Mugging Sherlock Holmes: Guy Ritchie’s shocking act of violence
Each generation gets the Jesus it deserves, remaking the Savior in its own image, a wise historian once noted, and now with the new rock-’em-sock-’em movie from British film director Guy Ritchie, it’s obvious the same is true of Sherlock Holmes.
The comparison is not as blasphemous as it might first appear. Since the death of Arthur Conan Doyle in 1930, purist fans have regarded the great fictional detective with an almost religious reverence and the texts of the “canonical” stories are exegeted like holy writ.
As Charles McGrath observes in a nifty New York Times story, Sherlock Holmes is adaptable like an ancient religious icon — precisely because Doyle isn’t a very good writer.
“Holmes is so memorable because, like later superheroes, he is less a fully developed character than a collection of fascinating traits. Raymond Chandler once complained that Holmes was little more than a few lines of unforgettable dialogue and an attitude: the drug habit, the boredom, the violin playing, the show-offy logical deductions…”
Thus Basil Rathbone’s classic film Holmes was easily pressed into service to thwart Nazis during World War II. Herb Ross’s 1976 movie The Seven Percent Solution, based on Nicholas Meyer’s novel and starring Nicol Williamson as Holmes, emphasized the great detective’s cocaine addiction.
Doubtless Holmes purists object strenuously to Ritchie’s depiction of Holmes, embodied by Robert Downey Jr. as a bare-knuckles superhero more likely to beat an opponent senseless than to out-think him. But as McGrath notes, Doyle probably would have had few problems with it. After all, Doyle was “an accomplished boxer, and in a couple of stories he attributes the same skill to Holmes.”
What’s more, Doyle’s Holmes is a master of disguise, able to disappear into the streets for days or weeks at a time, which seems to me an indication of physical vigor. And Doyle hints that Holmes spent several years in the Far East, studying esoteric arts, one of which may have been kung fu (why not?).
None of this really matters, because Ritchie’s Sherlock Holmes isn’t a serious attempt to re-imagine the character, the way Ross and Meyer did, or to restore his authenticity, the goal of the 1990s BBC series featuring Jeremy Brett. It is just another cynical Hollywood gesture to satisfy the comic book-and-video game crowd. And it’s working beautifully. Sherlock Holmes is second only to Avatar at the box office, taking in $140 million since its Christmas Day release.
The charms of Doyle’s stories eluded me when I read them as a boy and a young man. They seemed flat, and I was never persuaded Holmes’s powers of detection were actually possible. And after discovering Edgar Allen Poe’s August Dupin (Murders in the Rue Morgue), published a generation before Holmes, I disparaged Doyle as an imitator, not an originator.
Still, I’m not immune to such a powerful cultural figure, and I have my favorite movie versions. I like The Seven Percent Solution for Robert Duvall’s manly and intelligent Watson, who, in Doyle’s stories, is never the bumbling fool created by Nigel Bruce in the Basil Rathbone movies. And I am much taken with Richard E. Grant’s psychologically potent portrayal of the villain in the 2002 remake of The Hound of the Baskervilles.
I hope someone will write to explain how and why I am so very wrong about Doyle’s literary talent. And the rest of you, what is your favorite Holmes? And have any of you seen the Guy Ritchie movie?