Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Art in the Blood Is Liable to Take the Strangest Forms

I do not think I am in need of booming. ~ Sherlock Holmes

So they're making a new Sherlock Holmes film. I don't much watch movies any more. I think the last recent release I saw was Pirates of the Caribbean which I enjoyed. I don't recall what I watched before that. When I feel the need for a film, I mostly watch old movies on Turner Classic Movies or dip into the video collection.

When I hear, though, that they're making a new movie about one of my favorite literary characters, I have to admit an interest. Or at least I did until I read this interview with Rachael McAdams (who?), who purportedly plays Irene Adler in a new film called Sherlock Holmes. What typical Hollywood originality.

Title aside, what knobbled my curd was this quote from Ms. McAdams: "It's lots of fighting and explosions."

Say what? I've read every Sherlock Holmes story Sir Arthur Conan Doyle ever wrote (and several he didn't write), and I don't recall a single explosion involving Holmes, Watson, Lestrade, or anyone else. I suppose some victim might have been exploded, although no one comes to mind. There were one or two incidents that would be considered a fight (I recall Holmes sporting a shiner once; "It was a straight left against a slogging ruffian; I emerged as you see"), but A Scandal in Bohemia (the story that's supposed to be the base of the movie) doesn't contain any of them.

This is, however, the 21st century, and nothing can get to film or onto TV without mayhem on a major scale.

This is sad. Holmes is perhaps the most cerebral of all fictional detectives, but he was no sissy, being handy with a pistol, knowledgeable in boxing and something called baritsu. He was capable of hiking long distances (although in his day, most people were used to walking long distances) and could work for days on end with little or no rest. His physical prowess put him in a different league than, say, Hercule Poirot or the completely sedentary Nero Wolfe.

On the other hand, he wasn't Phillip Marlowe or Sam Spade. And he most surely wasn't dodging slow motion explosions.

Taking Holmes to film hasn't always been a pretty thing. Basil Rathbone was an excellent Holmes, but Nigel Bruce played Watson like a doddering fool, which was ridiculous because Watson and Holmes were about the same age. The plots of the Rathbone movies were often mangled messes, combining elements from several stories and also found ways to work Dr. Moriarty into plots where he never figured in Conan Doyle's stories. It didn't help that they also moved the period of many of the films into the 1940's, losing the wonderful atmosphere of Victorian/Edwardian England.

The best of the traditional films, to my mind, starred Peter Cushing as Holmes in the Hound of the Baskervilles. Of course, where you have Cushing, you have Christopher Lee, this time as Henry Baskerville. The movie is true to the novel and reasonably well done.

The best of all the portrayals is Jeremy Brett, who played Holmes in a British television series. Brett played Holmes to the hilt, showling the full range of emotion that Conan Doyle wrote into the detective. I think a lot of people have this idea (based on the Rathbone movies) that Holmes was a cold fish without feelings. On the contrary, while he was always cool at the end, at the moments of action, he could show anger, frustration, or even fear (The Adventure of the Speckled Band is a good example).

In case you're curious, you can find a list of the zillion actors who have played Holmes here. (Caution: This is a Wikipedia site; facts may need checking.)

At any rate, I'm afraid Ms. McAdams, Robert Downey Jr. (the unlikely choice for Holmes), Guy Richey (director; isn't he Madonna's ex?) and the rest will have to do without me. I don't need explosions to make the most famous detective of all time exciting and entertaining. Worse, it's possible, if not probable, that the relationship between Irene Adler and Holmes will be a pile of romantic mush, instead of the chivalric longing and admiration portrayed in the original tale.

Perhaps the creators of this new "interpretation" of the Holmes persona would have been well to have taken this little piece of Sherlockian advice:

To the man who loves art for its own sake, it is frequently in its least important and lowliest manifestations that the keenest pleasure is to be derived.

Subtlety is a lost art.

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