the game is on

sherlock holmes and dr. watsonLately I have been rereading my Sherlock Holmes compendium, which contains all four novels and 56 short stories about the world’s most famous detective (sorry Hercule!)  Why, you may ask?  Well, there has been a lot of interest in Sherlock lately, including two big-budget movies starring Iron Man and a recent British TV series written by the same fine folks who brought us the Weeping Angels.  I just recently watched both the latest movie (Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows) and the BBC miniseries (Sherlock).  I realized that I haven’t read the books in forever and I suddenly became curious as to how well this surfeit of Holmes stood up to the original.

[The usual SPOILER warning here!  If you haven’t seen the movies or the BBC show by now you might want to just go read the books for awhile.  In fact, go do that anyways.  Because they are really good.]

Sherlock Holmes is probably one of the most adapted fictional characters in history.  Almost from the time the stories were first published there have been stage plays, movies, cartoons, radio dramas, fan fiction, television series, musicals, made-for-TV movies, and derivative works of all kinds involving Sherlock Holmes’ childhood, his retirement, his smarter brother, Moriarity, Irene Adler, his wife (!), and various other personages and events clustered about the famous detective and his rooms on Baker Street.  He has been portrayed by men as varied as Jeremy Brett, Basil Rathbone, Christopher Lee, Tom Baker, Leonard Nimoy, and George C. Scott.  In all these adaptations, Sherlock is somewhat of a chameleon.  He is young; he is old.  He is tidy and fastidious; he is a hoarder and is possibly dangerously insane.  He is a man of moderate tastes; he is a slave to cocaine.  He is an asexual aesthete; he is in love with Irene Adler and/or Dr. Watson (take your pick, it’s modern times).

This is possible because Arthur Conan Doyle did not give us much information about Sherlock.  If you read the stories in order you learn he is a young man a few years out of university (at least in the early stories).  He can’t afford the Baker Street rooms on his own, hence the need for this self-professed loner to take on a housemate.  He is very tall and very thin with a piercing gaze.  He routinely engages in eccentric behavior, especially when he is on a case or he is bored.  He is as neat and tidy in his person as he is messy and cluttered in his environment.  He has few vices although he occasionally uses cocaine and morphine (both of which were legal at the time) and he is fond of his pipe.  He rarely mentions money.  He takes cases because they interest him but manages to acquire several very well-heeled and generously thankful clients.  He is uninterested in taking credit for his efforts but encourages Watson’s literary endeavors.  He has an older brother and a great uncle who was a famous artist.  He is brilliant about many unusual things but willfully ignorant of things most people consider common knowledge.  He avows a disinterest in love, indeed, in strong emotion of any kind, preferring cold analytical reason.  He is in excellent physical condition and is an amateur boxer.  He is not averse to violence nor is he above taking the law  into his own hands.  That’s about all Dr. John Watson tells us about  him.  Sherlock is not so much a blank canvas as a rough sketch and the reader is compelled to fill in the details.

So are the makers of movies and TV shows.  Sherlock’s latest two incarnations are interpreted by Robert Downey, Jr. and Benedict Cumberbatch (whose name sounds like it came straight from one of the books) and they play him entirely differently.  Downey’s detective is not a tidy man; he rarely shaves, his clothes are rumpled, and his rooms are cluttered with papers and objects related to his studies.  His personality quirks are played for humor and more often than not John Watson is the foil.  In this latest movie Holmes barely gets a hungover and beaten up Dr. Watson to his own wedding, something which seems entirely out of character for both of them.  The movies are full of action and explosions and slapstick (Downey spends much of the recent one dressed as a frumpy woman) and have something of a steampunk sensibility about them.  The plots don’t bear much examination and don’t appear related in any way to any specific story, although of course they include recognizable characters and events.   This is probably because the stories themselves are not terribly action packed.  A crime is committed, someone asks for Holmes’ help, he and Watson take a walk around the crime scene, Holmes usually indulges in some bizarre behavior, the two discuss things a bit, and then Holmes solves the crime.  (The stories actually suffer a bit from this repetitiveness. )  Very occasionally fisticuffs are necessary and although Holmes often asks Watson to bring along his old service revolver neither of them ever shoots anyone.  Thus rather elaborate plots are created for the movies, swirling around Irene Adler and Moriarity, and lots of things explode.  I enjoy these movies, as I do nearly everything with Robert Downey Jr. in it, but forget about them almost immediately.

Sherlock is another matter entirely.  This version is set squarely in the 21st century.  Benedict Cumberbatch plays Holmes as nearly close to the books as possible given the contemporary setting and the abiding modern need for sizzle and bang.  This Holmes is young, tall, neatly dressed at all times, a smoker (but trying to quit), brilliant, and, as he describes himself, “a high functioning sociopath.”  This Holmes uses cell phones and  laptops and runs a website advertising his services but his flat is still cluttered with microscopes and chemicals, there are body parts in the fridge, and poor Mrs. Hudson still doesn’t know what to make of her odd lodger.  This Holmes is also not a very likeable man.  He is barely interested in other people and rarely makes any effort to be polite.  He lives in a world where everything is a clue to something; his entire life is lived in a rush of data that leaves next to no time for anything approaching common humanity.  This pervasive sense of apartness from the rest of his species is enhanced by Cumberbatch’s slightly off kilter physical proportions.  They give his Sherlock a sense of not actually being from this planet.

