Thursday, December 31, 2009

Personal Reflections on Sherlock Holmes

When I was in middle school, most of my friends were reading Stephen King. I, however, was usually in one of two places: C for Christie or D for Doyle. I loved mysteries and the Sherlock Holmes stories were some of my favorites (Hercule Poirot & Miss Marple being the others). The character was my hero: someone who used reason and logic to uncover great mysteries. I did my best to model myself after Holmes. I aimed to be a cold, thinking machine. I played the violin. Mercifully I didn't take Holmes' cocaine or morphine habits, so even I had my limits. Even today, I adopt the adage that if it's of no use to me I don't bother learning something. That I think has led me to make some ridiculous mistakes, but I digress.

It was in A Study in Scarlet that Dr. Watson discovers to his amazement that Holmes did not know the Earth revolved around the Sun. This is of course basic information, but Holmes replied that that was an irrelevant fact in his line of work and interest, so he didn't bother with it. In time, my passion for Holmes dissipated, but never my affection for him. I'm too much of a soft touch to be totally impassionate (though I still remain a bit distant emotionally), and I've long since hung up the fiddle & bow. I have thought of joining Sherlock Holmes Societies or offshoots of the Baker Street Irregulars, but I've been put off by what I understand is their thinking on the authorship. I've been led to believe that they think Sir Arthur Conan Doyle didn't really write the stories, but that he was a mere "literary agent" to Dr. John Watson. That is taking things too far. It's as if for all their fanaticism, they've forgotten an old Holmesian adage: Once You Have Eliminated the Impossible, Whatever Remains, However Improbable, Must Be the Truth.

There have been several interpreters of Conan Doyle's best-known creation on stage, screen, and television, from the comedic (The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes) to the faithful (the Granada television series). Out of all the actors who've given life to Holmes, three now are in the public mind: Basil Rathbone, Jeremy Brett, and Robert Downey, Jr.

I figure that when people think "Sherlock Holmes", they see Rathbone. He made fourteen pictures as Holmes with Nigel Bruce as Watson. I'll say that he most definitely LOOKS the part. His face shows a keen intelligence with a touch of haughtiness. He also had the costume most associated with Holmes: the deerstalker cap and cloak. I haven't seen many of his films because I always HATED Bruce's interpretation of Watson as this fat, fat-headed tottering old imbecile who couldn't think his way out of a paper bag. He never struck me as right for the part of an action-oriented war veteran and respected doctor. Instead, Bruce made Watson a figure of ridicule, and to be frank the good doctor's reputation has only recently recovered. Watson is still seen in the contemporary mind as an idiot, and that's a terrible disservice to the stories themselves.

I also never liked the idea that Holmes lived in the present-day rather than Victorian & early Edwardian Britain. Sherlock in Washington, D.C.? Blasphemy, I say. Finally, I never was fond of the decision to create stories for them rather than adapt the original ones. In a sense, I can understand WHY it was done: it is cheaper to make current-day films than period films. All in all, they serve as a decent introduction to the stories...minus Nigel Bruce.

I came along when Granada Television brought the series to the small screen. It was their intention to make all the stories and novels, but tragically, that was not to be. For my mind, Jeremy Brett is THE Sherlock Holmes. No one, except Rathbone in a close race, can match him. His Holmes was obsessed, sometimes uncouth, but always on the side of right. He showed Holmes to be someone of fierce intelligence but also more human than before. For example, The Devil's Foot features as part of the story Holmes fighting, and ultimately quitting, his cocaine habit, and is one of the few times that I can remember Holmes ever referring to his associate by his first name of John. In The Empty House, Holmes apologizes for playing a trick on Watson and tells him that while he is as trustworthy as Holmes' brother Mycroft, "you have a kinder heart".

David Burke and Edward Hardwicke also do more justice to Watson. In the series, he's hardly stupid, albeit not as bright as Holmes. They are men with guns and are not afraid of a fight. Again, in The Empty House, it's Watson that comes to Holmes' rescue. Watson even gets his own: in one story (I can't remember which), Watson ends the story by telling him, "Elementary, my dear Holmes". I'll say that the best stories were feature-length (The Sign of Four and The Hound of the Baskervilles). They were faithful to the stories while making them quite frightening and never boring. I digress to say that I think the makers of the new Sherlock Holmes film missed a golden opportunity by not adapting these stories and instead going for an original work, and while at least it was set in Victorian times the story was too convoluted to be effective. If it were not for Brett's death, we could have seen what could have happened once all the stories had been made. There is one caveat to Jeremy Brett: I wonder if his interpretation consumed him emotionally and psychologically.

That does bring me to Robert Downey, Jr. To my mind, he did a wonderful job in making Holmes more action hero than intellectual machine. That may have been the intent: we are talking a Guy Ritchie film. Still, I can't help think that it all could have been better. This is prime example of when you give a good actor a good part but in a lousy movie. You keep thinking he could do more, show why he can solve these mysteries in a rational manner rather than being all rush-rush-rush, quick-quick-quick. He falls short of Brett and Rathbone, but if he continues with better stories (and let's be frank, better direction) he could reach their level.
Jude Law's Dr. Watson, on the other hand, is a mile high better than Bruce's. Here, he's almost totally action and nobody's stooge. Law makes his Watson a man of intelligence, action, and loyalty, things that he was in the stories. It's hard to believe Nigel Bruce could knock down a door to get in or to tell Holmes to stay out of his private life. I suppose that the best qualities to both Downey, Jr. and Law is that they are younger than the team of Rathbone & Bruce or of Brett and Burke/Hardwicke. At 44 and 37, they show a more youthful duo than either Rathbone or Bruce, even though Rathbone was only three years older than Downey and Bruce was actually Downey's age when they started their films.

I'll be frank: I don't think any Holmes can ever measure up to Jeremy Brett and don't think any will. I can hope that the new Sherlock Holmes will introduce people to the novels & stories, eventually the television series. I fear that is a vain hope, since reading for pleasure seems to be a dying art. Still, I hope.


  1. Brett was a very masterly Holmes. The Granada series with Jeremy Brett is one of the best adaptations of Sherlock Holmes ever.

    Have you read the book "Bending the Willow: Jeremy Brett as Sherlock Holmes" by David Stuart Davies. This book is a must read for fans of the Granada adaptation and/or Jeremy Brett.


    1. I've heard of it, but the cost is too high for purchase. I'm told it is simply brilliant and look forward to eventually reading it.


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