Dr. Watson: narrator, buffoon, or crime-fighting partner?

Sidney Paget, artist, via Life.com

Sherlock Holmes would be nothing without Dr. Watson.  Yes, John H. Watson – medical doctor, wounded veteran of the second Anglo-Afghan War, congenial companion, capable chronicler – the 19th century British Everyman.  He’s the ideal foil for the brilliance of Holmes, and tells the story in a way that Holmes never could.  He also makes the Great Detective more approachable.  After all, we readers are more like Watson than Holmes, even if we don’t always like admitting it.

With the new Sherlock Holmes movie, Game of Shadows (starring Robert Downey Jr. as Holmes and Jude Law as Watson), now out in theaters, the different on-screen portrayals of Dr. Watson have been on my mind lately.



And there have been plenty.  Since its 1930s large-screen popularity, the Holmes/Watson duo has been adapted over the decades to appeal to the changing demographics and expectations of audiences, and some of the differences are striking.

So let’s take a brief tour of some of the changes in Dr. Watson, as he relates to Holmes, and perhaps get at some of the reasons why.  Next week, we can look at the changes Holmes has undergone, too.

It starts with Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce.  Although not the very first film appearance as Holmes and Watson, theirs was the most popular and definitive early portrayal.  Rathbone and Bruce made 14 Sherlock Holmes films between 1939 and 1946, along with lending their voice talents to Sherlock Holmes radio shows (also broadcast to overseas troops during WWII).  They set the tone for the on-screen interaction between the Great Detective and his sidekick, a relationship that other actors and directors who came after would strongly react to.

Take a look at the following clip of Rathbone and Bruce, from the climax of Dressed to Kill:

You’ll note that Watson is not part of the key conflict or tension, where Holmes comes within inches of a knife plunged through his chest.  Instead, Watson is two flights down the stairs, with the equally ineffectual police.  Holmes gets the single-handed glory of the capture; Watson provides clean-up and comedic relief.  The good doctor pays no attention to the man Holmes has shot until Holmes points him out.

There are many other examples in the Rathbone/Bruce canon of Watson as well-meaning, loyal, clueless bumbler, but that would be a separate post.

The consensus of opinion as to the reasons for this type of portrayal is that it provides a bright spot of comedy to have Watson portrayed in this way, thereby appealing to a broader audience.  Perhaps, but it’s a far cry from Conan Doyle’s rendition of Watson.  His Watson has his own keen powers of observation, even if he draws the wrong conclusions from them.  In the stories, he’s also handy in an emergency, something that he is not in the films of the 30s and 40s.

I think another purpose was served in having Watson be a bumbler.  Holmes as single-handed hero would be quite appealing to a war-weary audience.  One can never have too many calm, cool, rational, brave heroes in such a world of craziness and destruction.  In another film in the series, Sherlock Holmes and the Secret Weapon, Holmes beats the Nazis to a weapon that can win the war, and help preserve “this blessed plot, this realm, this earth, this England.”  (The final lines of the film, spoken by Rathbone).


Other Holmes/Watson portrayals after Rathbone/Bruce:

Peter Cushing andAndre Morell:  The Hound of the Baskervilles (1959)


image via nydailynews.com

Wikipedia gives a nice condensed explanation of Morell’s approach to the role of Dr. Watson:

“This was the first Sherlock Holmes adaptation ever to be shot in colour.[12] Morell was particularly keen that his portrayal of Watson should be closer to that originally depicted in Conan Doyle’s stories, and away from the bumbling stereotype established by Nigel Bruce’s interpretation of the role.”

Citation: Kinsey, Wayne (2002). Hammer Films – The Bray Studios Years. Richmond: Reynolds & Hearn Ltd. pp. 133. ISBN 1-903111-11-0.


Jeremy Brett and David Burke/Edward Hardwicke (Granada Television series, 1984-94)

image via wearysloth.com
image via hollywoodreporter.com










Burke played Watson until 1986; Hardwicke stepped in as Watson for the majority of the series, 1986-94.  For both actors, the role of Dr. Watson was that of faithful friend and companion, operating smoothly together, often with comedic moments.

It looks as if Watson as buffoon has been left behind forever.






Richard Roxburgh and Ian Hart: The Hound of the Baskervilles (2002)

Take a look at the following video.  This particular rendition strikes me as another turning point in the modern portrayal of Dr. Watson:

Notice that not all goes smoothly with the two.  Watson is angry. He’s frustrated with Holmes for holding back information; keeping the upper hand, and not treating Watson as an equal.  However, in the stories of Conan Doyle, Watson seldom loses his temper; when he admonishes Holmes, it’s usually about some eccentricity of Holmes’ that affects their living conditions.

So why has Dr. Watson morphed into a pouty side-kick, yelling at Holmes and trying to be on equal terms with him?  This is in the realm of conjecture, of course, but I think audiences were moving away from hero-worship, from a fascination with mega-minds and infallible heroes, and moving towards more egalitarian, cooperative, Everyman-pushed-to-extreme-circumstances tropes.  Our society values openness rather than secrecy.  We still love bigger-than-life heroes, sure, but we want more.  That’s where the next duo comes in, the most recent permutation of Holmes and Watson.


