Last week the trailer for Guy Ritchie’s Sherlock Holmes (slated for a Christmas Day release) hit theater screens and the internet. For those not following such things, Sherlock Holmes stars Robert Downey, Jr. as Holmes and Jude Law as Dr. Watson. It’s very obviously a rethinking of the much loved Conan Doyle characters. The tone is comedic and the trailer suggests considerably more action than is generally associated with the detecting duo. Not surprisingly, this has caused much consternation among the Sherlockian set.
As much as I am not surprised by this, I find myself asking, “Why?” First of all, it’s not as if there’s any actual concensus on just how best the characters are portrayed on film. Anyone driven to the stories themselves by way of the most famous film series—the one starring Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce that ran from 1939 to 1946—is apt to be more than a little surprised to find that Doyle’s Watson bears no resemblance to Bruce’s befuddled comedy approach, not to mention the fact that Holmes’ use of cocaine is limited to exactly one line of dialogues (“Watson, the needle”) said at the end of the first film, The Hound of the Baskervilles.
Our images of Holmes are many and varied and are often the result of later changes. For example, the business of Holmes puffing away on a calabash pipe with meerschaum bowl is a later outgrowth that appears (I say “appears” out of fear that a Sherlockian scholar will descend upon me for repeating information gleaned from William Baring-Gould’s The Annotated Sherlock Holmes that by now someone has surely disputed) to have originated with William Gillette onstage. Baring-Gould indicates that Gillette found it easier to speak onstage with a curved (though not necessarily calabash) pipe in his mouth, but that’s the image we generally have of the character because it stuck. I’m not even going to get into the deestalker hat debate.
Similarly, it should be noted that Gillette is also the man who supposedly asked Conan Doyle if the creator of the character minded if he married off Holmes at the end of the play he (Gillette) had written featuring himself as Holmes. Legend has it that Doyle told Gillette, “I don’t care if you kill him.” Since Doyle wasn’t always fond of his creation, I will refrain from suggesting that he had a better perspective on the matter than some of the author’s more enthusiastic enthusiasts.
Holmes and Watson have certainly weathered graver assaults than those suggested in the two-and-a-half minute trailer for Ritchie’s film. The various updatings—Holmes fighting gangsters in William K. Howard’s 1932 film Sherlock Holmes (cinematically one of the better Holmes movies) or battling Nazis in the WWII era Rathbone-Bruce entries—certainly played fast and loose with the characters. (There’s a charming moment in the first of the WWII films, Sherlock Holmes and the Voice of Terror , where Holmes starts to don his deerstalker and Watson stops him by saying, “Holmes, you promised,” as if to announce the forced modernization.)
This is as nothing compared to Paul Morrissey’s The Hound of the Baskervilles (1978) which turns Holmes and Watson into Peter Cook and Dudley Moore. (I note with amusement that the user comment that came to the top on this title on the IMDb is headed, “Horrible!”) I will not attempt to make a case for this movie, though I’ll freely admit to liking its absolute insanity. Actually, Cook isn’t a bad model—physically—for Holmes, but it rather ends there. Mostly, the film is a collection of odd spoofs and at least one Cook and Moore routine (a variation on their “One Leg Too Few” skit about a one-legged man auditioning for the role of Tarzan) more or less tied to the story. It’s a matter of taste—or lack thereof—as to how one responds to it. If you can resist a Cockney Jewish-accented Holmes visiting a brothel and opting for something that includes “a complimentary grape” (“What an odd way to spell ‘grape’—with an ‘o’”), then you can probably resist the movie. In any case, Conan Doyle, this ain’t.
So why the outrage over Ritchie’s film? Well, I suspect it partly stems from the idea that this is a big budget Christmas release that (theoretically) millions of people will see. After all, maybe a few hundred people went to the Morrissey Hound in its very limited theatrical life, so it hardly did any damage . The idea, presumably, is that Sherlock Holmes will afford a new generation a singularly warped view of the character. And it may do just that.
My argument would be that most of that generation probably neither knows, nor cares much about Holmes. The likely counter argument will be that a film such as this could prevent a “real” Sherlock Holmes picture from being made. Now, really, isn’t this wishful thinking? Does any but the most profoundly insular Sherlockian entertain the notion that a straight and faithful (whatever that means at this point) Holmes movie is going to be made at this point in history? With that in mind, isn’t it just possible that the Ritchie rethinking could conceivably draw a few curious viewers to actually read the stories?
Now, I like Sherlock Holmes just fine, but I’m not morbid about it. I haven’t read the stories in 20 years and I rarely watch any of the film versions these days, but I have mostly pleasant feelings about both. If I bump into one of the Rathbone-Bruce movies on TCM, I’ll probably leave it on, but that’s about as far as it goes. They simply aren’t personal hobby horses of mine. As a result, I’m looking at this fairly dispassionately—and possibly more at this point in time as someone who’s interested in Guy Ritchie as a filmmaker more than I’m interested in Sherlock Holmes as such. My view is already a little skewed, but I still find it amusing to watch persons of a literary bent engaged in the sort of railing I usually associate with the folks who get worked up over some departure—or even possible departure—from a superhero comic book, especially since so mant of the literati I know find such outcries rather silly.
I suspect this all has to do with our individual perceptions of what is or isn’t definitive in any given realm. Way back when I was researching the genesis of Tim Burton’s Batman (1989) for a book on Burton, I was struck by his realization that ultimately there is no version of anything that isn’t going to result in pissing off somebody. He was certainly right. There are still people who decry his Batman because of its somber tone, which is perceived as being out of keeping with the Batman of the 1960s comics and the Adam West TV show.
