It may seem elementary that Sherlock Holmes is one of the most lucrative fictional characters ever invented.
The latest outings for the character are the BBC’s contempo-set version, “Sherlock,” which updates the supersleuth and sidekick Watson to contempo London, and the sequel to steampunk hit “Sherlock Holmes,” starring Robert Downey Jr. and Jude Law and now lensing in Blighty’s capital.
“He was kind of like the predecessor of all these action movie heroes,” says “Holmes” producer Joel Silver of characters like Batman and James Bond, iconic figures that have undergone their own transformations over the years. “He has the ability to look at a situation and understand what’s going on. In any great action hero, that’s what you want him to be able to do.”
Holmes, however, has always been tied to show business.
Arthur Conan Doyle, author of the Holmes stories, killed off the character in 1893 but brought him back after a play by William Gillette sparked audience interest. In 1916, Gillette starred in a film about the detective set in the contemporary world instead of the Victorian era. But Holmes became a Hollywood staple with 1939’s “The Hound of the Baskervilles,” starring Basil Rathbone, whose deerstalker cap, cape and pipe became iconic elements of the sleuth’s image. Rathbone set the standard and played him in 14 films over 17 years. Michael Caine gave Holmes a twist in 1988’s “Without a Clue,” portraying him as a fraud covering up for the real genius, Dr. Watson. A host of sci-fi Holmes stories, including a TV movie where he’s brought back to life via suspended animation and a book about his previously unknown role in “The War of the Worlds,” have been produced.
All told, more than 70 actors have portrayed Holmes in more than 200 films — according to the Guinness Book of World Records, he is the “most-portrayed movie character.”
And Modern-day filmmakers still discover inspiration in Conan Doyle’s books, now more than a century old.
“What we were bringing that was fresh was what Conan Doyle had put in there all along,” says Susan Downey, one of the producers on “Sherlock Holmes” and its sequel. “If we’re really stuck … we almost always find an answer in what Conan Doyle wrote.” Downey says the books are often useful when trying to come up with bits of dialogue.
While most people have not even read the books, Holmes the character endures.
“I’d like to believe that we could keep going with these stories as long as we can,” says Silver. “I know that my 9-year-old has started reading the books now, and he would never have done that had he not seen the movies.”