John Watson regales us with yet another adventurous yarn.
There is a wonderful moment in John Kennedy Toole’s A Confederacy of Dunces in which the eccentric protagonist is so incensed by what he sees on a movie screen that he cannot help shouting out his indignation. “Oh, good heavens!” bellows Ignatius J. Reilly to the annoyance and unease of fellow patrons. “What degenerate produced this abortion?”
Although I’m a passionate proponent of politeness in movie theaters, I can empathize with Reilly’s plight. There is a point where one’s artistic sensibility can become so offended that it is impossible to remain silent. That’s why I’ll be staying away from screenings of one of this holiday season’s anticipated blockbusters, Sherlock Holmes. I wouldn’t want to involuntarily proclaim my outrage aloud and thus violate my own standards for audience etiquette.
I enjoy the canonical Sherlock Holmes, which is to say that I prefer the novels and stories written by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. I’m not a snob about it, though – if a later author produces a story that is true to the spirit, logic, and language of the canon, I’m all for it. The original stories are so beautifully crafted that I find many adaptations enjoyable but nevertheless diluted. I’ll take a good verbatim reading of a classic Holmes story over the best dramatization any day.
From the looks of the Guy Ritchie-directed Sherlock Holmes (if trailers and other advance publicity are any indication), this latest effort appears to be not so much an adaptation as an outright bastardization. We have the bare essentials – Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson unraveling crime in Victorian London – but that seems to be the extent of any resemblance to Conan Doyle’s work. This movie purports to deliver Holmes as action hero, presumably because the mass audience of greatest ticket-buying potential would not care to see him as anything else.
That’s a fair assumption, I suppose, because a faithful adaptation would be more suitable for the art-house crowd than the teenagers that crowd mall multiplexes. It’s not that the canon is devoid of action. In fact, there are a number of perilous circumstances as gripping as any predicament found in a contemporary thriller. But these sequences are often confined to the denouement, as a sweet dessert is saved for the end of a substantial meal. The bulk of a Holmes story is an intellectual game, and for me their true charm rests in the continuing engagement of two very likable characters in a rich and fantastic setting.
Dr. John Watson is the quintessential English raconteur, a practicing physician who has seen military action in the colonies and knows how to tell a compelling story. His narration is one of the most enjoyable aspects of the canon, an attribute that is necessarily watered down or even eliminated in dramatizations. Every Holmes story is like a quiet evening before a roaring fire with an affable old English gentleman who is pleased to while away the long, dark hours by sharing his remarkable experiences. So engrossing are his tales that we are vicariously along for the ride. The reader gets to be Dr. Watson, a fantasy life in which the stressful responsibilities and everyday monotonous tasks of his profession garner hardly a mention, resulting in an exciting and impulsive existence full of suspense and intrigue. Dr. Watson seems to have little difficulty dropping whatever he is doing in an instant in order to accompany Holmes on his latest adventure. Would that we could all be so flexible.
Then there is Holmes, a brilliant man of indefatigable energy when his intellect is fully engaged but susceptible to the darkest depression if his mind is left unchallenged. Though Dr. Watson is regularly astounded by the consulting detective’s powers of observation and deduction, Holmes dismisses his accomplishments as the simple application of a highly trained mind. As conceived by Conan Doyle, Sherlock Holmes has little in common with the numerous pop culture caricatures that portray him as a cloaked figure in a deerstalker cap smoking an enormous meerschaum pipe while following a trail of footprints with an oversized magnifying glass. Rather, he is a somewhat reclusive genius whose fascination with forensic science and criminology is so engrossing that he ignores any fields of knowledge that do not inform his work. All else is secondary, and though Holmes apparently receives compensation sufficient to enable him to live comfortably, we are left with the impression that he would behave no differently if he never made a sovereign from his pursuits. For the sake of his mental health, he must put his exceptional mind to work.
These two immortal characters interact with a mutual respect and gentlemanly politeness befitting their well-mannered era. They are not without disagreements; Homes disputes the accuracy of Watson’s published accounts of their exploits, while the good doctor expresses concern over his sleuthing friend’s infamous reliance on a “seven-percent solution” of cocaine to ease his chronic melancholy. But it is clear that they enjoy and appreciate each other’s company, whether facing mortal danger on the case or simply relaxing within their cozy shared dwelling at 221B Baker Street.
The Baker Street address is the third essential element in the Holmes canon, so integral to the reader’s enjoyment that it is almost a character itself. We do not learn too many details about the apartment outside of regular references to the fireplace with the tobacco-filed Persian slipper on the mantle and cigars in the coal-scuttle, along with a general sense of the clutter from all of the various newspapers, books and documents that Holmes has accumulated. What seems almost tangible, however, is an attractive warmth about the quarters that transforms the sitting room into an enviable refuge. Though their various adventures are all intriguing narratives, my favorite moments are the ordinary evenings inside 221B, with inclement weather pelting the windows and a violent wind whistling down the chimney. Holmes and Watson sit quietly in the warmth of a crackling fire, having enjoyed yet another meal prepared, served, and removed by Mrs. Hudson. Coils of bluish pipe smoke rise toward the ceiling as the two friends, silent in their solitary pursuits, are about to receive the next unexpected visitor with an extraordinary tale.
Perhaps there is far more to Guy Ritchie’s Sherlock Holmes than the previews suggest. Movies are often misrepresented by their trailers, which exist only to persuade audiences to pony up the cash to see the feature. But somehow I doubt that this is the case. In a recent interview, Ritchie shared an anecdote about his youth at a boarding school, where the canon was read aloud over a speaker to the dormitories in the evening. “Sherlock Holmes used to talk me to sleep every night when I was seven years old,” he remembered, and perhaps his latest cinematic effort is his long-awaited revenge.
And so we are left to wince in anticipation as we observe Robert Downey Jr. as Holmes, making dry comments amidst explosive action like a sober Jack Sparrow. We see Jude Law as Watson, smiling smugly after punching Holmes in the face. Rachel McAdams appears tarted up in lingerie as Irene Adler (Yes, you read that correctly). And then there is the incredible incongruity of seeing a presumably naked Holmes sitting on a bed with his outstretched arms secured to the headboard. What else need I say? Come to think of it, I think I’ll give the last words to another memorable literary character. As Ignatius J. Reilly put it, “Can’t someone in the projection booth turn off the electricity? Please!”