The great detective is cinema's most depicted character. Will his latest film incarnation prove to be His Last Bow? Martin Hickes reports.
IT'S entirely possible that Sir Arthur Conan Doyle is turning in his grave.
On the eve of the 80th anniversary of the death of the creator of Sherlock Holmes, critics have both lambasted and lauded director Guy
Ritchie's latest cinematic outing for the character – set for release on Boxing Day in the UK – in equal measure.
Holmes's trendy new "avatar" – courtesy of Hollywood heartthrobs Robert Downey Jr and sidekick Jude Law – might seem anathema to some, but in a world in which the "franchise" concept is king, Holmes's latest incarnation might just prove to be the ultimate business masterstroke.
Ritchie's new blockbuster sees Holmes tied to a bed semi-nude in handcuffs, amongst other knock-about exploits that might have made Basil Rathbone blush.
Critics have by turns described the film as being "terrific", to being "an airbrushed action film to give it family appeal".
But after a record breaking run of depictions – more than 211 to date by 75 actors on screen, a Guinness World Record – is Holmes's latest guise simply demonstrative of the success of possibly the world's biggest literary brand – or a sign of film-makers' increasing desperation?
Even before the film's official release on Boxing Day, filmmakers are already talking of a sequel.
The Hollywood Reporter's Kirk Honeycutt, reviewing the film, said: "Sherlock Holmes goes wrong in many ways except for one – commercial appeal.
"Credit producer Joel Silver for recognising that the only way to revive Sherlock Holmes for contemporary audiences is by turning him into Jason Bourne and hiring someone like Ritchie to overload the senses with chases, fights, effects, editing, bombastic noise and music.
"Both (lead actors] are glib, smart, good-looking guys and fine actors of about the same age and build. If Downey would hand his pipe to Law, they could switch roles from scene to scene.
"The two banter a lot with faux hostility, which adds little to what the film takes for wit and subtracts a good deal from whatever suspense the action is meant to generate. If the protagonists crack wise, what danger can they possibly be in?"
In terms of franchise appeal, big business was nothing new to Holmes' creator Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, even in yesteryear.
Doyle has turned to penning detective stories while waiting for patients at his struggling medical practice in Southsea.
Despite killing him off at the Reichenbach Falls at the hands of arch enemy Moriarty in 1893, he was forced to bring back his nemesis due to public demand.
In 1891 Conan Doyle published six Sherlock Holmes stories in the Strand Magazine. The following year he was paid 1,000 for a whole series on Sherlock Holmes. By the time The Sign of Four and the seminal The Hound of the Baskervilles materialised, Conan Doyle had no need to worry about his medical practice.
It's perhaps surprising, then, that Conan Doyle was determined to kill off his most famous brand. Holmes had become "tiresome" to his author, who yearned for greater literary recognition.
He finally retired Holmes to keep bees on the Sussex coast in another collection, His Last Bow, before, in the best traditions of the famous, making a farewell return with The Casebook of Sherlock Holmes, before his own death in 1930.
Prof Francis O'Gorman, from the University of Leeds, who recently edited an authoritative edition of Conan Doyle's classic The Hound of the Baskervilles, is in no doubt as to the long-term appeal of Doyle's creation.
He says: "Sherlock Holmes appeared in some of the earliest silent films, and has never stopped living on screen. For generations, the central appeal of Holmes was in his ability to restore order: he showed that a human being thinking hard could restore harmony and make justice prevail.
"That perhaps has come to seem much less credible as an imaginative consolation to our world, and it is not surprising to see Holmes being re-conceived, in Ritchie's version, as a 'celebrity', contemporary action hero."
And while most of us like a little tradition at Christmas, in the ever competitive film world, sometimes its a case of adapt or die.
"The movie is certainly non-canonical and, based on trailers and
internet gossip, it won't portray Holmes and Watson in the traditional way," says Roger Johnson, founder of the Sherlock Holmes Society.
"Despite, or perhaps because of this, the Sherlock Holmes Society of London welcomes the movie and is sure a significant number of members will be amongst those heading to the cinema during the Christmas holidays to see the movie.
"If anyone is interested in finding out more about the real Sherlock Holmes, then they should take a look at our website."
For the time being it seems the master detective's appeal, in whatever guise, remains far more than elementary.