Celebrating the Unpopular Arts

Sherlock Holmes and the Watson Problem

This week, I’m going to talk about the Watson Problem. But to get there, I have to talk about Sherlock Holmes first. (That’s the trouble with these two. You can’t talk about one without also talking about the other.)

I’m getting a bit tired of Asshole Sherlock Holmes. We’ve had variations on him for 30-40 years now, and it’s getting a bit stale.

For the first few decades of Sherlock Holmes, Holmes was presented as pretty much infallible. He was smart, he was brave, he was polite. He was pretty much everything you want a hero to be. If the 19th century had a superhero, Sherlock Holmes was it.

Robert Downey Jr. Sherlock Holmes
And this was BEFORE he was played by Iron Man.

But you can’t be a hero for too long before people start to deconstruct you. For Sherlock Holmes, that happened with Billy Wilder’s 1969 film The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes and Nicholas Meyer’s 1974 novel The Seven Per-Cent Solution. Both presented us with a vulnerable, fallible Holmes, and both were extremely well done. So Fallible Sherlock Holmes became the thing to do. And slowly but surely, that inched over into Asshole Sherlock Holmes.

You know the guy. He’s the master detective who solves the case, but drives everyone around him crazy while doing it. And everyone just sort of puts up with it because of how badly they need Holmes to solve the case. And Holmes’ sidekick Watson just follows along behind Holmes, making apologies to offended people, reminding Holmes of social niceties like inviting people to sit down, or remembering the gender of the murder victim. When Jeremy Brett’s Sherlock Holmes walks away from the King of Bohemia without a word, leaving Watson to sheepishly offer the King a handshake, that’s Asshole Sherlock Holmes in action. The Holmes-inspired House M.D. takes this behavior even further, with House actively insulting everyone who crosses his path.

House MD
Yeah. Like that.

But as popular as this interpretation has become in live-action adaptations of Holmes, it doesn’t have much foundation in the original books. Conan Doyle’s Holmes wouldn’t express his emotions much, true, but that’s a far cry from him actively antagonizing people. And if you think about it, a Holmes who is that rude and oblivious to social conventions wouldn’t be a very effective detective. So why do they keep doing it?

I think it’s because of Watson.

Watson running interference for Holmes’ social faux pas is appealing to Hollywood because it solves the age-old problem of giving Watson something to do. In the books, Watson is our narrator, and our gateway into the world of Sherlock Holmes. He’s the audience surrogate who tries and fails to solve the mystery alongside Holmes. And when Holmes explains how everything really went down at the very end, we feel foolish along with Watson. Like him, we kick ourselves for not being able to see the same clues that Holmes did.

But Watson also serves another purpose for the reader. He’s our Holmes Filter. Everything we see is through his eyes. So when Watson tells us that Holmes has hidden depths, we believe it.

In a live-action treatment of Holmes, though, that aspect isn’t really necessary. We don’t need Watson to tell us what Sherlock Holmes is like. Holmes is right there in front of us, larger than life, deducing up a storm, and a little voiceover narration goes a long way. So Watson needs something to do besides telling Holmes how brilliant all of his deductions are. And for a long time, that something was being a comedic bumbler.

Stupid Bumbling Watson really took hold in the 1940s in the Sherlock Holmes films of Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce. It made sense. Nigel Bruce was really good at comedy, and it enhanced the contrasts between the characters for Watson to be as stupid as Sherlock Holmes was smart. Problem solved.

Basil Rathbone Nigel Bruce Holmes Watson
“AMAZING, Watson! I can see clear through to the other side!”

Stupid Bumbling Watson annoyed purists, though. And when you think about it, it doesn’t really make much sense. Even if Watson isn’t presented as a wounded war veteran, he’s still a medical doctor, and you don’t find too many doctors who can pass their medical boards while also being rock stupid.

Various attempts were made to give us the competent Watson of the books, with varying degrees of success. I think David Burke and Edward Hardwicke were the ones who finally drove a stake through the heart of Stupid Bumbling Watson in the Granada Sherlock Holmes series of the 1980s.

Burke Hardwicke Watson
Burke. Hardwicke. Sherlockians everywhere owe these men a debt of gratitude that we can never repay.

