Book: Sherlock Holmes On Screen (Updated Edition)


Sherlock Holmes turns 125 this year. He will likely endure much, much longer, especially given the success of Guy Ritchie’s Sherlock Holmes movies and Steven Moffat’s show Sherlock. Indeed, if Arthur Conan Doyle’s master of deduction can survive a plunge down the Reichenbach Falls, he can surely handle a couple more decades of adoration, imitation, and adaptation. (It was, of course, popular demand that forced Doyle to resurrect his sleuth after trying to crumple and drown him in Switzerland.)

Given Holmes’s resurgence in popularity and a nice roundish birthday, Titan Books is releasing an updated edition of Sherlock Holmes on Screen by Alan Barnes on January 31st. It chronicles more than 100 years of Sherlock Holmes appearances on film and TV with great intelligence, humor, and erudition. For a would-be Sherlockian like myself, it’s fine way to enter into the wider world of Sherlock Holmes.

Hound of the Baskervilles 1959 Original Trailer

I’ve been dipping through a used copy The Complete Sherlock Holmes over the last few years. (“All four novels; all fifty-six adventures; over half a million copies sold,” boasts the cover.) Sherlock Holmes on Screen is not just a companion to it, but a worthwhile read in itself. This is thanks to the loving work put in by Barnes as well as his co-writers Andy Lane and Jonathan Rigby. The book doesn’t just chronicle the Sherlock films and programs. It reviews them, it examines them, and even provides glimpses of film history and insight into the creative process.

In the entry for Billy Wilder’s sadly truncated The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes, it’s noted that Wilder had originally structured his film using Miklos Rozsa’s “Violin Concerto Opus 24” as a model. Or in book’s first entry, The Adventure of Sherlock Holmes’ Smarter Brother, it notes that the film was meant to be something of a Young Frankenstein reunion, with Mel Brooks directing Gene Wilder, Madeline Kahn, and Marty Feldman. The reins of the film eventually fell to Wilder, whom we’re reminded was considered Chaplin-esque at the height of his stardom.

The Adventure of Sherlock Holmes' Smarter Brother - Trailer

Though Barnes and company love their Holmes, they aren’t stodgy about the adaptability of the character for different times, places, or cultures. In reviewing BBC One’s Sherlock, Barnes expresses a lot of admiration for Benedict Cumberbatch’s take on Sherlock Holmes and Martin Freeman’s take of John Watson. He even magnifies the significance of using “Sherlock and John” rather than “Holmes and Watson.” Barnes writes, “That one, small semantic shift renders Sherlock unique, making its two leads the most likable since Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce. Lovable, even; for their frailties, not despite them.”

Barnes is much harder on Guy Ritchie’s 2009 take on the characters. Much of this is due to the script. Barnes notes a number of the absurd improbabilities and absolute impossibilities (“the ship that sinks entirely in the shallow part of the Thames”). And yet he also notes elements that he at least “grudgingly” admired, like the recreation of Victorian London and Holmes’s analytic take to pugilism. To the latter point, it seemed like a blend of physics, physiology, and Bartitsu, a combination that is the sweetest of the sweet sciences. Though I suppose I still have a soft spot for the Queensbury fisticuffs of Jeremy Brett.

Sherlock Holmes Bar fight!

Sherlock Holmes on Screen lacks an index but does have a chronology at the back. There are a few different ways to read the book. You can go alphabetically, go chronologically, or just skip around wherever you want.

What I wound up doing was going immediately to the chronology first so I could at least track the Basil Rathbone movies one by one, and then move on to the various Jeremy Brett TV series. Tracking the 14 Rathbone films is a great hop through early film history, featuring Sherlock fighting Nazi spies during World War II, eschewing his deerstalker cap for a more contemporary fedora, and even encountering cult actor Rondo Hatton. Going through the Brett television series was a much more somber experience, chronicling the decline in quality in the shows as well as Brett’s declining health and battle with severe depression.

After tackling those two long-running series with two of the most esteemed Holmes actors, I began to dip in and out of Sherlock Holmes on Screen in the same way I dip in and out of The Complete Sherlock Holmes. I flipped through looking at titles, I flipped back to the chronology, and just enjoyed what caught my eye.

A picture of Peter Cooke and Dudley Moore got me reading about their critically maligned take on The Hound of the Baskervilles. A page later, there’s a picture of Tom Baker (yes, the fourth Doctor himself) as Holmes on the violin. And seeing The Great Mouse Detective get a spot in the book warmed my heart. That entry actually mentions a Sherlock-related anime series Meitantei Holmes, whose first six episodes were directed by Hayao Miyazai. (Sadly it’s not reviewed in the book. Maybe for a future edition…)

Sometimes it’s the little bits in the book that are most entertaining. There are entries for a two-episode BraveStarr storyline featuring Sherlock Holmes in the future; an episode of the Ghostbusters cartoon where Holmes plays the Ray Parker, Jr. theme song on violin; two parodies in the 1970s featuring John Cleese in the lead; and even a Sherlock episode of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Barnes dryly concludes his review of the TMNT episode:

Most unexpected of all is turtle Michelangelo’s excited ejaculation in Lestrade’s direction: “You were in Sherlock Holmes and the Spider Woman — a primo flick, compadre!” This writer can only agree… [sic]

This updated edition of Sherlock Holmes on Screen opens with a foreword by Sherlock creator (and Whovian) Steven Moffat. It recounts how he cooked up his modernized take on Holmes with Mark Gatiss, and talks about his first encounter with a previous edition of the book. It’s from this foreword that Moffat’s cover blurb is taken: “I love this book.”

The full sentence the blurb is taken from is more effective, though: “I love this book because this book loves Sherlock Holmes.” He continues, “Specifically, it loves Sherlock Holmes movies. And not just the serious, reverential, proper ones — the ones you’re supposed to like, because they’re faithful and ‘accurate,’ in some bonkers way — but every movie that has the spirit and wit and zest of those glorious stories.”

This writer can only agree…

Hubert Vigilla
Brooklyn-based fiction writer, film critic, and long-time editor and contributor for Flixist. A booster of all things passionate and idiosyncratic.