Sherlockian.Net: How Has the Portrayal of Doctor Watson in Film Changed over Time?

by Rachel M. Beard (

A preliminary version of an essay to be submitted at H. H. Dow High School, Midland, Michigan

Christopher Lee called Sherlock Holmes “the man who never lived and will never die.” Given the fact that Sherlock Holmes has appeared in over 260 films, this seems an accurate description of the timeless detective.[1] Sherlock Holmes, however, would not exist without his partner, Dr. John Watson, who is responsible for narrating Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s original stories. When these two characters translate to film, though, their roles on screen change drastically, and the portrayal of the good doctor in film has changed accordingly over the past century. Understanding why his portrayal changes so frequently is vital to understanding his intended role in Conan Doyle’s stories.

The first widely popular movie series about Sherlock Holmes and John Watson was American. The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes ran from 1939 through 1946 and included a series of 14 movies about Holmes and Watson. Starring Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce, this is known as the Rathbone-Bruce series. The most critically acclaimed film adaptation of the original stories was actually Russian-based and included five TV movies that came out between 1979 and 1986. The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes and Doctor Watson starred Vasily Livanov and Vitaly Solomin and is called the Livanov-Solomin series. Another popular version was a television series that starred Jeremy Brett as Holmes and David Burke (later replaced by Edward Hardwicke) as Watson and ran 41 episodes from 1984 through 1994. The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes (or just Sherlock Holmes) is normally called the Granada TV series, after the company that produced it. The latest and most well-known adaptation, Sherlock Holmes, debuted in 2009 and stars Robert Downey, Jr. and Jude Law. The Downey-Law series is an ongoing movie series that currently consists of two films. The last series to be covered is the CBS television series, Elementary, the first season of which started in September of 2012. It stars Jonny Lee Miller and Lucy Liu as Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson respectively.

The role of Dr. Watson in the original stories is distinct. Conan Doyle’s short stories are written from Watson’s point of view as he follows Holmes around and records the mysteries they solve. Conan Doyle’s choice to make Watson the narrator is clearly intended; as Holmes’ companion, Watson observes all the same clues and happenstances regarding the case that Sherlock Holmes does and relays them to the reader. Watson and the reader are blind, however, to all of the deductions Holmes is making in his head. This creates a great deal of suspense that Conan Doyle uses to draw the reader back again and again. Yet, films can’t be told from a first-person perspective. They can be told from a character’s perspective, though, as most movies are. Without Watson there to relay the story to the reader, many times the director will tell the story from Holmes’ perspective, given that he is the character the audience wants to see. This presents a problem for the director, though, because Watson suddenly becomes superfluous when he’s no longer the narrator. Some have attempted to cut Watson out entirely, but that only seems to make Holmes appear less human. Over the years, directors have reworked and reworked the character of Dr. Watson, placing him in a variety of different positions and roles.

In order to make Holmes appear to be an even smarter and greater man, many directors have twisted Watson into the role of a much less intelligent character than Conan Doyle did. Director Alfred L. Werker was one such director. In 1939, Werker began producing The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes with Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce. He decided to turn Sherlock Holmes’ partner from a competent medical man into a bumbling fool, who some even called a “Boobus Britannicus.” This phrase, according to Christopher Redmond, author of Sherlock Holmes Handbook, “actually predates the Rathbone-Bruce films, and was first used by a writer named Edmund L. Pearson, criticizing the drawings of Watson done by some illustrator in the 1930s.” Watson, as portrayed by Nigel Bruce, is incapable of following Holmes’ lines of deduction and blindly follows his friend wherever he goes. In the original stories, as Redmond observes, “Watson was a smart young army doctor, perhaps not as brilliant as Holmes but not as eccentric and brittle either. Many of the stories show him as decisive, intelligent and reliable, a support for Holmes as well as a companion. We see little of that in the film portrayal by Bruce.” At one point, Sherlock Holmes even goes so far as to “say to Watson, ‘I'm afraid you're an incorrigible bungler’” and then “pats Watson on the back to show that they are still pals anyway.”[2] Bruce’s Watson is a painful character to watch and embarrasses himself frequently in instances similar to this one. Compared to Conan Doyle’s Watson, who observes every nuance and points it out to the reader, Bruce’s John Watson seems lucky that he even made it through medical school. Bruce himself even admitted that “[Dr. Watson] as I played him, was a complete stooge for his brilliant friend and one whose intelligence was almost negligible.”[3] Aside from making Holmes look twice as intelligent, the bumbling Watson of the 1940s was also created “with the object of introducing a little light relief” alongside Scotland Yard officer, Inspector Lestrade.[4] Compared to Holmes’ serious nature, these characters offer a welcome break from the often dire situations many of these films possess. This portrayal has been highly criticized as being inaccurate because it drastically alters Watson’s role from a capable companion to an almost annoying character that gets in Holmes’ way more often than he helps Holmes solve the case. Their relationship is also seriously changed because of an age difference, because, as Redmond observes, “[t]he casting of Bruce beside Rathbone also led to an impression that Watson was significantly older than Holmes, which was not the case in the canonical stories”.