Cumberbatch is simply excellent as Sherlock but Martin Freeman steals the show with his portrayal of Dr. John Watson.  In the books we learn that Watson, recently returned from Afghanistan with a war wound and an occasionally severe case of PTSD, has a tendency toward melancholy and no real plan for his life.  Once he takes rooms with Holmes and gets back into sporadic medical practice he gradually gets more and more involved with  Holmes’ adventures.  He regains his interest in life and eventually becomes Sherlock’s friend, partner, and chronicler.  In a real sense, these two very different men save each other.  I doubt I’m the first to point out that Watson is not just the perfect foil for Sherlock but also his other (better) half.  Even more, Watson is the person we identify with because he is us, he is the audience, he is our window into this otherworldly man.  Nearly every adaption I’ve ever seen him makes him blustery or silly (if not actually stupid) or a good-natured victim of  Sherlock’s odd social skill set.  This is absolutely wrong.  In the books, Watson is an intelligent and accomplished man in his own right:  an excellent doctor, a crack shot, intelligent, brave, fearless, and game for anything his friend suggests.  It is hard to imagine Holmes tolerating a fool for very long and Holmes never treats Watson with anything less than respect.  He is frustrated by Watson’s ability to “see but not observe” but he clearly considers Watson to be both partner and confidante and very possibly the first real friend  he has ever had.  This relationship is exactly what Sherlock gets right.  Martin Freeman’s Watson is a wounded vet who has no idea what to do with himself.   He meets Sherlock, they take a flat together, and he abruptly finds himself in the middle of increasingly complex and dangerous machinations.  Eventually, this John Watson also becomes his Sherlock’s Boswell:  he starts a blog.  As therapy.    Through it all, his frank confusion and down-to-earth manner play perfectly off his growing fascination with his odd flatmate.  The last scene of the last episode of the second season is a brutally honest depiction of a man who has suddenly lost both his best friend and the life he had only recently regained.

Of the two, Sherlock is more grounded in the written work than is A Game of Shadows.  The movie more or less just tosses in familiar characters and iconic events and hangs an entirely new story line on them.  The BBC production uses the stories as a jumping off point.  Many aspects of the shows will be familiar to readers but the scripts take the characters to much different places.  The episodes are also full of references to other Sherlock stories.  Both of the adaptations take the  same profound liberties with two aspects of the Holmes canon: Irene Adler and Professor Moriarty.  Irene Adler is iconic in the written works as one of the few people (and the only woman) who ever outsmarted Sherlock Holmes.  She appears in one story and is mentioned in a few others but that’s it; she never reappears.  The story makes quite clear that Holmes was not interested in her in any way other than as a worthy opponent, nor was she at all interested in him.  In the Downey movies Irene becomes Sherlock’s love interest and sexual partner.  She is also employed by Moriarity, who apparently kills her early in the second film.  In the BBC series she is a lesbian dominatrix who traffics in classified information and who never says anything that isn’t a double entrendre .  This Irene is involved with Moriarty and terrorists and the CIA.  She’s so fascinating Holmes goes all the way to Pakistan to save her.  In all this the essence of Irene as a character is lost because in neither the TV show nor the movies does she outwit Sherlock.

Moriarty, the Big Bad of the Holmes universe, is absent from the entire first half of Conan Doyle’s body of work.  He shows up in the last story in the first volume (The Final Problem) and by the end of the story both he and Holmes are dead.  Moriarty actually does die at Reichenbach Falls and his only other appearance in the books is in a story whose events take place prior to his death, although published later. Conan Doyle invented him to kill off Holmes because he wanted to do something other than write about his freaky detective and The Final Problem suffers from a cobbled together, tossed off, ah-fuck-it, ambiance.  It’s just so…abrupt.  Not so in the movies and BBC show.  Moriarty is front and center from almost the beginning, and even though not visible we are clearly shown that his hand is behind all the nefarious events Sherlock investigates.  He’s also puffed up quite a bit.  In the books he’s a fairly low key criminal mastermind, running a massive crime ring in England and profiting handsomely by it.  In the movies he’s orchestrating a world war for fun and profit and in the BBC show he’s a psychotic “consulting criminal” obsessed with outwitting and destroying Sherlock Holmes.  True to the books, in both the movie and the TV show Moriarity dies for real.  Or at least he appears to.  It will be interesting to see where the movie franchise and Season 3 of Sherlock end up going.  Killing off your main bad guy so early on is an interesting choice.  I have no idea if another movie is planned but I imagine if Downey can fit it in between all the Iron Man and Avengers movies he’s set to film there will be.  So they’ll have the same problem.  Where do you go from here?

For now I’ve set aside my reading, not because the stories aren’t any good or I find them boring in comparison to these modern marvels of storytelling.  It took Conan Doyle eight years to bring himself to write more Sherlock Holmes stories.   The earliest there could be another movie is 2014 and Sherlock doesn’t start filming its next series until early 2013.  So now is the proper time for a brief hiatus.  I am rewatching Sherlock, because it is just that good, and I may even rewatch some of the old Basil Rathbone movies and the Jeremy Brett TV series, which I remember as being quite enjoyable.  It’s a good thing there is a lot of Sherlock Holmes, since it’s actually pretty hard to get enough of him.   Game on!

I am you. Prepared to do anything. Prepared to burn. Prepared to do what ordinary people won’t do. You want me to shake hands with you in hell? I shall not disappoint you.”  –Sherlock Holmes, Sherlock


The Complete Sherlock Holmes, vol 1:  Meh.

Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows:  Meh.

Sherlock:  W00t!


~ by gun street girl on September 10, 2012.

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