Whither Holmes?

May 21, 2012   •   By Nicholas Meyer

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 sticking to the original style and intentions of the author cannot possibly succeed in today's ADD marketplace, I might point out that Franco Zeffirelli's sensational film adaptations of Hamlet, Romeo and Juliet, and the Taming of the Shrew treat these plays as if they'd just been thrown over the transom. These productions seem to have no difficulty in connecting with today's audiences. They are in no way "definitive," and not exactly new, but they have no difficulty in communicating with contemporary viewers, either.


Why does Porgy & Bess have to be stripped of its orchestrations, its characters "deepened,"and its title changed, in order to "save" it? It doesn't.


I would love to see Robert Downey Jr. as Sherlock Holmes. I'd even love to see Jude Law as John Watson. But I have as much difficulty watching them in these Holmes MTV videos as I do watching Rathbone and Nigel Bruce in those absurd World War II settings. (Why does a genius hang out with an idiot?)


While Doyle is explicit that Holmes is athletically accomplished — he's a boxer and singlestick player — a reading of the stories clearly emphasizes his cerebral rather than his physical gifts. Downey Jr.'s Holmes stands this ratio on its head. For the current generation, Holmes is an action superhero on a par with Batman. Granted, he no longer sports the clichéd deerstalker and Inverness; Holmes is now a sort of superhero beatnik.


In my years as a filmmaker in Hollywood, I've attended numerous meetings devoted to making Sherlock Holmes movies; invariably none of the producers in the room have ever actually read Doyle. They've only seen Holmes in the movies, never experienced him on the page. To them, Holmes is the guy with the deerstalker hat and the meerschaum pipe, neither canonical. But no matter, they now constitute the essence of the "brand."


I realize that these views may pigeonhole me as hopelessly antediluvian, but I have held them since I first read the tales of Sherlock as a kid, and have winced at most of Hollywood's approximations ever since. I've almost never seen a Holmes movie I didn't dislike.


Indeed, it was my dissatisfaction with so many Holmes movies and earlier pastiches that prompted me to write my first Holmes novel, The Seven-Per-Cent Solution, as well as two subsequent follow-ups. These, of course, are also products of the time, place, and sensibility of a writer working in the latter part of the 20th century in America, but I think I may claim with some justice that they were intended for people who read, not just those who peruse graphic novels and play video games.


The other day I was asked if Benedict Cumberbatch, starring in the modern dress version of the detective and his exploits, was not the "definitive" Holmes. I responded that where art and biography are concerned, there can be no such word as "definitive"; there are just too many variables.  


If you asked Cezanne, Rembrandt, and Picasso to paint the same apple, the result would not be a "definitive apple"; it would be an apple as rendered by three different geniuses.


If, for example, we watch three films, all set in 1895 — one made in 1920, another in 1940, another in 1970 — I would wager we could all identify within five years when each film was made. There might be big giveaways, such as silence or sound, black & white or color, or false eyelashes and hairstyles that would suggest the date, but I would argue further that social, cultural, and political views and perspectives within the stories themselves — their points of view and narrative styles — would also point to the time and circumstances of each film's creation.


But it isn't just history at work. Not all books can be made into swell films. Indeed, the better the book, the harder the job. Edmund White touched on this recently in Los Angeles when he noted that books leave things to the imagination that film relentlessly literalizes. Like Moby Dick, Holmes and perhaps even Hamlet, they may work best in the mind's eye.