Screen Chemistry and Canonical Fidelity

Here's a question. How many of the screen 'Holmes and Watson's have really been a success from the perspective of both screen chemistry and canonical fidelity?

Much is said of the great chemistry between Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce but I don't think anyone will pretend that Bruce's Watson was even close to Conan Doyle's character.

It tends to be very much the case that more effort is spent on making the Holmes of the screen authentic than is the case for Watson.

The earliest screen Holmes that I tend to focus on is Arthur Wontner. During his films he had two Watsons. The first, who was in all Wontner's films apart from The Sign of Four, was Ian Fleming (no not
that Ian Fleming). He was no literary Watson but nor was he he a Bruce and he did have a good on-screen rapport with Wontner. For the one exception in Wontner's films Watson was played by Ian Hunter.

Given that Hunter's appearance was mid-way through Wontner's film series it seems pretty clear that he was chosen because he was more of a plausible romantic interest for Mary Morstan. As an aside, Wontner's version of SIGN remains the only one to lay proper emphasis on the romance between Watson and Mary. This was only repeated in the recent Warner Bros. movie which depicted the same romance although not as part of a canonical story.

Hunter's Watson was an improvement on that of Flemings in character terms but the huge age difference between him and Wontner made them appear more like uncle and nephew and the screen chemistry simply wasn't right.

Rathbone and Bruce came next and after them came Ronald Howard and H. Marion Crawford. Howard was, in my opinion, a less plausible Holmes than Rathbone but Crawford was more a plausible Watson than Bruce had been. There was still the touch of the comedic about him but in that particular series' context it seemed to work.

Following them came Douglas Wilmer and Nigel Stock and then Peter Cushing and Stock. Wilmer and Cushing were far more canonical in their approaches to Holmes and Stock tried to give us a better Watson who still tended to lean a bit too much at times towards Bruce's style.

We then come to Jeremy Brett and his Watsons. Brett is seen by many as one of the best ever screen Holmeses and he was blessed with two totally non-Bruce Watsons in the persons of David Burke and Edward Hardwicke. Of the two I always preferred Burke who fitted my idea of Watson slightly better than Hardwicke. For me it was easier to buy into Burke as being a war veteran.

Then we have Matt Frewer and Kenneth Welsh. In this pairing we have the great exception. A case where more effort was clearly put into getting Watson right than it was into getting Holmes correct. Welsh had his occasional Bruce mannerisms but gave us a Watson a lot more in the Burke/Hardwicke mould. Frewer's Holmes on the other hand was more like Noel Coward.

We then have Richard Roxburgh and Ian Hart. Roxburgh played the part of Holmes quite well but his look just didn't have something it needed. In addition, there was no real feeling that these two men (or their characters) really got on together. Aside from that Hart's Watson was good but just a little too angry.

This must have been noted because when he reprised the role, this time opposite Rupert Everett as Holmes, his Watson was considerably less confrontational. Everett certainly gave us a more canonical Holmes than Roxburgh (in appearance as much as anything else).

Coming bang up to date we have Downey Jr and Law and Cumberbatch and Freeman. Both pairings have good chemistry but the latter pairing, despite the modern setting of their series, has the more canonical feel.

On the whole it seems that we are improving on our dramatisations of literature's most famous double-act. I only hope it continues.


  1. You make some really great points here. The chemistry between a Holmes and a Watson is crucial to the success of any Holmes film. And it's interesting to consider whether or not canonical fidelity and on-screen chemistry are linked or can be considered independently of each other. Brett and his Watsons certainly had chemistry and were faithful to the source material, as is also the case with Cumberbatch and Freeman. But, Downey and Law clearly have a rapport (that was, for me, part of the movie's few charms)... but canonically faithful? Ehhhh...

    So, are both elements required to produce a truly successful Holmes franchise? Or can they be considered independently, and on their own merits? I'm intrigued by this post. :)

  2. goddessinsepia, I don't think you can consider canonical fidelity and on-screen chemistry independently/on their own merits, because both elements are so much a part of Sherlock Holmes that the lack of either detracts from the movie/series/book, etc. Therefore, yes, you have to have both for a successful franchise.

  3. What a wonderful post and thorough consideration. I agree with both goddess and denise completely; we need to believe in Watson and Holmes' affinity, as that is perhaps one of the elements which make the ACD stories so original and compelling. It's interesting to also consider the individual representations of the characters. For example, what if we believe in Holmes but not in Watson, or vice versa? Does that throw the balance completely off? Does it ruin the whole production?


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