Adaptations of iconic literary characters tread a fine line – too loyal and they seem staid and pointless, too radical and you lose the ‘fanbase’ (as they wouldn’t have said in 1886). If you want to be a purist, you can turn off the telly and get all the books essentially free on Kindle – and you’ll find that even Conan Doyle had trouble on occasion keeping up with his own continuity. And Holmes soaks up the spirit of the age and the preoccupations of his interpreters. After all, Basil Rathbone, one of the best known Holmes, spent a lot of his time fighting Nazis.
So, from Guy Ritchie we have the latest in his Sherlock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels offering (old joke, worth repeating), full of his yawnsome fetishistic slo-mo gunplay and a Moriarty reduced to the Hollywood cliché of an arms dealer. With those rows of phallic shells it’s almost as if Ritchie’s trying to compensate for something, and I’m not sure the Napoleon of Crime would have gone to such effort for anything as prosaic as money. But yes here is an 1891 of sub-machine guns, contact lenses, face transplants, pocket oxygen breathers and where Watson is reduced at one point to calling Holmes ‘Sherley no mates’.
This is all a deathly plunge into a waterfall off a duck’s back: in fact Richie’s worst crime is not being ridiculous, but in managing to make most of the film up until the last twenty minutes really quite boring. In fact things really only come alive when Jared Harris is on screen as an understated but effective Moriarty.
Still, he gets a lot more ‘right’ than might be supposed by viewing earlier adaptations: Holmes bohemian dress and manner, his almost Clouseauesque love of ridiculous disguises, and his status as something of a Victorian action hero. In The Yellow Face Watson observes of the detective that “few men were capable of greater muscular effort, and he was undoubtedly one of the finest boxers of his weight that I have ever seen”. And in The Adventure of an Empty House the resurrected Holmes reveals to the doctor that he defeated Moriarty using the Japanese martial art of ‘baritsu’ (a bastardisation of the bartitsu, itself an adaptation of jujitsu – thank you Wikipedia )
Oddly it is the other current version, BBC’s excellent Sherlock that, despite its 21st century setting, manages to better capture the spirit of the books. Sure, this season is a bit more campy and humorous than the first, but probably no more so than some of the stories must have appeared to audiences in the 1880s and 90s. And if Moffat and Gatiss do seem to be giving us a Doctor Who for grown-ups, it probably owes as much to the good Doctor’s original inheritance and inspirations. Cumberbatch would have made a fantastic Doctor (Who not Watson), and incidentally Matt Smith auditioned for Watson – which would have made for way too much quirky in one room.
Gatiss the actor is a perfectly pitched Mycroft, but on occasions Gatiss the writer’s love of the gothic and absurd wears a bit thin. For my money The Hounds of Baskerville was the weakest so far, but that’s probably the price you pay for tackling such an iconic tale. (And it must be a nod to Barrymore’s facial hair in the book, but an Army major with a beard, shurely shome mishtake?) The series is on much stronger ground when it takes its shape and flavour from the lesser known short stories. With the exception of the cringemaking ‘mind palace’ sequence which comes off as a combination of a bad dance routine, Minority Report and a seizure, Sherlock is witty, literate, stylish and has leads that fit their roles like Cumberbatch’s’ well-tailored trench coat.
It’s nice to see both Jude Law and Martin Freeman as wilful, intelligent sidekicks (the worst thing about the Rathbone films is Nigel Bruce’s doltish, bumbling Watson), and as ever fun is had with Watson’s Boswellian status. The Victorian convention of first person narrative is one of the things that both adds a strange sort of verisimilitude to the originals, but at the same time raises the possibility that Watson’s accounts of Holmes’ adventures might not be entirely reliable. In what now might be considered post-modern, Holmes pauses during The Sign of Four to upbraid Watson for the ‘romanticism’ of A Study in Scarlet. Fast forward 125 years and Cumberbatch mocks Freeman for his blog (a neat variation) and Downey Jr even sneaks in to subtly amend Law’s account of proceedings.
Watson is of course something of a self-portrait by Doyle. A doctor and sporting man, learned but sometimes too easily persuadable, and with a nose for justice (albeit criminal in Watson’s case and social in Doyle’s.) And the best that can be said about Nigel Bruce’s Watson is that he physically resembled the author in his later years. The relationship between Doyle and the Detective his harder to define. Holmes is often held up as paragon of logic, but his powers of deductions are often rather fantastical. Of course Doyle strayed far from rationalism in later life. He tried hard to hang onto his scientific principles, but ended up being drawn into all manner of psychic hooey, the most embarrassing point probably being his vociferous support for the veracity of the Cottlingley Fairies – a transparent hoax which would have had even the serious Holmes hooting with laughter.
Years ago I was lucky enough to work briefly with the late Martin Booth in an attempt to get his Doctor and the Detective – a Biography of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle made into a TV documentary. Booth’s fascinating theory (very briefly précised) is that Doyle was drawn to the occult in a paradoxical attempt to escape a legacy of mental illness in the family. His father, Charles Doyle spent his last years in a lunatic asylum where he painted strange pictures of his visions of fairies and demons. Booth argues that if Arthur Conan Doyle could persuade himself that fairies were real, then his father really was seeing them and therefore not mad. In this way, Doyle the younger could free himself from the fear of hereditary madness that gripped him. (The Victorian’s obsession with heredity would later mutate via eugenics into crimes far more monstrous that even Moriarty could have conceived.)
Doyle’s father was also an alcoholic, and one of the aspects of Holmes that adaptations have struggled with over the years is the sleuth’s drug habit. The beginning of The Sign of Four has an eye-opening sequence where we learn that Holmes has been injecting a seven percent solution of cocaine three times a day for months. And Watson’s question of whether it is cocaine or morphine makes you wonder if Holmes tried speedballs from time to time. “Sherlock Holmes found dead outside Viper Room” might have been an alternative way to kill him off. Jeremy Brett – for many the definitive TV Holmes – indulged for a while, but eventually quit once the programme’s producers became aware of its younger audience. But Downey Jr is reduced to chewing coca leaves, and Cumberbatch can only manage cigarettes and nicotine patches. It’s a challenge to the stereotypes we hold of the Victorians that they were better able to deal with a junkie protagonist than we are today.
Finally, it is good to be reminded by these two most recent adaptations that Doyle’s stories were originally the adventure of two young men. Rathbone was in his late forties, Brett played Holmes in the decade leading up to his death at 61. Just as William Hartnell has been getting younger in the last fifty years to the point that we will soon need Medical Student Who, I suspect that even if Holmes had been written as an older man, the BBC would have always regenerated him without the wrinkles. But of course Doyle didn’t write him that way. If we are to believe the chronology of His Last Bow (there are a few reasons not to), Holmes is only 27 when he first meets Watson in A Study in Scarlet and a spritely 37 when he plunges to his supposed death at the Reichenbach Falls.
The manner in which Downey Jr has spent his 46 years means that he’s pushing it to play a Holmes supposed to be in his mid to late thirties, but that is probably the least problematic thing about this manic rendition. The best bits? As with all Sherlockian adaptations, it’s always when Holmes gets to utter lines that Doyle actually wrote or encounter characters and situations that he created. When you hear Cumberbatch offer his take on the ‘once you have eliminated the impossible…’ line it’s, well, improbable that you won’t want to pick up the books. I guess, that’s the test of an adaptation: is it both a compliment and a complement to the original source material? Richie doesn’t quite manage it, Sherlock has it in spades.