a statue of his and Solomin’s incarnations of Holmes and Watson are outside the British Embassy in Moscow. I’m sure that you can find episodes online…but again, I am not condoning or encouraging illegality in anyway. Nope, not me. It’s very bad and you should be ashamed of yourself. 

Robert Downey Junior/Jude Law: “Sherlock Holmes/Sherlock Homes: A Game of Shadows” (2009, 2011 films)

Just look how pretty they are.
Just look how pretty they are.
If you don’t know who either of these two men are, you should look them up. Maybe because I think they’re pretty, but also because you should familiarize yourself with two of the biggest actors in Hollywood right now. But also, because I think they are both very, very attractive, even if they are both way older than me. (What can I say; I have very good taste in unattainable, usually-married men who are actors at least twice my age). (That is not an offer; please do not contact me.) 

In 2008, Robert Downey Jr., fresh off successes from “Iron Man” and “Tropic Thunder,” took on the role of Mr. Sherlock Holmes in the Guy Ritchie film bearing the detective’s name, which would come out the summer of 2009. Brash and bold, RDJ’s Holmes is very much like Tony Stark if Tony Stark happened to be a Victorian detective and not a billionaire-playboy-philanthropist superhero. You may not think those two are similar, but they bring with them that same arrogance, action-packed panache that make his renditions of the character immensely enjoyable, although some have criticized this representation, and it does differ (sometimes wildly) from the characterization presented in canon.

Alongside Robert Downey Jr. is Jude Law, playing the suavely mustachioed, bowler-capped and excessively competent Doctor Watson, who, true to text, mixes elements of the doctor and the soldier very well, remaining the Watson who (somewhat) reluctantly is dragged after his best friend into danger and mischief. In my opinion and understanding of the character, his is a Watson who seems to follow his textual inspiration quite well. There are even mentions of Watson’s tendency for gambling, which are duly appreciated.

While the first film has elements of the canon, it is not, in and of itself, based off any one story. However, there are some quotes from the canon that make it into the film, including some of my favorites, as well as plenty of visual references (shooting V.R. into the wall, for example) that made me smile. 

The second film is more clearly based off canon, specifically “The Final Problem”, and also introduces Moriarty and his sniping right hand man, Colonel Moran (although he does not canonically make an appearance until “The Adventure of the Empty House”), and Mycroft Holmes, played by Stephen Fry, who, although mainly played for comic relief. 

Also, bromance. The two films, the second in particular, have so much bromance in them, it’s enough to make your heart sing. 

So while your opinions on the relation of the film to its source material may differ, it’s still an entertaining film, and, perhaps more importantly, it has inspired a new generation of Holmes fans to take to the canon, as well as coinciding with the production of several other adaptations, such as the next one. Neither film is available for streaming on Netflix. But you shouldn’t resort to illegal methods to find it.

Jonny Lee Miller/Lucy Liu: “Elementary” (2012, currently airing on CBS at 10 p.m. on Thursdays)

"Elementary" has a modern twist on Holmes and Watson, featuring them in New York City working with the NYPD.
"Elementary" has a modern twist on Holmes and Watson, featuring them in New York City working with the NYPD.
One of the two modern adaptations on television currently, this is the American one. Very much an American program, this has Holmes and Watson solving crimes in modern day New York City. Holmes is a recently-rehabilitated, recovering drug addict and Watson is his “sober companion” hired by his wealthy father to keep an eye out on his behavior. 

Lucy Liu plays a genderbent Joan Watson, a former surgeon; Jonny Lee Miller (who I just found was once married to Angelina Jolie; I guess we learn new things every day) plays Holmes. While they don’t live in a flat in Baker Street, they do live together in a brownstone and work with Detective Gregson (based off the inspector of the same name from canon) and the NYPD. Also, Holmes keeps bees in sly reference to the canon, which I very much appreciate. 

