Friday, January 8, 2010

Sherlock Holmes

I enjoyed the new Guy Ritchie Sherlock Holmes movie very much. Must I apologize to those who feel that a literary icon has been abducted by the forces of popular culture? Should I explain why I am willing to allow a character who is so sharply evoked in Arthur Conan Doyle's narratives become an action figure on screen, akin to a video game character?

I enjoy movies that tell a good story, that establish empathy, that transport. The new Sherlock Holmes does all that. It ranks high among the hundreds of cinematic, television, and literary interpretations of Holmes and Watson over the years.

I have read somewhere that Doyle left much to the imagination with his characterization of Holmes and Watson. They are drawn with bold, clean lines so that you understand quickly what Holmes and Watson are like, but he leaves out so much detail about their background, their lives, and their thinking that he is practically inviting the reader (or movie director) to fill in the spaces, and to create characters that fit the reader's reality.

I am not steeped in Holmesian detail (as are the Baker Street Irrgulars), but I have enjoyed reading most of the stories and novels, the Basil Rathbone films, the Jeremy Brett version produced by Granada Televison in the UK, the Seven Percent Solution where Holmes meets Freud, and more recently, the series of Laurie King novels beginning with the Beekeepers Apprentice that feature a young woman detective, with prodigious intellectual strength, and more than a little derring-do, matched up with an older Holmes. (I recommend her novel The Game where she brings together Doyle and Kipling, Holmes and Kim) It seems there hasn't been a time since the stories were written when readers have committed themselves to delving into the Holmesian world as if it were real, as if Holmes were an historical detective and Watson his chronicler. Doyle himself invited this kind of attention by inserting the device into his stories of Holmes, and the society of Holmes, being aware of Watson's stories about Holmes.

Doyle had a complicated relationship with his famous creation and did try to kill him off only to resurrect him for continued stories. I don't know what the author would think of the many versions and interpretations that have now come down to us but perhaps, if he were asked, he would apply a test. Does the interpreted Holmes stay true to the combination of brilliance, dissatisfaction, boredom, addiction, rationality, and science that he bequeathed his creation? Forget the Meerschaum pipe, the deerstalker hat, and the "elementary my dear Watson", which I understand are not part of Doyle's stories. He would pay attention to Holmes tortured need for intense observation, analysis and action. Is the friendship between Watson and Holmes depicted with the intimacy and understanding that is shared between these two very different men. Holmes is never patronizing to Watson even as he points out basic observations and conclusions that Watson doesn't see on his own. Watson completes Holmes in many ways, and Holmes does the same for Watson. They do rely on each other. Is that conveyed in any given interpretation?

By these standards, and others, Ritchie's movie succeeds. Yes, Robert Downey's Holmes here is an action hero, skilled in martial arts, and capable of physical feats of a gymnast. Yes, he is shorter and probably more fit than Doyles' Holmes. (Note, even Doyles' Holmes had been a boxer in his younger days.) Downey was a brilliant casting choice. His personal history and problems reflect a Holmesian combination of brilliance, addiction, and intensity. Jude Law's Watson is not befuddled by Holmes and serves as a perfect sidekick for dangerous adventures. He is also good looking, dashing, and physically adept as well. Ritchie doesn't have Holmes explaining in words to how he has come to certain conclusions or why he is taking certain actions. Ritchie instead uses cinema to convey Holmes' thinking process through a series of fast-action images that effectively suggest Holmes' superpower of deduction. His Holmes is complicated and troubled, and in one scene it is made clear how painful Holmes' ultra-awareness of his surroundings can be to him.

I like the movie. I like the stories, and novellas. I like many of the novels that interpret Holmes and Watson for us. I like the old movies and the more recent ones. I like these when they recreate an atmosphere that I have imagined since reading these stories as a boy, when they provide depth to the original characters, when they sketch out details that fit my imagination of the Holmesian world, when they inspire me to reflect on the nature of observation, deduction and analysis, friendship, and the intricacies of social relationships. Guy Ritchie's movie is a welcome addition to the oeuvre. It does not replace the stories which I have read and re-read over years. It does not detract from them, or devalue them. It simply is a new, and exciting, and pleasing rendering of a Holmesian legacy that was created and passed down to us by Arthur Conan Doyle. Thank you, Sir Arthur!


  1. Yay! I'm so excited to see this. Last night Derek made me watch Kiss Kiss Bang Bang because he knew I would love it. Have you seen it? Downey is so fantastic.

  2. I hope you go see it soon. The movie deserves the big screen.