Burke and Hardwicke gave us Watsons who were intelligent, loyal, compassionate, and brave. Their only real flaw was not being as extraordinary as Sherlock Holmes. Competent Watson was back, and he was here to stay.

But again, Watson needed something else to do. “Competent” isn’t really the most compelling character trait. And again, you need Watson to balance out extremes of Sherlock Holmes. So, if Sherlock is the Asshole One, Watson becomes the Socially-Adept One.

And we’ve had a lot of variations on the theme of Socially-Adept Watson. Colin Blakely gave us Excitable Watson. Robert Duvall gave us Sketchy English Accent Watson. Alan Cox gave us Young Watson. Ben Kingsley gave us Secret Genius Watson. Robert Sean Leonard gave us Sort-Of-But-Not-Quite Watson. Ben Stiller gave us Frustrated Watson. Jude Law gave us Action Hero Watson. Lucy Liu gave us Asian Woman Watson. And Martin Freeman, as it’s developed over the last seven years and four seasons, has given us Danger Junkie Watson.

As you might imagine, that’s a lot of Watsons.

But I feel like in the last few years, we may have gone too far in the other direction. Now, instead of an intolerably stupid Watson and a likeable Sherlock Holmes, we’re given a likeable Watson and an intolerably obnoxious Sherlock Holmes.

Now don’t get me wrong, I like a lot of these Holmes productions. I just wish they could give Watson functions other than making sure Holmes doesn’t get his block knocked off.

Confession time: I started writing this column a couple of weeks ago, intending it to be the beginning of my thoughts on Sherlock‘s “The Lying Detective.” Once the episode actually aired, though, I found that it didn’t match up in the way I’d anticipated, so I just wrote a new column from scratch and spun this off into its own thing. Anyway, while this was sitting in “Drafts” folder here at AJS, my fellow Holmesian Greg Hatcher took a look at my column-in-progress and offered these thoughts. I’m including them verbatim in italics below, as I don’t think that I can put this any better than Greg did. Here’s Mr. Hatcher:

The thing that’s awesome about Martin Freeman and Edward Hardwicke isn’t so much their competence as it is that Holmes RESPECTS them. The liking and respect is mutual. That’s what makes those portrayals work so well.

Mulder and Scully

The key is that Watson is the window into Sherlock Holmes’ suppressed humanity. David Duchovny used to say about his character: “Dana Scully is Mulder’s human credential; She likes him and respects him so the audience gives him a chance. Without Scully he’s just an asshole, there’s no reason for anyone to like him.” This is even more true of Holmes and Watson, that’s what makes the danger-junkie stuff on SHERLOCK so irritating. It’s a distraction. That’s not what makes Watson interesting. It’s that Sherlock Holmes, the brittle unfeeling genius, has his humanity awakened by the sheer unfailing decency of this simple doctor. That’s why “Lying Detective” had five times the punch of anything since “Reichenbach Fall,” because they got back to THAT part. And we were all puddles because it was dead Mary that explained it to us all again.

Not that you asked. But i think about this stuff A LOT.

I think Greg hits on a good point here. In a way, it’s the same point that I was making, just approached from the opposite angle: Just as we like and admire Sherlock Holmes because Watson says it’s okay, we find Watson interesting because Sherlock Holmes says it’s okay. It’s kind of like that old Katharine Hepburn quote about Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers: “He gives her class, she gives him sex appeal.”

Fred Astaire Ginger Rogers
…It makes sense in context.

The point is that Holmes & Watson are a double act, and neither one of them is quite as interesting without the other. Without Watson, Sherlock Holmes becomes an insufferable know-it-all. Without Holmes, Watson becomes a rather dull general practitioner. It’s a delicate partnership, and just like with Astaire & Rogers, if one partner is out of step, it becomes a mess.

And that’s the thing with all the great pop culture partnerships, like Mulder & Scully, Kirk & Spock, Batman & Robin, and Holmes & Watson. They balance each other out, but they both bring something to the party. They bring out the best in each other. Those are the sort of friendships we gravitate to in life, and those are the sort of friendships we gravitate to in fiction.