In accordance with modern conventions, both tend to refer to each other by their first names. Lucy Liu is adorable (both in fashion and in portrayal—I’m just really jealous of her, to be honest) and plays a stern counterpoint to Sherlock, keeping him in line. Miller’s Sherlock is occasionally frenetic, which only serves to center Joan further, contrasting the two. 

The mythology, rather than the plots of the stories themselves, serve as inspiration for the show—characterizations and not the cases, in a way. And while there are shout-outs to the source, it is mostly focused on building upon the outlines of the canon and creating a similar, but still stand-alone adaptation of the material. 

And as for the whole “Sherlock”/”Elementary” rivalry, it’s exhausting and irritating, and as much as I hate to discuss it, it has to be done. Yes, the timing of the two shows' productions do coincide, but it’s not the first time that there’s been more than one Holmes in the world, and it (hopefully?) won’t be the last. I’m not sure why there has to be elitism from members of both parties, why it seems necessary to incessantly prove one’s own superiority over the other, because the way I see it, they’re all branches of the same tree of canon material, and I don’t understand why we can’t all just get along and live in a fandom, usually so full of happiness and rainbows and several quality adaptations. I actively hate, with a passion, the term “pressed Sherlock fandom”, as I do any generalization mean to put down a whole group of people; I don’t know of a specific term used to generalize against fans of “Elementary,” although I do know that the fandom itself tends to use the term “elementasquee” for its collection on Tumblr, at least (and I do love trolling through and looking at the happy fans, especially when they make note of references to canon). But can we stop with all of the branding of “isms” to members of the fandom? Racism, sexism, ableism, all of them. Because fandom is a place meant to be safe, and you know what, vitriolic hate makes a community that was once enjoyable entirely toxic.

Isn’t it tiring batting hate back and forth? Honestly. There are parts of both adaptations that I disagree with (and you know what, there are going to be quibbles in every single adaptation, because nothing is perfect, or even necessarily close to it)—but can we just let people enjoy what they will, and you don’t like something, then you don’t have to watch it. Let’s not rain on anyone else’s parade, shall we? 

Not to end on this section on a negative note, just know that when you watch whatever it is you’re watching, keep your hate to yourself; it’s fine to criticize (as long as you watch beforehand so you can actually base your judgments in something other than conjecture) in a polite, respectful way. Whatever it is, it’s a work of art (like all writing, really) and to just bash it is rude, disrespectful and wholly immature. 

(Sorry I just brought it back to negativity; I really do mean to be enthusiastic. It’s just so easy for little things to ruin experiences for others. Just be nice! Seriously. It’s not difficult to say something nice, and if you don’t have anything positive to say, then you don’t really need to say anything at all, to quote my mom from when I was little.) (I’m comparing haters to children, I hope you realize.)


One thing I do have to say regarding almost every rendition is that they all seem to have fantastic musical scores and soundtracks, whether it is the "Elementary" opening theme or the Hans Zimmer soundtrack or the long intro to Granada "Sherlock Holmes". So if you're a music aficionado, it may well be worth your while to check out some of the themes from the shows and films. 


And what the hell is a pastiche?

A “pastiche” is a work that is written or made in the style of another artist, work or period. In this case, a pastiche of “Sherlock Holmes” is one that imitates the style of the original canon stories. Technically, a pastiche can refer to anything, published or unpublished, that follows in the style of Arthur Conan Doyle’s original stories. In a way, it’s kind of like a niftier word for fanfiction, although in the “Sherlock Holmes” fandom, the word tends to refer to published material rather than fanfic. 

These are hugely popular in the fandom, both to read and write, either involving the original characters or building upon the universe Conan Doyle created (I don’t mean “universe” like the fantasy world of “Lord of the Rings” or “Game of Thrones”, but like…the universe that contains Sherlock Holmes and the one that he interacts with. To clarify.) There are hundreds of published pastiches, some even in film form—if you need something more to read or watch, you can always look here. I’ve collected a few popular pastiches, asking some sources for their opinions and taking my own into account, but, like the above list of adaptations, this is in no way a complete list, nor is it necessarily the list of the “best” pastiches, because that really is a matter of opinion. 

