EACH AGE GETS THE SHERLOCK HOLMES IT DESERVES. During World War II, we got the ineffably patriotic (and anachronistic) Sherlock of Basil Rathbone; in the seventies, Nicole Williamson gave us the drug-addicted Holmes. Later still, we had the twitchily neurotic Holmes of Jeremy Brett. Each performer's portrayal (and the same is true for Watson) is informed by the form and pressure of the age in which he lives, what society values or condemns or overlooks. Even the economics of filmmaking are bound to contribute to differing visions — and versions — of Holmes.
Which brings us to the dilemma of Holmes in a postliterate age, and the larger question of how one adapts literature for the movies, for an audience that has never read the original.
The answer, I fear, is a depressing one — depressing, at any rate, to those of us who grew up reading and loving the original, written incarnations of Jane Eyre, Pride and Prejudice, Huckleberry Finn, King Solomon's Mines, Treasure Island, and The Three Musketeers.
The latter, incidentally, was just filmed in 3D, along with airplanes. This gives you some idea of where matters are heading. Pride and Prejudice (to say nothing of Abraham Lincoln) is okay, as long as they fight zombies and vampires. The latest version of Treasure Island is set in outer space. It is doubtful if The Three Musketeers would be filmed again and again if there didn't happen to be a candy bar of that name. (If there had been a Count of Monte Cristo candy bar, perhaps we'd have the Chateau D'if in outer space. Hey, that's not a bad idea.)
Which brings us to Sherlock Holmes and his friend John. The first Robert Downey Jr.-Guy Ritchie Sherlock Holmes movie was very successful at the box office. I confess I haven't seen the sequel, and I am clearly in the minority when I say that, although Downey's Holmes is not completely implausible, everything that surrounds him is unrelated to the genuine Sherlock — and this is nothing new: Rathbone's Holmes faced the same conundrum.
There is clearly the perceived logic on the part of filmmakers and financiers that Holmes must be "updated" for a modern audience, a crowd that clearly suffers from attention deficit disorder, who cannot tolerate a shot that lasts more than four seconds, who has no use or interest in narrative coherence, merely an appetite for action and eye candy, regardless of logic, and — not unrelated — suffers from a reluctance to cease texting during the movie.
This urge to "update" is not unique to Holmes. Countless directors of Shakespeare's plays feel that they must "save" his plays and make them "contemporary" by setting each in some newfangled location or adding modern costumes, as if the plays were not already timeless. While occasionally such innovations can be strikingly effective, many more such experiments seem designed more to show off the director's inventiveness than to illuminate the text — a text in which they arguably place no confidence. The plays do not require the fumbling contributions of second-rate minds to sustain them. The same goes for Holmes.
And lest it be argued that stick...read more