The Rathbone-Bruce series is set apart from many of its counterparts primarily because the last 12 movies of the series took place in the years they were released. These films showcase ridiculous plots by today’s standards, including The Woman in Green, in which Sherlock Holmes is hypnotized by his nemesis, Professor Moriarty, and forced to do as he says. The movies are unfortunately riddled with World War II propaganda as well. Bruce, in his explanation of this update of the stories, claimed that “Basil and I were much opposed to the modernizing of these stories but the producer, Howard Benedict, pointed out to us that the majority of youngsters who would see our pictures were accustomed to the fast-moving action of gangster pictures, and that expecting machine guns, police sirens, cars travelling at 80 miles an hour and dialogue such as ‘Put ’em up bud’, they would be bored with the magnifying glass, the hansom cabs, the cobblestones and the slow tempo of an era they never knew and a way of life with which they were completely unfamiliar.”[5] The fact that Watson has been transported fifty years into the future may be part of why he’s represented the way he is. Perhaps having a less intelligent comrade say “Put ’em up bud” seems more realistic than if the character was more capable. Although Bruce’s Watson has not been well-liked by critics of the original stories, the Rathbone-Bruce series was the first significant portrayal of Holmes and Watson in film. Nigel Bruce’s depiction of Dr. Watson was used as a template for many adaptations to follow.

Bruce’s legacy, however, did not extend to the Soviet Union. In 1979, forty years after the Rathbone-Bruce series began, Igor Maslennikov created the first Russian adaptation of Conan Doyle’s stories starring Vasily Livanov as Sherlock Holmes and Vitaly Solomin as John Watson. Maslennikov chose not to change the setting of the original stories, and kept the duo in 19th century London. Roger Johnson, editor of The Sherlock Holmes Journal, praised this series as being “among the most impressive screen adaptations of the Sherlock Holmes stories yet made.” The Livanov-Solomin series takes an interesting angle by writing the movies from Watson’s perspective. He gets the same (if not, more) screen time as his counterpart does, which is drastically different from the other adaptations, wherein Holmes often runs off by himself, leaving Watson behind. This series reverses those roles, sending Watson off on errands to investigate on his own and leaving Holmes to work on whatever case has swallowed him whole.

The “courageous, active and intelligent Watson of Vitaly Solomin” even has deductive powers of his own, though he tends to jump to the wrong conclusions.[6] When he first moves in to 221b Baker Street after just meeting Sherlock Holmes, Watson begins to suspect that his new roommate is a criminal. It seems like a logical conclusion, given that he has strange individuals visit his quarters at all hours of the day, he experiences periods of absolute poverty and random bursts of prosperity, and his only knowledge is about chemistry and criminal masterminds of the past. Watson is embarrassed to learn that his newfound friend is actually a detective, but when he’s compared to Bruce’s Watson, Solomin’s Watson has at least thought for himself. This Russian Doctor Watson is perfectly capable of fending for himself. He even goes so far as to investigate crimes in Holmes’ absence in the fifth film in the series, Hunt for the Tiger. Believing the detective to be dead, John Watson learns that a man’s life may be in danger. He informs the police, who ignore him, before trying to track down the villain and protect the potential victim all on his own. It may be a Sherlock Holmes movie, but the detective doesn’t actually appear until the last half of the film, when Watson finds himself completely out of his depth. Somewhere between Nigel Bruce in 1946 and Vitaly Solomin in 1979, Doctor Watson’s character changed drastically. No longer is he the useless, comic relief fool of World War II. Instead, Watson in the Soviet films is the focus of the stories. Notably, this is the only Sherlock Holmes adaption to be called The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes and Doctor Watson, as opposed to just The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes.

