Text-to-Screen Ratio: Sherlock Holmes

While as a critic of literature I try to treat most books with a neutral eye, even I am not immune to stubborn passions. There are things in literature I love unconditionally, and at the top of that list is the Sherlock Holmes canon. The reasons are varied and would take more time than I have, but suffice to say I consider the Holmes short stories the finest things ever written in the English language. They are masterfully crafted mysteries that manage to be regularly funny and quotable, they present a perfect frozen-in-amber view of Victorian England, and have two main characters that share a legitimately moving friendship. It’s something I keep on a pedestal, and will defend with all resources.

This of course regularly draws me out to battle. Arguably the most famous fictional character ever created, Holmes has essentially become public domain, leading to almost 200 films and countless books based off the character. The films give me headaches – taking him into the future or introducing him to Batman is just the tip of the iceberg – but even worse are the glorified crossover fan fiction novels, pairing him with everyone from Sigmund Freud to Oscar Wilde to Teddy Roosevelt. It destroys the perfect world that Doyle created, and in all comparisons the writing is unequivocally atrocious.

Being as defensive of the character as I am, I naturally had mixed feelings about the announcement that Warner Brothers would be releasing a new film based on the character. There were positive factors – Guy Ritchie as the director, Robert Downey Jr. as the titular character and Jude Law as Watson – but the imagery seemed worlds away from the traditional interpretation. There were several articles espousing the fact that they were going for a version more akin to Doyle’s original interpretation, but trailers that looked more like “Van Helsing” than Baker Street kept my cynicism levels peaked.

So when the film came out I tried to put my passion and prejudice off to the side, and study the film in the analytical Holmes fashion. And like Holmes at the end of a chemical endeavor, I found myself pleasantly surprised. While the film takes more than a few liberties with the subject matter and is clearly focused on flash over literature, there’s a clear loyalty to the source material and many of the changes made do bring forward elements of the character that are usually buried.

Viewing the short stories and novels as too limited for a contemporary action-adventure film (correctly I would say) the film focuses on the case of Lord Blackwood, a devil-worshipping nobleman who apparently rises from the dead after Holmes uncovers the evidence leading to his execution. With mass hysteria threatening to break out, Holmes must solve the case – while also dealing with his partner’s impending marriage, the reappearance of his rival/lover Irene Adler (Rachel McAdams) and a regularly poisoned bulldog. It’s a bit of an outlandish story for the great detective, but it’s of course not the first time that the detective approached the supposedly supernatural or Watson’s romantic life.

The setting also doesn’t feel too divorced from the source. Despite the obvious steampunk additions, Ritchie and the producers have created a London that meshes with the original semi-regularly. Horse-drawn carts are the mode of transportation, London’s streets and sewers are appropriately dark and weathered, and and Holmes’ personal quarters are littered with chemical research, case papers and pipe tobacco in a slipper. It certainly doesn’t feel like the canonical setting – there’s no fog unless you count the film’s bluish-gray tint, and it’s a lot busier than the quiet of Baker Street would lead you to believe – but Holmes is clearly at home there, able to disguise himself perfectly after one stroll through a market.

And certainly when it comes to an adaptation of Sherlock Holmes, its legendary titular character makes or breaks the adaptation. Robert Downey Jr. was a surprising choice, without the excessive height and leanness the books describe and Basil Rathbone popularized, and his Holmes is at first glance worlds away. He is haphazardly dressed in a fedora, corduroy coat and tinted glasses, given to biting witticisms towards the local police force, and even enters the boxing ring for a few “Fight Club”-esque brawls. His mannerisms edge on bipolar, lounging in a dressing gown and firing off his revolver when bored and riveted on the little details when not.

It’s a different take on the character, but surprisingly Ritchie and producer Lionel Wigram have grounded it heavily in the original mythos. Holmes did take a variety of drugs for scientific and recreational purposes, took pleasure in fistfights (though that always happened off-screen), did idly pick at his violin when no challenge presented himself, and did keep his personal quarters in shambles with a patriotic V.R. shot into the wall “in one of his queer humors.” Downey revels in these eccentricities, but never presents them as out of character – they are all part of the strange genius that Holmes brings to his cases and relationships. Additionally, his speeches explaining his deductions are the ideal “Sherlock Holmes English-speaking vernacular,” quick and precise in the nature of Doyle’s famous summaries.

But while Downey has many of the Holmes mannerisms down pat, there’s an unshakeable feeling that something is off in his portrayal. Holmes did have his oddities and addictions but he was always depicted as perfectly in control, “a delicate and finely adjusted temperament,” and this new version doesn’t have the air of untouched infallibility the books conveyed. It really feels more like a hybrid of Jack Sparrow, Tony Stark and Gregory House, a massive intelligence with ego to match, a cunning wit used to deflect serious attention at him. The calabash pipe and deerstalker have been stripped away, and although this does let us see more of Holmes’ character traits the personality is out with the clothes.

This new portrayal also seriously changes the dynamic between Holmes and Watson, undoubtedly the most legendary partnership in literature. The two were certainly close friends, but their devotion to each other came out in subtle ways, Watson backing Holmes in his riskiest affairs and Holmes only dropping his shield to reveal praise and concern for the Doctor. Here though, it’s more like House and Wilson than Holmes and Watson as they snipe back and forth at each other like an old married couple, Watson even going so far as to express his distaste for Holmes borrowing his clothes. That tone belongs in stories inspired by their dynamic, not the real thing.

This is nothing against Jude Law however – he gives an admirable performance, and it’s a relief to see Watson portrayed as a tough competent partner rather than a bumbling foil. I am certain however that he could never beat Holmes to the punch on a chemical deduction, or use his hat in Oddjob-style in fistfights. And these fights are many, but thankfully not overwhelmed by Ritchie’s dizzying editing style – and quickly enlivened as Holmes breaks down a series of disabling moves as if he was listing off one of his deductions. (Indeed, Ritchie’s style works quite well with Holmes’ thought process, peppering in flashbacks and close-ups to illustrate the little details that only he could connect).

Other characters have the same depictions – different from the originals but still there in spirit. Irene Adler, “the woman” to Holmes and the only one to outfox him, is well cast in Rachel McAdams, more conniving and sultry than “A Scandal in Bohemia” suggested but still convincing as the only woman to throw Holmes’ legendary focus off track. Mark Strong is mainly there to look imposing as Lord Blackwood, running his machinations in the shadows, but the portrayal is on par with Holmes’ canonical adversaries Jack Stapleton or John Clay – both of whom clearly influenced his creation. And like Watson, Inspector Lestrade (Eddie Marsan) is finally treated with some respect, shown as not being the sharpest of detectives but certainly one of the most tenacious.

The movie does have the typical Hollywood ham-handedness in setting up a sequel, but – and this was the most surprising part of “Sherlock Holmes” – I find myself embracing the idea. The devious Professor Moriarty and Sherlock’s brother Mycroft, along with the loose threads of a few dozen more short stories, are all there to be adapted into this new rendition of literature’s most famous investigator. It’s not perfect – indeed, it would take Holmes itself barely a glance to point out the flaws – but it’s far more faithful (and entertaining) than you’d expect from putting the great detective through the blockbuster wringer.

Extra Credit:

To better understand my appreciation of Sherlock Holmes, please enjoy my favorite Holmes short stories, all available through the miracle of public domain and the good folks at Wikisource.

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