All but four of the original sixty Sherlock Holmes stories by Arthur Conan Doyle (also known as the “canon”) are narrated by Dr. John Watson.
You know what that tells us? Watson is not merely a sidekick. He’s not an afterthought. He’s not just the comic relief. He’s not a cardboard cut-out for Holmes to bounce ideas off.
He’s important. He’s intelligent. He matters.
And woe be unto you, filmmakers, if you portray him any differently. Why? Because it ruins your Sherlock Holmes.
Case in point? The Basil Rathbone/Nigel Bruce films and radio shows from the 1930s and 1940s. Taken by himself, Basil Rathbone’s Sherlock Holmes would come across as austere, acerbic, and ostentatiously intelligent, much like the canonical character. But Nigel Bruce’s Dr. Watson is a bumbling, blundering, burbling fool.
Watson in the canon is not a fool. He is a doctor, for crying out loud! He’s been through medical school, is a licensed practitioner who builds up a thriving private practice over the course of the stories. He was an officer in the British army who survived a war. He does not bumble. He is, in fact, smarter than most ordinary citizens, including those in the audience.
He just isn’t as smart as Sherlock Holmes, because Holmes is brilliant. An actual genius.
But it’s hard to write characters who are geniuses. I get that. It’s much easier to write someone very smart. And then you can make that smart person look like a genius if you contrast them with a fool. The writers of the Rathbone/Bruce adventures took this route. Make Holmes look smarter by making Watson look dumber. It’s easy.
It’s lazy, but it’s easy.
Honestly, if he was paired with a better Watson, Rathbone would probably be one of my favorite Sherlocks. And I don’t blame Nigel Bruce here — he’s acting the part he was given. I blame the writers.
Now you’re shrugging and saying, “So what? So they were lazy. Holmes still looks smart. Good enough.”
Except he doesn’t. Not if you pay more than a smidgeon of attention to the stories. Rathbone’s Holmes comes across as intelligent, yes. But because Watson is foolish and inept, whenever Holmes criticizes him for missing a clue or not understanding something, that doesn’t make Holmes look clever. It makes him look mean and petty. “Watson, how could you have missed something so absurdly simple?” Um, well… because he’s simple and foolish himself? Not surprising that he missed it, really. Just surprising that Sherlock Holmes keeps him around at all, since he’s always getting in the way and bogging cases down and messing things up. In fact, Holmes must not actually be all that smart if he lets Watson make so many mistakes. Also, Watson really must be a fool if he doesn’t realize he’s constantly being bullied and manipulated. I really don’t see why they’d be friends at all.
Those are the dangers of portraying Dr. Watson incorrectly. Your Holmes looks petty and careless at best, mean and illogical at worst. Your Watson looks stupid at best and sycophantic at worst.
But what if you portray him correctly, as an educated man of science with a keen knowledge of human behavior and emotion? Then your Sherlock Holmes must be even smarter, which means he’s obviously a genius.
This is what the Granada productions got so perfectly correct. Jeremy Brett’s Holmes is clearly exceptionally intelligent because both David Burke and Edward Hardwicke portray Watson as bright and sensible. This Holmes thinks circles around this Watson, so he could think circles around any of us. We see and understand his brilliance.
The same goes for the BBC’s Sherlock. Martin Freeman’s John Watson is smart and brave, cunning and careful. Benedict Cumberbatch’s Sherlock’s intellect, by comparison, is dizzying. These Sherlocks do chide these Watsons for failing to see or understand, but because we in the audience know we would fail in the same way, we understand. We agree. We stand in awe of the great detective’s mind, as we should. We see Sherlock Holmes as A. Conan Doyle intended, because we see Dr. Watson as he wrote him too.
You could almost say it’s… elementary.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Rachel Kovaciny’s western fairy tale retelling novels “Cloaked” and “Dancing & Doughnuts” are now available in paperback and Kindle editions. Learn more about her at her author website, rachelkovaciny.com