The relationship between Holmes and Watson also changes as the doctor changes. Watson in this series is “perpetually bemused by [Holmes’] world and behaviour”.[7] Whereas Bruce portrayed Watson as nothing but Holmes’ comic relief, Solomin depicts Watson as a relatively average man of the 1890’s who “carries himself with a no-nonsense military posture that is tempered by an air of concern that one might expect from a physician.”[8] The most important aspect to take way from Solomin’s Watson, is that he is “brave, chivalrous, impetuous, intelligent and entirely likeable. Even though his words are only intelligible to the English-speaker by way of semi-competent sub-titles, you feel that this is a man you could happily spend a day with, just chatting and —perhaps more importantly — listening to his stories.”[9] Solomin’s Watson is a story-teller and perfectly mimics the role of Conan Doyle’s original Watson as the primary narrator and the reader’s only source of information.

Another critically acclaimed Sherlock Holmes series came about in 1984. It was produced by Granada Television and starred Jeremy Brett as the title character and David Burke (later replaced by Edward Hardwicke) as the faithful Doctor Watson. Compared to Nigel Bruce, David Burke’s Watson does have some deductive abilities of his own. When presented with a letter, he is able to observe that “it’s undated, without signature or address,” “it’s a man’s writing, presumably well-to-do,” and “it’s expensive paper, this. Peculiarly strong and stiff.”[10] From these observations, though, he’s actually able to deduce very little beyond the fact that the writer is a man. At this point, Holmes naturally sweeps in, astounding Watson by recognizing the king of Bohemia’s stationery. Watson truly serves little purpose in this series beyond highlighting Holmes’ abilities with his own ignorance and acting as an errand boy. While discussing Irene Adler, Holmes passingly instructs Watson to “look her up in [his] index” with little regard for what Watson is doing or the fact that he’s perfectly capable of getting it himself.[11] Although Burke (and later Hardwicke) doesn’t turn Watson into a bumbling fool, this Watson does begin to take on a friendlier role towards his roommate. The first episode opens with Watson chastising Holmes for abusing drugs and claims he is looking out for his best interests, not only as a medical professional, but as a friend.

Whereas previous films have portrayed their relationship as one of tolerance on Holmes’ part (such as Rathbone’s Holmes calling Watson “an incorrigible bungler”), Brett and Burke/Hardwicke portray their relationship as one of equal partnership. Watson, as per usual, is astounded by Holmes’ “absurdly simple” deductions, but Holmes relies on Watson to “stay and keep a record of [each] case.”[12] This Watson even carries about a book with him and can be seen loyally jotting down notes as the cases progress. The Granada series, however, does not escape from Holmes’ condescending attitude towards Watson, the precedent set by Rathbone years earlier. As Watson explains how to go about breaking the code of “the dancing men,” Holmes looks on with a smirk, knowing full well that Watson had nothing to do with breaking the code. He just watched Holmes do it. This attitude puts a strain on the duo’s relationship, transforming their partnership into a relationship based more on tolerance.

Burke and Hardwicke (like Bruce) portray “a somewhat older Watson,” as Leslie Klinger says, which also appears to affect the way the partners interact. Watson acts as Holmes’ humanizing agent. When interviewing a rather shaken up older woman about a murder in her house, Holmes bombards her with questions. In fact, it isn’t until Watson surreptitiously whispers in his ear that Holmes suggests she sit down. This portrayal of their relationship isn’t uncommon nowadays. Holmes is typically portrayed as an almost autistic character, but he always has Watson there to help him socialize and communicate with others. This changes Watson’s role from the dutiful narrator to the dutiful translator, responsible for explaining the day-to-day interactions and responses of others to his companion.

The role of translating Sherlock Holmes’ antics into acceptable societal norms is also used in Sherlock Holmes (2009) and Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows (2011), starring Robert Downey, Jr. as the title character and Jude Law as his ever-present companion. The chemistry between Downey and Law is a bit more playful than previous onscreen relationships. Law even said that he and Downey “flirt [their] way in and out of adventures” during filming.[13] As previously mentioned, the rapport between the detective and his partner is critical to defining Watson’s character in any given film, and Sherlock Holmes is no exception. Law’s Watson acts almost as a wife for Holmes, similar to the way Burke and Hardwicke’s Watson does opposite Brett’s Holmes. Sherlock Holmes opens with Watson rushing in to 221b Baker Street to clean the flat, open the windows, check Holmes’ mail and even suggest cases for Holmes to investigate. This relationship is strikingly different from Rathbone and Bruce’s bond, where Holmes appears to tolerate Watson as useless baggage that serves to slow him down. With the Downey-Law series, Watson is the one who tolerates Holmes’ eccentric ways, including his “lack of personal hygiene.”[14] As Klinger puts it, the scripts of the two movies “gave Watson a more proper role than to merely make Holmes look smart by making Watson look stupid.”

