Nicholas Meyer

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?