“Basil of Baker Street” by Eve Titus and Disney’s “The Great Mouse Detective” (1986)

My little brother will love it. He will. He has to.
My little brother will love it. He will. He has to.
Why, yes, yes I did put this at the top of the list. “The Great Mouse Detective” one of my favorite movies. In fact, my little brother may or may not be getting a very Holmesian gift for his fifth birthday later this month…

“Basil of Baker Street” is the story of Basil (named after Basil Rathbone) and his biographer Doctor David Q. Dawson, who solve crimes in the mouse world and live in Sherlock Holmes and Doctor Watson’s cellar in a mouse community paralleling London. Basil imitates the detective who lives above him, and has a great admiration for the detective, just as the mouse community has for him. 

They have a Moriarty named Ratigan, who has his own “Moran” in Captain Doran; an opera singer by the name of Mademoiselle Relda, inspired by Irene Adler and a “Mrs. Judson”, the housekeeper (and maker of a quite fantastic cheese soufflé, supposedly) both make appearances. There are five stories in total, and they were so sweet I got cavities.  

The Disney film, which is animated, is an adaptation of the novel that came out in 1986, and also features a cameo from Rathbone and Bruce’s Holmes and Watson in voice form, via a sound clip from the radio program’s “The Adventure of the Red-Headed League”. True to many Disney films, there are songs, which just makes it better. 

I don’t care if you’re five or ninety-five, go watch it. I just love this—all of it, the books, the movie—so much. (And my little brother better love ‘em too, or else I will disown him.)

“The Seven-Per-Cent Solution: Being a Reprint of the Reminiscences of Dr. John H. Watson, M.D.” by Nicholas Meyer (1974)

Take a deep breath; I know the title is long. Just call it “The Seven Per Cent Solution”. 

In this pastiche, published in 1974, Watson declares that two canonical stories (“The Final Problem”, in which Moriarty and Holmes tumble to their apparent deaths, and “The Empty House”, in which Holmes returns after the Great Hiatus of three years) were fabrications created to disguise Holmes’ true struggle with his cocaine addiction. In this story, Moriarty as the criminal mastermind is actually a drug-addled invention created by Holmes based off the memory of his childhood mathematics tutor.

In order to avoid legal action of libel, Watson and Mycroft Holmes persuade Holmes to go to Vienna and to rid himself from his addiction, wherein he meets Sigmund Freud, the psychoanalyst. The psychoanalysis and hypnosis therapy Holmes goes through attempts to elaborate on his backstory.

The story is not without mystery, and does have elements regarding the impending World War I, missing patients, and a train chase through Austria. In addition, it has been made into a movie, with a crazy good cast including Nicol Williamson (Holmes), Robert Duvall (Watson), Alan Arkin (Freud) and Charles Gray as Mycroft (who would later play the same role in the Granada series). It is not available on Netflix, although when I searched it, for whatever reason, “The Human Centipede” appeared in the results, which confuses and horrifies me. 

“The House of Silk” by Anthony Horowitz (2011)

This novel, written by Anthony Horowitz, the author of “Foyle’s War” and the “Alex Rider” series, was published on Nov. 1, 2011. I don’t really know how to describe it without spoiling it horribly, but the novel goes into more detail about Holmes and Watson’s meeting in “A Study in Scarlet”, and focuses on the mystery of an art dealer whose paintings are destroyed, leading Holmes and Watson further into the world of a gang of Irish thieves and thugs. 

It has been generally well-reviewed, and includes most of the elements that makes Holmes and his stories so loved—you can find it on Amazon or, I’m sure, your library. (A note: I've not yet had a chance to read it personally, to be honest, but it came well-reviewed and recommended to me, and I was asked to include it in a list—especially as it is one of the more recent pastiches published. You can read a review here; although, as with all reviews, I generally would be on the lookout for any possible spoilers.)