Robert Downey, Jr. and Jude Law: Sherlock Holmes (2009) and Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows (2011)

Take a look at the trailer for the most recent Sherlock Holmes film:


There are noteworthy features about Watson in this trailer, and even more in the film, of course.  Holmes actively solicits Watson’s help (if you call shoving Watson’s new bride off the train “soliciting”); Watson is affectionately condescending to Holmes, and Holmes takes it; Watson goes all-Rambo with weaponry, and saves Holmes’ keester more than once.

Huh?  Where did this come from?  This doesn’t seem at all like the stories Conan Doyle wrote, does it?

But you know what?  I love it.  And it makes perfect sense to me that the Holmes/Watson pair would have evolved into this.  In fact, I think that if Conan Doyle were still writing the Holmes stories, this would be an adventure style he would approve for his heroes.  If you read all of the Conan Doyle stories/novels, you get a collective sense of the adventurous heart Holmes and Watson had: the thrill in Holmes’ voice when he first spots a deadly snake or uncovers a dangerous cult; Holmes’ confidence that Watson will always bring his revolver with him on perilous expeditions, and that he won’t be averse to a little B&E for the sake of a good cause; the wistfulness in Watson’s voice as he recounts the outre cases of the old days.  It’s all there.

So, what do you think of how Watson has changed over the years?  Do you like the new Watson, or feel the canon has been corrupted from the original?  I’d love to hear from you!

Until next time,


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15 thoughts on “Dr. Watson: narrator, buffoon, or crime-fighting partner?”

  1. Julie GloverJulie Glover

    Our family LOVED the 3-episode series of Sherlock from the BBC this past year. The duo there shows Holmes as the superior mind, but Watson as the stable personality that holds together the investigations. They each have the own issues, but together the balance and tension work. I’m eager to see what the show creators do with the series this coming year.

    The evolution of Watson is almost more interesting than the one for Holmes, I think. Our heroes have a specialness about them regardless, but sidekicks can vary greatly in what they bring to the table. Great look at all of these portrayals, KB!!

  2. Louise BehielLouise Behiel

    I’ve always thought they were a good team, providing balance to each other. I haven’t seen the later movies but will try to catch one or two of them.

  3. Mary Mark OckerbloomMary Mark Ockerbloom

    The new Sherlock Holmes 2 movie is a delight: better balanced than #1. Holmes and Watson are a joy to watch. The action never stops as Holmes and Watson dance on the constant edge of near-destruction.

  4. Mary Mark OckerbloomMary Mark Ockerbloom

    Downey & Law’s interpretation of Watson uses some perfectly legitimate facts from the Holmes novels : 1) Watson’s a trained doctor who has survived Afghanistan — suggesting he’s more than just competent as a doctor and with weapons 2) Holmes, who is intolerant of a good deal of humanity for their inability to keep up, seeks Watson’s company. I also liked that they show some respect for the character of Mary, Watson’s bride — she’s not portrayed as stupid either, just as polite.

  5. Fabio BuenoFabio Bueno

    You should definitely check out BBC’s Sherlock miniseries. It’s contemporary, but very faithful to the original. Watson is a complex soul that incorporates several characteristics from the books. I loved it!

  6. Haley WhitehallHaley Whitehall

    I loved this post and the clips! The Sherlock Holmes books remain my favorite mysteries. I agree with Julie, the evolution of Watson is more interesting than Holmes. I prefer the original portrayal of Watson. I think it diminishes Conan Doyle’s work to have Watson portrayed as a bumbling fool. However, as you pointed out, there are many reasons for doing so.

  7. Sherry IsaacSherry Isaac

    Neat-o assessment, Kathy.

    In the case of Jude Law’s Watson (and same can be said for Downey’s Homes), I think it’s been a bit of a circle, audiences crave more realistic, layered, flawed characters, and writers and movie-makers must respond to their audience’s pulse, and so on. In the 30s and 40s, perfect heroes made a frightening, uncertain world simple and less frightening.

    Timely post. Working on the outline for my new WIP this morning, I realized my main character had no flaws or secrets. Who the heck would want to read about someone like her?

  8. florence foisflorence fois

    K.B. My favorite for a long time was Jeremy Brett from the BBC series. I loved that Watson. The newest is good and the new BBC Sherlock also good. Too many of the others were campy and insulting to Conan Doyle.

  9. Marcy KennedyMarcy Kennedy

    I have to say I’m not a fan of the new Sherlock Holmes movies (thought I think that might be in part because I’m not a Robert Downey Jr fan), but I’m interested in checking out the BBC miniseries mentioned in the comments.

  10. Tiffany WhiteTiffany White

    I really want to see the BBC miniseries; I hear they’re even going to do some more? I like the adaptation of the new Sherlock and Holmes, to be honest. At first when I saw they were making yet another remake, I rolled my eyes. But the new partnership and banter keeps the story “fresh” in my eyes.

    Great post!


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