Monday, July 13, 2009

Rediscovering the Real Sherlock Holmes

(Editor’s note: With this post, we welcome another new addition to the Rap Sheet crew. Hes Rafe McGregor, a South African-born British author who once worked in law enforcement. His first novel, a historical mystery titled The Architect of Murder, was released earlier this year in the UK. His is currently working on a contemporary thriller and writing a blog of his own.)

Somebody needs to say this: There is nothing wrong with Guy Ritchie directing Sherlock Holmes.

That’s all I really have to say, but if you’d like to know why, then read on …

In the last year I’ve had correspondence with dozens of Sherlockian enthusiasts on the subject of Sherlock Holmes, the film that is due for release on December 25 of this year. Without exception, reactions have fallen into one of two categories: either a mixture of horror and outrage or a grudging acceptance. The former correspondents resent that the classic stories are going to be mangled beyond recognition by Ritchie of Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels (1998) fame; the latter accept that no matter how poor or unfaithful the film, it will undoubtedly raise the profile of Holmes and lead more people to Arthur Conan Doyle’s original canon of 56 short stories and four novels. A few of the latter folk extend the same acceptance to the Sacha Baron Cohen (Ali G to most of us) and Will Ferrell Sherlock Holmes offering, which has now been postponed to 2010.

Those who accept the inevitable are of course quite right to do so: Hollywood movies have made the careers of many popular-fiction writers and always result in an increase of book sales. Even having a book turned into a TV show can be a huge boost for an author. Journalists have famously tried to bait James Ellroy about the poor adaptations of several of his novels (most recently, The Black Dahlia, in 2006), but he won’t bite: he likes the money and realizes that all the films have brought him new readers. That isn’t the point when it comes to Sherlock Holmes, however.

According to the last study I read, Holmes is the most filmed character ever--real or imagined--and the figures quoted were: 211 films with 75 different actors playing the Great Detective. I imagine this information is already out of date. Certainly, films starring Holmes have been made ever since 1903, which means that some of them are actually older than the stories. The most enduring image of Holmes and Dr. John H. Watson may well have come from the Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce collaborations, which began with The Hound of the Baskervilles in 1939, and spawned 13 sequels over the next seven years--propaganda for the British war effort. The films still have a huge following, but they were never anything like Doyle’s originals.

What most directors fail to appreciate is that at the beginning of Watson’s partnership with Holmes they are both young men. Given the haphazard chronology of the stories it is difficult to pinpoint exact dates, but Holmes was probably 27 at the time of A Study in Scarlet (1881), and Watson either the same age or perhaps one or two years older. Holmes retired very early, when he was 50 at the most, and then returned for one last bow in 1914, probably aged 60. The bulk of his partnership with Watson would thus have occurred while both men were in their 30s and 40s. Rathbone and Bruce were well into their 40s at the time they made their first Holmes film.

It isn’t only with the characters’ ages, though, that movies have taken liberties. Sherlock Holmes films have often presented the canon as “cozy mystery,” with two elderly English gentlemen mincing around Victorian London solving mysteries perpetrated by other elderly English gentlemen. The originals are nothing like this. The second novel, The Sign of the Four (1890), is a fast-paced thriller which climaxes with a waterborne chase on the Thames, guns and blowpipes blazing. In the second short story, “The Red-Headed League,” Holmes ambushes one of London’s most dangerous gangsters; “The Man with the Twisted Lip” is set in Limehouse and concerns crime in opium dens; “The Cardboard Box” begins with a severed ear arriving in the post; “The Yellow Face” takes a very post-modern look at racism; and Watson is shot in “The Three Garridebs.” James Moriarty may have been a professor, but he is also king of the London underworld ... I don’t really need to go on.

