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Mugging Sherlock Holmes: Guy Ritchie’s shocking act of violence

January 6, 2010

This is Sherlock Holmes?

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.

Basil Rathbone, the classic movie Holmes

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.

Jeremy Brett, the most authentic Holmes?

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?

14 Comments leave one →
  1. alexis permalink
    January 6, 2010 12:21 pm

    I do not think i have seen any other Holmes movies, and I have not read any Doyle. So, I guess I have some homework to do. However, I do plan on seeing the new Richie movie. Someone whose opinion I trust saw it and said it was fun. And really, fun is all I hope to ask for from movies these days.

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      January 6, 2010 5:52 pm

      That’s a wise approach to movie-going. With most films pitched at 14-year-old boys, half-way intelligent entertainment is the most we can hope for. If we get more, it’s a bonus. Like, say, The Dark Knight. I suggest you try some of Doyle’s short stories, though, see if you like them better than I did.

  2. Tommy permalink
    January 6, 2010 12:34 pm

    I will concede Sir Arthur Conan Doyle is not the best writer. The fact that his character has spawned so many movies and spin-off books is interesting. Why has this poorly crafted character become a phenomenon? I haven’t the foggiest. I doubt Holmes and Watson with their combined logic could deduce the reason. I always found (still find) Holmes stories fun, and “fun” is difficult to quantify. I liked the new movie. It had it’s faults. Downey Jr. seemed to be trying to channel Johnny Depp’s “Jack Sparrow” I didn’t appreciate how the film seemed more a prequel to the following film than a film on it’s own.

    “A Study in Emerald” short story by Neil Gaiman from the book of short stories “Shadows Over Baker Street” has to be my favorite Sherlock Holmes story not written by Doyle. In “Shadows Over Baker Street” Holmes is mashed up with H.P. Lovecraft, a land where logic is pretty useless.

    My father was a Homicide Detective for twenty years and found Holmes and Watson to be a joke yet he still enjoyed the books. So there is no possibility of me launching a defense in favor of Doyle’s writing prowess. The best argument I have is, Holmes is a fun character and maybe the fact that their are so many holes in the character allows me to fill in the blanks and re-imagine Holmes/Watson as I go along.

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      January 6, 2010 5:55 pm

      I think you have put your finger on it exactly, Tommy. Plus, you’ve intrigued me with the Gaiman. While I’m not a fan of Doyle, I do revere Lovecraft –also not the greatest stylist, but there’s something about his imagination, the horrors and decay and mutations and so forth, that I find oddly comforting. I said “oddly,” all right?

      • Tommy permalink
        January 7, 2010 11:47 am

        Glad I have intrigued. Sadly, Gaiman’s story is one of few in the collection “Shadows Over Baker Street” that is enjoyable or comparable to Lovecraft in creativity. H.P. Lovecraft and the writers that made up the “Lovecraft Circle” are comforting to the odd.

  3. January 6, 2010 1:21 pm

    Doyle wrote “serious” literature as well and he thought he would be remembered especially for his historical novels, but nope, it’s Sherlock that keeps Doyle’s name from dying out. As you know, he eventually hated Sherlock (the hold that the character had on him) and tried to kill him off but wasn’t allowed to. By popular demand he was forced to bring the old addict back to life. It’s like the mafia wise guy who said, “Everytime I think I’m out, they pull me back in.” The Sherlock books are melodramatic and way overwritten, but the plots are solid and were popular with teenagers and young men back in Doyle’s day. I find the books unreadable now, but they weren’t when I was fifteen and sixteen. To those who want to read some Sherlock stuff, let me recommend THE HOUND OF THE BASKERVILLES.

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      January 6, 2010 5:59 pm

      As a teenager I read The White Company, one of Doyle’s historical adventures set in the Hundred Year’s War, with knights and mercenaries, and I liked it quite a bit at the time. No idea what I’d think now. I was amazed this was the same writer who created Sherlock Holmes. I also liked The Lost World, which seemed to me a very Jules Verne kind of book. I’ll probably never read Holmes again, for all the reasons you mention, Duff.

  4. Candice Simmons permalink
    January 6, 2010 1:29 pm

    I haven’t read Doyle either, Alexis, and am more interested in seeing Avatar at the movies than Sherlock Holmes. Maybe I should go see them both?

    • alexis permalink
      January 6, 2010 1:44 pm

      OMG, Avatar was awesome, I can’t help it, it was. However, I am very interested in seeing robert downey jr without his shirt on, I’m not gonna lie. So, I guess I would say: see them both!

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      January 6, 2010 6:01 pm

      Avatar is a sweet and gooey treat, though not perhaps so good for you. A two hundred million dollar Twinkie. Much better than I expected, given the snarking early reviews, I must admit.

      Mr. Downey Jr. can keep his shirt on, as far as I’m concerned…

  5. January 6, 2010 9:02 pm

    I read the Sherlock Holmes stories when I was fairly young and loved them. They felt drenched in atmosphere and I found them pretty scary. Then Scooby Doo came along and stole the idea of spooky things having a reasonable explanation and made the whole idea fairly awful.

    I never really cared much for any of the movies –including this one, though the cinematography was nice.

    Adored Avatar. The female Navi reminded me of my Isha Yoga teacher.

  6. rachel permalink
    January 7, 2010 12:57 pm

    I have never read any of the literature. I did go see the movie. And I have to admit that I really really enjoyed it. I thought it was smart and that Jude Law and Robert Downey Jr. were great. I really liked the relationship that Holmes and Watson had in the movie. Codependent and messed up and wonderful. I also thought that the action packed was okay because of the how methodical he was in his head. Also they stayed true to his craziness and substance abuse and his big fancy ways of figuring things out. I am not much of an expert, but I really enjoyed the movie.

  7. Candice Simmons permalink
    January 7, 2010 4:37 pm

    No, Chauncey Mabe, Robert Downey, Jr. simply must take his shirt off.

  8. ari permalink
    May 17, 2010 1:03 am

    I am a avid fan of Sherlock Holmes and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. I have read all of the Holmes stories and seen most of the movies. I find when I read a book it generally tells me more about the author then the characters. Conan was a man of science and documentation and like any good writer he wrote about what he new. While possibly his style was not as smooth as Charles Dickens, or Jane Austen, I think his characters where what set him apart. Holmes has many angles; he is brilliant at most activities and yet seriously lacking in his social relationships; he was eccentric and manipulative with his own set of morals. When ever I read the stories of Sherlock Holmes I do not compare them to Edger Allen Poe because while he created the murder mystery concept, his and Conan Doyle’s styles where so different it would be comparing apples to oranges both stimulating and brilliant, but, defined by their differences not their similarities.
    Many of the movies I have not been able to appreciate this I attribute to them taking the fascinatingly brilliant character and changing in to a over done comedy act. With that said I still have fun watching them. I am fond of Basil Rathbone’s portrayal although I am generally disappointed in Dr. Watson’s personality in these versions. My favorite actor to have taken on the character is of Jeremy Brett in the BBC series. I think he played Holmes’s eccentricities in a manner that is a hilarious yet not ridiculous and finally Holmes and Conan Doyle where blessed with two equally capable actors for the part of Dr. Watson.
    I have yet to see the new movie, and I hope to enjoy even if I have to remember that it is only a Sherlock Holmes movie in name and not in accuracy as I have with movies previous to this one.

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