“The Giant Rat of Sumatra” by Richard L. Boyer (1976)

Referencing “The Adventure of the Sussex Vampire”, in which an oblique reference to a case involving “the giant rat of Sumatra” and a ship called the “Matilda Briggs” goes unexplained in the canon, this pastiche by Richard L. Boyer was cited as a favorite of two of my sources. 

(Fact: there are several different species of large rats in Sumatra, but the “Mountain giant Sunda rat” is actually called “the giant rat of Sumatra” regularly; we don’t know if this is the specific species referenced in the book, and it’s certainly not the one in this novel. Completely irrelevant to everything, just thought you might like to know for Jeopardy or something.)

Anyway, this novel features a returning villain, the abduction of a noble family’s daughter, detailed world-building beyond the original canon, a sailor’s murder and, of course, a giant rat. Which may or may not be an actual rat. And is not Basil of Baker Street, who is a mouse, thank you. 

Boyer’s is not the only piece of Sherlockiana that attempts to delve into the mystery surrounding the “Miranda Briggs” and the related giant rat, although his was the one I was directed to by my sources. If this explanation of the rat doesn't satisfy you, there are others to choose from.

One of my favorite books of all time, not just as it relates to "Sherlock Holmes", this has some very, very excellent stories, for the Lovecraft lover or the Sherlockian (or both). (cdrummbks/Flickr)
One of my favorite books of all time, not just as it relates to "Sherlock Holmes", this has some very, very excellent stories, for the Lovecraft lover or the Sherlockian (or both). (cdrummbks/Flickr)

“Shadows Over Baker Street: The New Tales of Terror” (2003)

The final pastiche I’ll draw your attention to is an anthology of short stories that combine two of my favorite things: the H.P. Lovecraft Cthulu mythos and Sherlock Holmes. Naturally. 

Edited by Michael Reaves and John Pelan, the anthology contains 18 short stories by various writers, including Neil Gaiman’s Hugo Award-winning “A Study in Emerald”, which I adore. 

Written from the point of view of a wounded veteran of the Afghan War, who befriends a detective, similar to Holmes and Watson, but none of the characters are explicitly named. They do interact with another duo, consisting of another sharp-minded detective and a limping doctor. Although nothing is said explicitly, some twists are strongly implied. 

I love Neil Gaiman (seriously, go check out his stories), which was what drew me originally to the pastiche, but I ended up enjoying all of the stories so much that I’ve reread them all multiple times. A working knowledge of the Cthulu mythos is not necessary to understand them, although it does make the stories all the more enjoyable. Meshing Doyle’s stories and style with the mythos was basically all my soul could bear. "A Study in Emerald", however, can be read here. Also, Neil Gaiman wrote an additional "Sherlock Holmes"-inspired story, "A Case of Death and Honey", included in "A Study in Sherlock", another anthology of stories inspired by the canon. (I wish I didn't have responsibilities, like school, or jobs, or sleeping, because then I would just read in my pajamas all day and be blissfully satisfied.) 


It may seem like a rather short list, considering the sheer number of pastiches, adaptations and essays about the subject, but these are not the only ones to be enjoyed. Also, you can check out one of the several video games that have been made, one of which, "Sherlock Holmes: Nemesis" has this really creepy, teleporting Watson by an unfortunate glitch. 

You may have noticed I omitted one of the two modern adaptations from this list, BBC’s “Sherlock”, which I will be covering next week on its own. The fandom, which is amazing and bizarre in its own special way, is one of the most extensive online, part of the “Holy Trinity” of fandoms on Tumblr, at least, along with “Doctor Who” and “Supernatural”. 

Until then, I’m sure there’s plenty of material to keep you going. 

Columnist Christine Bancroft can be reached here or found on Twitter here if she’s not writing 4,000-word columns in her spare time. 



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