Like Burke’s Watson, Law’s is very observant and not at all “stupid.” On top of perceiving scratches on a pocket watch Holmes discovers, he is also able to deduce from those marks that the owner was a drunkard and “every time he went to wind the watch, his hand slipped.”[15] It’s even Watson who helps Holmes deduce that the criminal hideout “will probably be a factory by the river.”[16] In fact, Watson almost appears to be smarter than Holmes. Maybe he isn’t able to deduce someone’s entire history from the way they dress, but he is much more capable in social situations, and he’s also responsible for defending himself and his partner with his trusty service revolver tucked away in his jacket and a sword hidden away in his walking stick.

Although Robert Downey, Jr. has been criticized in his role as Sherlock Holmes, Jude Law’s portrayal as Watson has been praised for its accuracy to Conan Doyle’s original stories. As Klinger, a Sherlockian who was involved in writing Sherlock Holmes and Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows, phrases it, “not only do we get a very clear sense that Watson is a stout heart, courageous, smart (not as smart as Holmes but nonetheless smart), and a loyal friend, we can also understand why ‘The fair sex is your department, Watson.’” In other words, this Watson can fend for himself and maintains his ways with “the fair sex,” as Holmes puts it in the original stories. Despite these traces of Conan Doyle’s intents for the character, Sherlock Holmes and Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows are clearly from Sherlock Holmes’ point of view and not Dr. Watson’s. His characteristics may remain the same. but his role in Holmes’ life changes from faithful biographer to a tolerant wife.

The BBC created a series in 2010 that follows a similar vein as the Downey-Law series, though Sherlock takes place in the 21st century. It stars Benedict Cumberbatch as the famous detective and Martin Freeman as his “blogger.”[17] There isn’t much about Freeman’s Watson (or “John,” as he is called in this series) that sets him apart from Law’s; both act as the conduit between a socially oblivious Sherlock Holmes and the rest of the world. Freeman’s Watson learns to tolerate finding body parts in his refrigerator and mannequins hanging from his ceiling just as Law’s Watson must tolerate a flat full of tobacco smoke and Holmes poisoning his dog. The only notable difference between these two series is the time period in which they are set. Watson’s portrayal doesn’t change very much.

While 2009 saw the release of Sherlock Holmes and 2010 gave us Sherlock, 2012 presented the American television series, Elementary. It stars Johnny Lee Miller as the famous detective and Lucy Liu as Dr. Joan Watson, a female version of Holmes’ partner. Liu is also Asian American and starts out not as Holmes’ roommate, but as his “sober companion,” since Holmes in this series is attending rehab in America. Like in Sherlock, Holmes and Watson become Sherlock and “Joan,” but they’ve been relocated from London to New York City. After Sherlock recovers from his addiction, he begins “training” Joan to become a detective.[18] Some have speculated that Rob Doherty, the executive of Elementary, turned Watson into a woman in order to explore a romantic relationship between the partners. Doherty, however, denied these rumors, saying that “as far as how do we keep it from getting [to a romantic point], my very simple plan is to not write that. It's just not what we're looking to do.”[19] Despite these claims, Holmes greets Watson when they first meet by telling her “I have never loved anyone as I do you right now in this moment.” much to Watson’s shock.[20] The writers also give Watson a new backstory in Elementary. She used to be a surgeon but was forced into suspension when a patient died on her table. She never returned to practicing medicine because she “couldn’t trust [her]self anymore.”[21] Her relationship with Holmes is one of equal partnership. On multiple occasions, Watson is the one who discovers some critical clue to the case. For instance, she reviews a dead man’s medical file and discovers he had a rice allergy, but she remembers seeing a bag of rice in his kitchen. When she points this out to Holmes, it helps him find the victim’s cell phone and then pinpoint his killer.

Elementary isn’t all new, though, in terms of Watson’s character (aside from the fact that she’s a woman). There is a sense of Holmes being incompetent in social situations and inconsiderate of other’s feelings with Watson following him around and apologizing for his behavior. She even goes so far as to tell Holmes to “go wait in the car” after he accuses a young woman of lying about not knowing her attacker.[22] Ironically, the woman tells Watson who her attacker is and where they can contact him after Holmes leaves. Holmes later embarrasses Watson by showing up at the opera and loudly telling her his latest discoveries regarding the case. Watson also shows a little incompetence of her own when Holmes stages an attack on her to test her self-defense skills. When he steals her trusty pepper spray, she becomes virtually defenseless. This is a stark contrast from past male Watsons; Jude Law, Martin Freeman and even Vitaly Solomin portrayed a companion who could hold his (or her) own during a fight. It’s a little disappointing that Liu’s Watson loses this trait along with her military experience.

