Each Age Gets the Sherlock Holmes It Deserves

I love to argue with what other people write.  Usually only in my head, but it’s the thought that counts.  This week’s installment of “Things I Found Online and Disagree With in a Way that Doesn’t Involve Profuse Profanity” comes courtesy of the Los Angelas Review of Books in an essay by Nicholas Meyer.

The piece is structured around Sherlock Holmes and the cinematic portrayals of the world’s most famous detective.   Each on-screen Holmes, Meyer points out, has been updated to represent the contemporary political/social/economic circumstances.  The patriotic Holmes of the WWII era.  The junkie-Holmes of the 1970’s.  The ADD-Holmes for the Ritalin age.   And, in an age where Romeo and his posse pack heat and The Great Gatsby is scored by T-Pain, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle is not the only classic text being given a pop-culture makeover.  These “updates”, Meyer argues,  “seem designed more to show off the director’s inventiveness than to illuminate the text — a text in which they arguably place no confidence.”  Even harsher, he feels that the source material “do not require the fumbling contributions of second-rate minds to sustain them.”

Fair enough.  I’ve been disappointed by enough horrible adaptations to feel Meyer’s pain.  He’s quite fair in his criticism of the Guy Ritchie/Robert Downy, Jr. spectacles as being “updated for a modern audience, a crowd that clearly suffers from attention deficit disorder, who cannot tolerate a shot that lasts more than four seconds, who has no use or interest in narrative coherence, merely an appetite for action and eye candy, regardless of logic, and — not unrelated — suffers from a reluctance to cease texting during the movie.”

Yet, my argument comes with his blanket denunciation of all things new and updated for modern media.   I think that Sherlock Holmes is a great example of how a modern retelling can energize a classic story (or set of stories) and even lead to some ingenious re-imaginings.  While Meyer has every justification to defecate all over the Guy Ritchie long-form MTV video (although I will admit that these films had their enjoyable moments),  I think that he’d have a harder time dismissing BBC’s Sherlock and the titular character as portrayed by Benedict Cumberbatch.  While updated to modern London with a slightly more neurotic Holmes, it remains faithful to the original literary creation while taking imaginative leaps.  And it works spectacularly!  It’s probably one of the finest television show on the air.

While we’re on the subject of modern incarnations of Sherlock Holmes, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention House.  This is a TV show that, while very often formulaic and unconvincing, gave a modern version of Sherlock Holmes so different from, yet clearly indebted to, the original.  Dr. Gregory House, while no Sherlock Holmes, was a truly fascinating character in his own right.  He was intriguing to watch and probably wouldn’t exist if not for Sir  Arthur Conan Doyle’s most famous character.

My point here is not to put House on the same level as The Hound of the Baskervilles. My point is simply that, if you sift through the inevitable rubbish, you’ll find some truly interesting thought-provoking takes on classic works.   While Meyer finds these continual remakes uniformly “depressing,” I’d argue that they can be exciting and surprising as well as ridiculous and boring.

One thing that I do agree wholeheartedly with Meyer about, however, is his closing thought.  ” Not all books can be made into swell films,” he says.  “Indeed, the better the book, the harder the job.”  Spot on.  But just because it’s a hard job means it’s all that much of a triumph when an adaptation or updating turns out to be really, really good.

Are there any updated classics that you’ve been impressed with?

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7 comments

  1. I’m not sure if I agree with you as to the quality of the BBC series – it doesn’t quite work for me. Cumberbatch is very good, but there are elements of the way its presented that are a bit too like an episode of Dr Who for my liking – somehow I just feel its dumbed down for the kids, a failing that seems to afflict a lot of what the BBC now produces.

    However, I do agree that things need updated for a modern audience and if that means that audience goes back and reads the original books then all well and good in my opinion.

    1. I really enjoy the BBC series – I can’t really comment on the comparison to “Dr Who” as I’ve never seen that, but it seems to me to be a bit truer to the spirit of the books than most of the other adaptations I’ve seen. The cinematography and other technical aspects do serve to make it a bit more appealing but I haven’t found them to be detrimental to the overall quality (as is definitely the case in the most recent Hollywood versions).

      Your second point is a great one that I wish I had mentioned in the original post – these adaptations do (hopefully) serve to generate interest in the originals. Whether it’s Hamlet or Holmes, if even a few more people get back to the classics, it’s a good thing.

      Thanks for coming by!

  2. Not seen the Ritchie version but know his style, so can imagine what It’s like, loved the beeb series so agree with you there. Have you heard about the new version with Lucy Lui playing Watson, as to the comparisons (comments) with Dr Who, that’s not surprising as they share writers & crew & I personally think work well with the stories.

  3. I really need to see the BBC Sherlock. I keep hearing great things about it.

    I like the re-imagining of stories, whether it’s changing the setting or time period or merely updating it to the current cultural circumstances. Does this always work? Of course not. But then again, is it even possible to make a new movie that doesn’t take into account the contemporary climate in one way or another? Sure the Richie movie has some ridiculous moments, but it’s entertaining. And the original Holmes stories have their own problems. My biggest issue would be that Holmes seems to know everything about everything, to a deus ex machina amount. I think there are some blinders up to how perfect the original stories are.

    I do have one big problem with the Meyer piece. He ends with his examples that work better “in the mind’s eye” and adds Hamlet to that list, albeit tentatively. But really? Hamlet better read than performed?

  4. @Parrish – I always hear good things about Dr. Who, I should try watching a bit one of these days. I haven’t heard about the version with Lucy Liu as Watson. Who’s Sherlock in that adaptation?
    @Man of La Book – thanks for the Tweet! In the Ritchie version, he’s a bit of a jerk. Not on the level of the original, or of House, but unpleasant as he can be and still be appealing in a modern Hollywood blockbuster. The BBC Cumberbatch characterization is much better.
    @Alley – you make some very good points about the originals. I just noticed that you had a Sherlock Holmes post from earlier this month. I read The Hound of the Baskervilles in about 5th grade and then again a few years ago and I quite enjoyed it. I agree that the ending was a bit deflating, but the play up to it does work well. And Holmes does seem to be a bit too quick on the uptake to be logically possible. But that’s true in the updates as well and I think part of the Holmes mythology. And good call about Hamlet! Certainly not a character best left on the page.

  5. I 100 per cent agree- the BBC version might be some of the best TV out there. I love the series! My only complaint- there aren’t enough episodes!
    Great blog you have, I MUST visit more often!

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