So yes, I like to see Watsons that are intelligent men in their own rights. That way their above-average intelligence can make Holmes’ extraordinary intelligence look all the more impressive by comparison. Anyone can shine next to a bungler, but it takes someone really spectacular to make a smart man look dull.

So, despite my dislike for Sherlock’s version of “The Final Problem,” I’m glad that Steven Moffat says that they’re bringing their Sherlock Holmes and John Watson a bit closer to the book versions. Here’s what he had to say in an interview after the Series 4 finale:

Sherlock Final Problem run

Well, it closes a chapter. It closes an idea. Dr. Watson is at last the brave widower and Sherlock Holmes is a wise old sage of Baker Street. They become, as we keep saying, the full Rathbone, which is why we actually have Rathbone Place up on screen as they come. Finally, we’ve done four series of Sherlock. It begins as a voyage, as a grand origin story, never the grown-up version. There is a proper sense of closure because that’s the end of stage one. Normally, we present Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson as in their 40s or 50s, and we started with them in their 30s, so in a way, it’s the end of their youth. If we came back again, if we did do another series in a few year’s time, then they would be, finally, the normal age for Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson, who were always presented as older. You would have them in the midstream of everything, as opposed to the beginning. So it can have a sense of closure in that, but, you know, that practically says they’re off to solve more crimes. It’s not closure; it’s closure of one idea. It’s them realizing that they are always going to be in their flats or grinds. That’s their future.

It might have taken them seven years and four seasons, but by God, it sounds like Sherlock is finally going to give us a classic, non-Asshole Sherlock Holmes. And that’s as a good as reason as any to get excited about a possible Series 5. And as busy as they are, I would love to see Cumberbatch & Freeman periodically playing Holmes & Watson through their 40s and into their 50s. I’m hoping that Moffat & Gatiss find a way to make that happen.

Next week, I’ll be wrapping up my Sherlock Holmes Month with a look at another modern day Sherlock Holmes… One that beat Sherlock to the screen by over a decade. See you then.

PS – Just a quick reminder to folks: All of the blue Amazon links we put into our columns here benefit us through the Amazon Affiliates program. What that means is that if you go to Amazon through an AJS link and buy something, even if it’s not what we linked to, we get a little chunk of that sale. This helps us keep the site afloat. So please help us out by going to Amazon through our links. OK, end of commercial. Thanks.


  1. tomfitz1

    Interesting blog there, Mr. Trumbull, but just one teeny bitsy problem with it.

    If it wasn’t for an “Asshole Sherlock Holmes” (any version – book, tv, film), then there wouldn’t be an “Asshole Sherlock Holmes”.

    I mean, Holmes being an asshole, is basically what makes him interesting. In tv/films, who really cheers for the normal, boring, typical character?

    Maybe next time, somebody will do a female Sherlock Holmes, instead of just atypical male version.

    As for the rest of the article, you may be spot on!

    1. Le Messor

      “Holmes being an asshole, is basically what makes him interesting. In tv/films, who really cheers for the normal, boring, typical character?”

      Not sure if you mean character or person there, but:

      If the latter, we cheer to watch them become the heroes they should be. The Lego Movie is an obvious example.

      If the former, personally I’d rather watch that than a bunch of assholes I’m supposed to look up to as heroes. That’s a fad I was sick of before it started.

      That said, there are many, many more options than ‘asshole’ or ‘boring, normal, typical’.

      1. I mean, Holmes being an asshole, is basically what makes him interesting. In tv/films, who really cheers for the normal, boring, typical character?

        Tom, I’m guessing from this comment that you may not be too familiar with the Holmes from the books. Sherlock Holmes is many, many things, but “normal” is not one of them.

        The Conan Doyle Holmes is certainly eccentric, but he’s not a jerk who treats people rudely. That was my point. And he’s utterly fascinating. While the specifics of certain mysteries or stories may fade in our memories, our fascination with Holmes himself endures.

        1. tomfitz1

          You’re right about my not being familiar with the written works of Doyle, as I have never read any of the books featuring Holmes and Watson.

          The films and tv series (ie. ELEMENTARY, SHERLOCK, the Jeremy Brett series, YOUNG SHERLOCK HOLMES) I have seen many of these.

          My earliest film that I remember is Christopher Plummer in Murder by Decree.