The change in Watson’s gender also lends itself to some banter between the duo that wouldn’t normally be seen between two men. Holmes, for example, makes jokes about wanting to watch Watson do some “foxy boxing” with another woman. It is, of course, all for fun, but it does stand out when compared to previous on-screen chemistry. The writers also took a turn away from Elementary’s British counterpart, Sherlock, by maintaining Holmes and Watson’s names for one another. In the original stories, they called each other “Holmes” and “Watson” but Sherlock writers decided to update that aspect so the main characters are now “Sherlock” and “John.” Because Watson is originally Holmes’ sober companion, he gets into the habit of calling her “Miss Watson” even after they’ve become friends, and she starts calling him “Sherlock.” Even though Doherty has adamantly denied any romantic relationship between Holmes and Watson, Holmes’ dialogue does hint at something more than friendship. When he tries to convince Watson to stay on as his partner, he says “I am better with you, Watson. I am sharper, more focused. Difficult to say why, exactly. Perhaps in time I’ll solve that as well.”[23]

Dr. John Watson is a vital character in the life of Sherlock Holmes. Although he may not always make the detective “sharper” or “more focused,” Sir Arthur Conan Doyle made him responsible for conveying information to the reader. The audience sees Sherlock Holmes through the eyes of his admiring companion and not from a third person perspective. Films, unlike books, have to be from a third person perspective. Every time this translation from text to screen is made, Watson’s portrayal changes. In the 40s, he was a “Boobus Britannicus” incapable of thinking for himself. He slowly evolved into a more competent character through the 20th century, amazed by Holmes’ abilities but still able to fend for himself. Modern-day adaptions have turned the tables on the relationship between the partners, making Holmes the comic relief character and Watson the tolerant wife character. These changes over the course of several film series show how integral Dr. Watson is to the canonical Sherlock Holmes stories.

[1] Johnson, Roger. “The Wide World of Sherlock Holmes: Cinema.” Sherlock Holmes Society of London. Sherlock Holmes Society of London, n.d. Web. 26 Mar. 2013.

[2] Jessen, Marcia. “The Films of Basil Rathbone.” Basil Rathbone, Master of the Stage and Screen: Films, N.p., 2012. Web. 19 Mar. 2013.

[3] Mowis, I. S. “Nigel Bruce — Biography.” IMDb., Inc., 2013. Web. 26 Mar. 2013.

[4] Mowis.

[5] Mowis.

[6] Johnson, Roger. “Editorial Notes.” The Sherlock Holmes Journal 329 (2012): n. pag. Print.

[7] “Vasily Livanov and Vitaly Solomin: The Russian Sherlock Holmes and Doctor Watson.” Sherlock Holmes Baker Street Dozen – Sherlock Holmes in Film, Books, DVD, Audio, Media. The Singular Society of the Baker Street Dozen, 2010. Web. 19, Mar. 2013.

[8] “Vasily Livanov and Vitaly Solomin: The Russian Sherlock Holmes and Doctor Watson.”

[9] Johnson, Roger, and Jean Upton. The Sherlock Holmes Miscellany. Stroud: History P., 2012. Print.

[10] “A Scandal in Bohemia.” Sherlock Holmes. Independent Television Authority. London, UK, 24 April. 1984. Television.

[11] “A Scandal in Bohemia”

[12] “The Dancing Men.” Sherlock Holmes. Independent Television Authority. London, UK, 1 May. 1984. Television.

[13] Law, Jude. “Jude Law Interview: He Talks Man Crushes, YOLO Decisions and about New Film Side Effects.” Interview by Poppy. YouTube. The Show Biz, 4 Mar. 2013. Web. 10 Mar. 2013.

[14] Sherlock Holmes. Dir. Guy Ritchie. Perf. Robert Downey, Junior and Jude Law. Warner Bros. Picture, 2009. DVD.

[15] Sherlock Holmes.

[16] Sherlock Holmes.

[17] “The Blind Baker.” Sherlock. British Broadcasting Corporation. London, UK, 1 August. 2010. Television.

[18] “Details.” Elementary. CBS Broadcasting, Inc. New York City, USA, 14 February. 2013. Television.

[19] Jeffery, Morgan. "'Elementary' Exec on Romance: 'It's Not What the Show Was Built to Do'" Digital Spy. N.p., 27 Sept. 2012. Web. 26 Apr. 2013.

[20] “Pilot.” Elementary. CBS Broadcasting, Inc. New York City, USA, 14 February. 2013. Television.

[21] “Lesser Evils.” Elementary. CBS Broadcasting, Inc. New York City, USA, 14 February. 2013. Television.

[22] “Pilot.”

[23] “Details.”

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