Holmes is an expert in boxing, fencing, singlestick, and jiu-jitsu (erroneously called “baritsu” by Conan Doyle), and frequently arms himself with a revolver. His left canine tooth is missing, knocked out by a gangster in a fistfight (mentioned in “The Empty House”). Watson makes his first appearance as a veteran, fresh from the war in Afghanistan. Despite his wounds, he is a physically capable man, often relied upon for his brawn by Holmes, and also very much a homme fatale where the ladies are concerned.

It should be obvious where I’m going with this. Take the names “Holmes” and “Watson” out of the preceding paragraph, and there is no reason Guy Ritchie shouldn’t direct such a film. Yes, he is criminally liable for bringing us Revolver in 2005, and RocknRolla (2008) received mixed reviews. He also gave us Lock, Stock, which was not only a commercial and critical success, but is still regularly rated as one of the best British films ever. The main criticism of Snatch (2000), was that it was too similar to Lock, Stock, though I thought it was an improvement on an excellent formula. Robert Downey Jr. is not my own ideal choice for Holmes--physically, he doesn’t match--but I’ve been assured by film buffs that he’s been doing excellent work since his comeback. Also, although he’s 44, he is in good shape, and credible as a man of action. Similarly, Jude Law lacks the physical presence Watson should have, but he perfectly captures the character’s appeal to the ladies.

So, no, I don’t think the forthcoming film has all the ingredients for success. But I do think that Sherlockians should at least give it a chance and perhaps even rustle up some enthusiasm when they see pictures of Downey stripped to the waist and bare-knuckle boxing. That isn’t Guy Ritchie doing a third version of Lock, Stock; it’s actually Conan Doyle, or at least closer to his conception of his most famous character than many other films have come. This movie might still be a disaster, if--for example--there is too much action and too little detection. But a fitter, more physical Holmes having adventures rather than solving armchair mysteries should be encouraged, not vilified. There was actually good reason for Conan Doyle to label most of the stories as adventures.

Finally, I believe the deerstalker is absent: top marks to Mr. Ritchie. The bucolic cap and cumbersome calabash were both later additions to Holmes, brought by stage actors rather than Conan Doyle.

I’ll conclude this post in six months, once I’ve seen the film. In the meantime, I’m looking forward to it.

Yes, really.

READ MORE:Rachel McAdams Sherlock Holmes Poster!
by Jay Tomio (BSC Review).


Clare2e said...

As a crime/SFF/comic fan, I'm used to seeing beloved properties get sold and mangled. I don't get all high BP on it anymore. I wait, and hope it'll be good. Often it isn't, but at its best, adding visuals can flesh out a story and character in a way that feels fresh and satisfying both.

Guy Ritchie can do stylish work, and if he brings the dialogue up to audible levels in the mix (my persistent gripe with UK productions), I'll be thrilled to see what's offered. I do enjoy Robert Downey Jr.

Jon The Crime Spree Guy said...

Does the Holmes work really need new readers? People will discover it on thier own if they want it. It is good stuff, but also very of it's time.

I find it amusing that people get so bent out of shape over things like this. The previews to me look like a really entertaining movie, and truthfully that's all that should matter.

Besides, who is to say that if Doyle was alive today he wouldn't apporve? A group of people who refuse to read anything other than stories with Holmes?

Guy Ritchie is a talented director, and Downey a very talented actor, looks like a winner to me.

John D said...

Great post, I agree wholeheartedly. Three things:

1. RocknRolla was, in my opinion, underrated by critics. I found it quite entertaining (more so with each viewing).

2. I fully expected Downey to crash and burn as Tony Stark in Ironman. He didn't. In my opinion, he kicked ass in the role, fleshing out a character that had the potential to be cartoonish (it was based on a comic book, after all).

3. The "purists" ought to grab a pint and chill out. Time, and a viewing or two, will tell whether this movie will rock the house, or suck canal water. Until then, no use getting our collective underwear in a bunch, eh?

Personally, I'm looking forward to this flick.

Peter Rozovsky said...

This radically open position is like that of Ed Pettit, the Philly Poe Guy, who sees nothing wrong with fanciful cinemtatic tinkerings with the master's work.
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