Etan Cohen’s Holmes & Watson

James Hynes, Lancaster University

The figures of Sherlock Holmes and John Watson have seeped into popular consciousness since their creation at the end of the Victorian era, and with 21stcentury adaptations such as Guy Ritchie’s films (2009, 2011) and Steven Moffat’s BBC series (2010-17), the Great Detective is arguably more prevalent in popular culture than ever before. For Holmes, mass popularity has always invoked satirical reinterpretation. The first Holmes adaptation is Sherlock Holmes Baffled (1900), a short film in which the detective is outsmarted by a thief who can appear and disappear at will. More recently, Etan Cohen’s Holmes & Watson (2018) reimagines the adventures of the eponymous duo as a comedy, poking fun at their image and legacy. The movie follows Holmes (Will Ferrell) and Watson (John C. Reilly) as they attempt to prevent an assassination attempt on Queen Victoria (Pam Ferris) by a mysterious figure copying the murder style of Professor James Moriarty (Ralph Fiennes). It draws on several Arthur Conan Doyle stories, most notably The Adventure of the Final Problem (1893) and The Valley of Fear (1915), in which Moriarty poses an omnipresent threat. The star-studded comedy was a critical and commercial failure – with a budget of $42 million, it made only $41.9 million. However, the film contains a resonant exploration of Holmes as an adaptative icon, using a satirical slant to examine contemporary perceptions of the great detective.

A significant focus of Holmes & Watson is public image and the legacy that stems from it. Holmes is fixated on preserving the perception of the “great detective,” shunning Watson’s contributions publicly to further his own social standing and spending time choosing a hat for which people will remember him. This contrasts with Doyle’s Holmes, who avoids publicity and allows others to take credit, becoming famous only through Watson’s writings. Landlady Mrs. Hudson (Kelly Macdonald), reimagined here as the antagonistic daughter of Moriarty, also speaks of getting her family name in the history books so that people will forget Holmes. Themes of legacy become more potent when we consider how Sherlock, a fictional character, has remained a household name since his creation over a century ago. The film exhibits awareness of its origins in a literary text and probes how adaptations feed cultural legacy. For example, in Cohen’s adaptation Hudson forces Watson to write a slanderous account of Holmes, leveraging the power of Watson as narrator to create legacy. The implication is that Holmes’s popularity stems from how he is portrayed in the texts narrated by Watson and written by Doyle. Holmes & Watsontherefore compounds the character’s legacy to show how Holmes has transitioned from Conan Doyle’s character to a cultural icon.

As with most Holmes adaptations, the film dramatizes Watson’s writing. However, the film’s comedic tone adds a new dimension to the distancing created when Watson is removed as narrator. In Doyle’s stories, the reader views Holmes through Watson’s perspective; Watson has immense respect for the Great Detective and is in awe of his intellect. In the film, removing Watson’s homodiegetic narrative constructs a more narcissistic and fallible Holmes. He is almost late to Moriarty’s trial because he is practicing the perfect entrance. Similarly, Holmes trying to pick a hat for which people will remember him pokes fun at the superficiality of his public persona. While the deerstalker is an icon widely associated with Holmes, it never featured in Conan Doyle’s texts. Bosc-01.jpgThe same can be said for Holmes’ brash arrogance, as while he demonstrates a remarkable intellect, in Doyle’s stories he often lets others take the credit. In this adaptation, other characters’ awe at his intellect only fuels Holmes’ ego. Cohen spotlights not only the inherent bias in Watson’s writing, but also how adaptations over time add new dimensions to characters that were not specified in the original text. Holmes & Watson doesn’t only participate in the legacy of Conan Doyle’s stories; it also invokes their legacy to show how cultural icons evolve over time.  

Questions for Discussion

Holmes & Watson reimagines the detective story as a comedy. How is a text affected when its genre is changed? Imagine how the scene where Holmes and Watson discover a dead body in Queen Victoria’s cake would be portrayed in a different genre. What elements would change and what would remain the same?

Hassenger (2018) claims “[Will] Ferrell seems particularly drawn to buddy comedies.” How would you define “buddy comedy,” and to what extent can Conan Doyle’s stories be considered a “buddy comedy”? Compare them to other buddy comedies and discuss how representations of male companionship have changed since the Victorian era.

Sherlock is concerned with which hat will perpetuate his image and cult status. The deerstalker, seen in the image above, has its origin outside the literary text, first appearing in a Sidney Paget illustration for The Boscombe Valley Mystery (1891). What does this image’s legacy in popular culture say about the importance of visual representation outside of a literary text?

Further Reading

Conan Doyle, A. “The Adventure of the Final Problem”. The Gunston Trust, Baltimore, Maryland, 2018.

—— “The Valley of Fear”. William Collins, London, 2016.

Hassenger, J. “Holmes & Watson’s failure shows how the world is changing for cinematic comedy” The Verge. Accessed 7thAugust 2019.

Leitch, T. Adaptation and Its Discontents: From Gone with the Wind To Passion of the Christ. The John Hopkins University Press, Baltimore, Maryland, 2009, pp. 207-235.

Meslow, S. “Film’s 111-Year Obsession with Sherlock Holmes”. The Atlantic. Accessed 9thAugust 2019.

Nicol, B. “Sherlock Holmes and Conan Doyle: Multi Media Afterlives”. Palgrave Macmillan, Hampshire, 2013, pp. 124-139.