          1. OK, I kind of thought so. I’d say that this is a case of where the adaptations have overtaken the original in the minds of the public.

            And frankly, that’s as good a reason as any to bring out a faithful version of the original stories that DOESN’T try to reinvent the wheel and revamp Holmes as this, that, or the other thing. Enough time has passed that the original version is now fresh & different again.

            It’s kind of like when Grant Morrison brought back the original seven JLAers again after them being out of the book for 10+ years. After so long away from that being the default, a return to the original status quo was a refreshing change.

          2. M-Wolverine

            That’s pretty true of most literary characters in this day and age though, isn’t it? In the Tarzan post almost every version had the same jungle cry, but I don’t think that sound effect was taken from the books. And probably the easiest case for the biggest transition is James Bond. Sure they try and get “back to the books” in their cycle, but never make it not the movie Bond first and foremost. Comic book versions were already mentioned. Heck, in this age of reboots we’re getting it even in screen entertainment. Look at Star Trek, and the reaction to the new movies on how they’re not good representations of the original characters or story.

            It does create an interesting mental riddle…how close could you come to the original Holmes stories and stay viable and successful in this day and age? Because Iron Holmes was fairly successful, but not really that loyal to the books.

          3. Le Messor

            “And probably the easiest case for the biggest transition is James Bond.”

            Oh, I’d say Frankenstein. Everyone knows it’s the story of a Doctor and his assistant Igor taking parts from cemeteries and making a mute monster that goes on a rampage, right?

            ‘cept the book is actually about a student (not a medical student) who, on his own, makes enough body parts to create a quite loquacious man – who is so ugly he gets entirely rejected, then goes on an (Ahab-like) quest for vengeance against his creator.

            “Look at Star Trek, and the reaction to the new movies on how they’re not good representations of the original characters or story.”

            … yeah, that’s pretty much my reaction. That and the vibe of the whole thing isn’t very Trekky.

          4. M-Wolverine

            Frankenstein is a great example. Though at least there have been some interpretations that try and adhere a bit better to the book monster. But mostly because only Universal can use Boris Karloff’s image. I guess you could add in Dracula to some extent there too then.

    2. Maybe next time, somebody will do a female Sherlock Holmes, instead of just atypical male version.

      Here you go.

      It’s really hard to write a character that’s smarter than the author. The easiest way to fake it is to make all the other characters into idiots to make the “genius” look good. We see this with Batman all the time.

      That was what made Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe so brilliant. Wolfe’s man Archie is a very bright guy. He’s just not the genius Wolfe is. I have written both Wolfe and Holmes stories and constructing the Wolfes is an order of magnitude more difficult because of that.

        1. Don’t start with Fer-De-Lance. Same as with Doyle and A Study in Scarlet. Stout didn’t really hit his stride and find the tone he was after till the third one, The Rubber Band. The best ones are the post-war ones, from 1945 to 1965 or so. I think the very BEST one, just as a one-off, is The Silent Speaker. Other good ones are The Golden Spiders, Plot It Yourself, Three Witnesses, the Zeck trilogy (THOSE you should read in order, it’s best if you just get the omnibus Triple Zeck) and Three at Wolfe’s Door. They are all fun but some are kind of lame mysteries. The best ones are the true whodunits that also have lots of character humor, and the middle ones are right in the groove. The early ones, he was still figuring it out and the later ones– The Doorbell Rang, A Right to Die, Please Pass the Guilt— are a bit too lit’ry.

  2. Le Messor

    I keep hoping Senator Everett K. Ross (from Captain America: Civil War) will meet up with Doctor Strange on screen.
    End of apparent non sequitur.

    “Both presented us with a vulnerable, fallible Holmes, and both were extremely well done. So Fallible Sherlock Holmes became the thing to do. And slowly but surely, that inched over into Asshole Sherlock Holmes.”

    You see that kind of thing all the time – somebody does something new (and ‘edgy’), and does it well, then everybody starts copying the new (and “edgy”) thing but not the ‘does it well’ thing and the entire medium suffers. Comics are especially vulnerable.

    (I lol’d at that House quote.)

    “And when Holmes explains how everything really went down at the very end, we feel foolish along with Watson.”

