Sunday, March 25, 2012

Going Holmes Again


Having seen Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows, I was inspired to once again visit thoughts on that iconic literary figure. I cannot tell you just how important Sherlock Holmes was to me as a tween;  while all my friends were reading Stephen King, I was devouring Agatha Christie and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.  I played the violin because of him, I attempted to be less emotional because of him (not to successful on either front, though I did earn a medal for my fiddle playing).  Luckily, I never got the cocaine thing (even I had my limits), but for me, Sherlock Holmes was a hero. 

In fact, when I went to London for the very first time, two years ago this month, I cleared so many other sights just to visit 221 B Baker Street, and spent many happy hours, searching for Irene Adler's photograph, or the bust Holmes used as a decoy, marvelling at the consulting room.  All right, I know everything was a front, but I was willing to play along.  I do plan to go back to London (perhaps for the 50th Anniversary of River Song, formerly known as Doctor Who, although the idea of going in November is none too appealing, but I digress), and I do plan to visit the fabled home once again. 

When last I wrote on the subject, there were three actors who were known to be Sherlock Holmes: Basil Rathbone, Jeremy Brett, and Robert Downey, Jr.  Now, they are joined by a fourth: Benedict Cumberbatch in Sherlock, written and produced by Stephen Moffat, who also produces and writes for the longtime science-fiction program River Song (formerly known as Doctor Who). 


For me, Basil Rathbone is the Sherlock Holmes that most people have in mind when they think on the detective.  His interpretation was very good to my mind: Rathbone always played Holmes as being far smarter than everyone else.  He could be curt, more often than not he was (at least in my memory), but he was determined to find the culprit.

There are two reasons, though, why I was never fond of Rathbone.  First, I wasn't too keen on how the Sherlock Holmes films went from Victorian/Edwardian times to present-day (something I was to encounter in the future).  To my mind, this was getting away from the stories and inventing new stories for him, something that came from a particular screenwriter and not from Conan Doyle himself.  They might have been clever, and even good, but they were imitations to me.  No offense, but what the hell was Sherlock Holmes doing fighting Nazis?

Second, I DETEST Nigel Bruce (I understand those who similarly despise his take on the good Doctor Watson refer to him as Boobus Britannicus).  I never understood why Dr. Watson was always portrayed as a bumbling idiot, and this is the common idea about Watson: that he's a moron.  No one would ever be as smart as Holmes, but this idea that Watson was some dim-witted twit is too much for me to ever embrace the Rathbone/Bruce films.


Jeremy Brett will always be THE Sherlock Holmes to me.  All others following his Granada television series are only shadows to Brett.  His interpretation was of a manic, almost unhinged man, dismissive at times, but fully aware of the dangers involved.  I point to the adaptation of The Sign of Four and The Hound of the Baskervilles and think they would make great theatrical releases.  For me, the former is one of the most thrilling adaptations of a Holmes story.  Even the lengthy flashback to how the story all began never felt forced, but flowed naturally.

Brett's performance as Holmes was all-consuming, and it was also offered a wide range.  For example, in The Devil's Foot, we see him tackle his drug addiction in a way that had not been acknowledged.  We saw a vulnerable, even haunted man, one who finally managed to overcome this terrible vice and even see that his John Watson (David Burke and Edward Hardwicke) was less a stooge and more a friend. 

His attention to detail, his voice, his manners, all to me (and I think to millions) WERE Sherlock Holmes.  Of course, I have always wondered whether the intensity of his portrayal took a mental and physical toll on Brett himself.  I think, in a sense, Holmes killed Brett, the total commitment and passion to which Jeremy Brett threw himself into the role overwhelming his health and perhaps his sanity.

Born 1965

I don't dislike Robert Downey, Jr. as Sherlock Holmes.  I just have never warmed to him as such.  One has to give him credit: for an American to play such a quintessential British character, Downey, Jr. speaks so well one soon forgets he's from California. 