A greater furor erupted in 1992 over his Batman Returns for much the same reason—only the perception was that it added a new level of nastiness to the proceedings. The thing was that, yes, these films did subvert the cheerfully kiddie-centric Batman image. But the image they reflected not only was not only more in keeping with the more adult-themed comics of the films’ era, but they harkened back to the dark tone of the very first Batman comics.
At the same time, we now find the Burton films being denigrated by harder core comic fans for not being dark enough—especially in light of the very gloomy Christopher Nolan Batman pictures, Batman Begins (2005) and The Dark Knight (2008). All of this, to me, merely serves to illustrate that there’s often no such thing as a universally accepted definitive anything.
This past year Frank Miller gave us his filmic take on Will Eisner’s comic The Spirit. A whole lot of people were far from amused by what he did with (as opposed to what he did to) the material. Yet, as I understand it, Miller was a friend of Eisner’s and one wonders whether Eisner himself would have disaproved of the liberties Miller took with the material. Miller’s own statement that he planned on being faithful to the “heart and soul” of the material suggests that he both thought he was doing that, but indicates similarly that he had little interest in simply adhering to the comics.
Now, I’ve never read The Spirit in my life, but I know enough about the comic to realize that in oh so many ways Miller has kept to the—uh—spirit of the thing, if not the letter. It’s a nice touch, for example, that Miller kept the basic outfit for The Spirit—even to sticking with that slightly preposterous mask that Eisner added at the last minute so he could satisfy the demands of a publisher that the character had a costume. He’s also retained the often bizarre character names and the general loopiness of the plots. I am, however, fully aware that Miller has made it his own in other ways. Still, the very existence of this screwy film is perhaps the one thing that might one day lead me to read Eisner’s comic books.
As one of the handful of defenders of Miller’s film (I even made the Wikipedia page on it for being in the plus column), I think of the film as being not wholly dissimilar to radical Shakespeare. If a less highfalutin comparison would be more comfortable, I’ll put it on the basis of Tony Richardson’s 1965 film of Evelyn Waugh’s 1948 novel The Loved One. The essence is the same in Richardson’s film and Waugh’s novel, but Richardson’s film expands on the book to address issues that did not exist in 1948, adding to the things Waugh was appalled by. It seems a natural approach to me. It’s Richardson’s film of the book and it should reflect his view. If I want just the novel, it’s on my shelf with the rest of Waugh’s books. I find the film more interesting because of what it does with the material, not less interesting.
Miller’s The Spirit is in the same ballpark. Where Eisner found the world of comics wanting when he created The Spirit, so Miller appears to find the world of the comic book film wanting today. The seriousness of the modern comic book movie in particular seems to be motivating factor in the tone of his film, which is nothing if not playful. Miller’s approach is fanciful, but not in the camp silliness of the Adam West Batman TV series. This is a more rarefied world where the production design is part of the joke, where the faux Raymond Chandler noir narration is clearly a put-on, where the sheer preposterous nature of the story is constantly expanded. Yet, there’s a stunning level of coherence to the narrative and a visual elegance that actually honors Eisner’s description of his work as “sequential art” in a way that perhaps no other comic book film has—and this has yet to be recognized.
What this resulted in was—and is—a film that deliberately set the comic book movie back 20 years. Miller’s Tex Avery-ish approach to the material was a slap in the face of the increasingly serious tone of comic book movies. Frankly, I suspect this is what angered fans more than questions of fealty to Eisner. Comic fans had fought long and hard to gain some degree of literary respect—and in turn cinematic respect—and here comes this movie thumbing its nose at all that. One wonders how time will treat Miller’s The Spirit in this regard. After the far from overwhelming response to Zack Snyder’s Watchmen, it’s just possible that Miller was onto something. What Miller did—like it or not—was to make the definitive Frank Miller movie of The Spirit. What Snyder did was to try to duplicate the comic book itself. The results were essentially inert.
That’s really my point with any of this line of thought. There simply is no such thing as definitive except in the most completely subjective manner. Your definitive Dracula may be Christopher Lee. Mine is Bela Lugosi. Your definitive Sherlock Holmes may be Arthur Wontner or Jeremy Brett. Mine is Basil Rathbone with Peter Cushing a close second. And so on.
It hardly starts and stops with movies as such. I came home tonight to an e-mail from an old friend, who said she needed to revisit Ken Russell’s film of Tommy (1975), which she had only watched because she’d seen the stage version and enjoyed it. She didn’t much care for the film, because it was so different from the play, especially the approach to the music. (Yes, she and I will be having a long talk about this, I assure you.) The play has become her benchmark for the material. The film is mine, though I can enjoy the play to a degree.
When the film came out, many fans of the original 1969 album thought it subverted the original and didn’t care for the sound of the film. In some ways, this referred to the vocals, but in others the objection to the overall sound really meant that they didn’t like where composer Pete Townshend was musically at the time. If you compare the film’s soundtrack to Townshend’s Who album Quadrophenia from the same period, they are startlingly similar in sound and orchestration. But that didn’t alter the fact that the film was not their definitive Tommy. Yet, the film is definitive as Russell’s Tommy. That’s as it should be.
In the end, that’s what I’m hoping for from Guy Ritchie’s Sherlock Holmes—that it will be the best damned Guy Ritchie version of the material possible. I’d like to hope that my Sherlockian friends who are appalled by that prospect may decide to look at in that light. If not—hey, guys, you’ve still got the Conan Doyle stories to fall back on. That’s not going to be taken away from you.