    I could figure out the ‘how’ with a lot of the Conan-Doyle stories. (Never the ‘who’, but that was always some random person pulled from Holmes’ London who I can’t possibly have heard of.)

    “I like to see Watsons that are intelligent men in their own rights… Anyone can shine next to a bungler, but it takes someone really spectacular to make a smart man look dull.”

    Another thing that happens all too often in pop culture; (zero sum game thinking × binary thinking) + competent character = incompetent other characters. (Buffy was particularly bad about this.)

  3. Its interesting you are addressing these issues. This is something we thought more about when we created our comic series “Watson and Holmes”. We reinterpreted the characters as black men in modern day Harlem. We gave Watson a little more to do than most writers. Our Sherlock is also less obnoxious. We think you might like it. Its on amazon kindle, comixology, and amazon books online. We received 4 Glyph awards and 2 Eisner Nominations in 2014 for it, so we dont think its that bad 😉

    1. Yes, absolutely. David Gerrold wrote a thing on Facebook recently where he talked about figuring out how to write that famous Sherlock Holmes trick of deducing things about his clients as soon as they walk in the door. Like most mysteries, you figure out the conclusion first — Say, you want to reveal that this man is a sailor — And you backtrack from there so that Holmes concludes what you want him to conclude. What points to him being a sailor? Why, the enlarged forearm from hauling all that cargo and the anchor tattoo. The missing eye from a long-ago barfight. Not to mention the exotic tobacco that that the gentleman is smoking in his corn cob pipe — A brand that is only available at a certain seaport in Cairo.

      …And now I have an opening scene for my Sherlock Holmes/Popeye the Sailor Man crossover fanfic. 🙂

  4. Pol Rua

    I think, at the root of the problem is a need for storytellers to ‘hang a lantern’ on a characteristic. Look, for instance at the number of times we hear the words “high-functioning sociopath” in ‘Sherlock’.

    It’s essentially a combination of two bad habits in storytellers. The first is telling us rather than showing us, and the second is the ‘bigger is better’ fallacy. If Holmes as eccentric is good, then Holmes as fully-fledged arsehole must be ‘better’, when the simple fact is that BETTER is better.
    If a creator can express Holmes’ eccentricity well, then there’s no need to make him into some sort of pantomime version of himself.
    The RDJ films are particularly awful for this.

    1. Yes, the Guy Ritchie/RDJ Holmes films are an odd mix of way cool extrapolations from the ACD Canon (So THAT’S what happened to Watson’s bull pup!) and “Whaaaaa…? Why are they doing THAT?!?” weirdness (Noted isolationist misanthrope Mycroft parading around nude in front of Mrs. Watson? No. No way no how. Such an utter waste of Stephen Fry, who would be wonderful as a Canonical Mycroft).

      1. M-Wolverine

        It is another example of obnoxious Holmes. Though I personally think it succeeds on its own merits. But it was more a comment of picture selection…I’d rather see Lucy Liu than Ben Stiller. (OK, than any of them, but I pick on Ben because I can’t remember that movie).

        1. Greg Burgas

          M-Wolverine: That’s Zero Effect, with Bill Pullman as “Holmes” and Stiller as his reluctant “Watson.” A superb movie, one of those kinds of movies that shows that Stiller, yes, can actually act. It’s a shame he doesn’t do more like them!

          1. Le Messor

            Oh, Zero Effect. I’ve seen it – a pretty good ‘this isn’t Holmes, really’ movie. A version of A Scandal In Bohemia, iirc?

            It frustrates me that Leonard Maltin describes it as “Clever, original screenplay”…
            (emphasis mine… assuming the emphasis worked)

          2. Gee, you know, SOMEONE ought to do a write-up on ZERO EFFECT, as that’s an underrated movie.

            Maybe someone who writes a weekly column for a site like the Atomic Junk Shop, and needs a good topic to wrap up the Sherlock Holmes month he’s been doing all January. Why, it could even run on Monday, January 30th, which just so happens to be the 19th anniversary of ZERO EFFECT first hitting theaters! That sure sounds like a good idea to me.

            Oh well, I suppose someone will get to it sooner or later. 😉

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.