For me, this is a case of a good actor in a bad series.  Both Sherlock Holmes and Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows are junk.   Director Guy Ritchie sacrifices narrative for action, making Holmes less a cold, logical thinking machine and more an action star, something like a Steven Seagal or Jean-Claude Van Damme.  A lot of people love that, but it doesn't give people the truth about just how clever the plots were, how intricate the stories are.  Instead, we get these stories that don't make any sense, that are hopelessly convoluted, and that bastardize the Conan Doyle canon into a parody of itself.  I know they will make a third one, and I know they'll continue ruining the character (although Downey, Jr. is a good Holmes and Jude Law the best Watson going).

Somehow, if only Ritchie would trust the stories rather than seeing the characters as a jumping-off point for more rock 'em sock 'em action, he'd have great films.  Imagine if he tried to adapt The Hound of the Baskervilles...then again, maybe not. 

Born 1976

Now we have Benedict Cumberbatch as a very 21st Century Sherlock Holmes.  I think Cumberbatch is a great actor.  He's proven it again and again, from Amazing Grace (which I liked) right through to the recent one-two punch of War Horse and Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy.  As much as I like Cumberbatch, I have been highly reluctant to touch Sherlock.  A small part of it comes from the fact that I find 'updates' a bit disconcerting.  Oftentimes I find whenever someone "updates" something, they think they are improving on perfection by changing the setting or location or time.  Sometimes updates work (I think 10 Things I Hate About You works as a revamped The Taming of the Shrew) but my experience has been that most of the time it ends up sucking the life out of what made the original so good. 

However, a large part of my hesitation is due to the man in the middle:

That would be Stephen Moffat.   You see the "modern" Sherlock, Mr. Cumberbatch, on his left (where I figure they all are, but I digress).  The man on the right is Matt Smith, who plays a character on the long-time British science-fiction show River Song.  He plays the supporting part of The Doctor, the assistant and future husband of the lead character (that would be River Song).  His role on River Song is to provide comic relief as our intrepid River travels through time and space, taunting everyone with her sensuality and higher intelligence.

Yes, once the show WAS called Doctor Who, and Smith's character WAS the title character, but Moffat has put an end to all that.  Who needs a character that's been on television, in comics, and novels for nearly fifty years when you've got RIVER SONG, the single greatest creation in television history (up yours, Archie Bunker, Homer Simpson, J.R. Ewing and Alexis Carrington)!  I know he created the character of River Song, and I know as such he has a fixation on his own Galatea.  However, not all of us Whovians are as besotted with River Song as Moffat is.  To my mind, I find the creative direction he's taken River Song (formerly known as Doctor Who) in have been disastrous.  I know things can't be as they were in the 'classic' Who era, and previous longtime producer John Nathan-Turner did a great deal of damage to the show as well.  However, under the new Who producers Russell T Davies and Moffat, they have 'updated' Doctor Who to where the various episodes turn out to be one long story (and some of them thoroughly awful).  Under Moffat, River has taken on a life of her own to where she eclipses the main character. 

Unlike others, I dont see Moffat as a genius.

Similarly, when I hear that Sherlock is an 'update' to the Conan Doyle stories, I wince.  My mind keeps thinking that like the Ritchie films, Moffat will dilute the stories to where they have the characters of Holmes and Watson, but not the intelligence the Conan Doyle stories have.  It will be a shadow of Holmes, not the real thing, and not something I can embrace.

Of course, these are my FEARS, not my reality.  I have bought the first series/season of Sherlock, and it's waiting for me to watch.  I imagine I'll get around to it, and hope my trepadations are all for naught.  I might even fall in love with Cumberbatch's take on Holmes (though I doubt he will ever make me move from Brett), and John Freeman is a very capable actor (perhaps giving Law a good run for his money).  That, however, is for the future. 

I will always love Holmes, and at times he's been beaten up, abused, even mocked.  For me, the Arthur Conan Doyle stories will be a brilliant escape and an adventure to enjoy...a series of curious incidents.


  1. Always a pleasure to meet a Sherlockian :)

    Great post about Sherlock Holmes and Brett's interpretation.

    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. No, I had never heard of it, but I am intrigued. I will look for it, and thank you so much for telling me about it.


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