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?

Television Even A Book Junkie Could Appreciate

About a year back, I wrote about the reader’s dilemma when it comes to watching television.  My point was that, while television is full of garbage, there is plenty of programing which can appeal to the reader’s more literary aesthetics.  Just as there is a gulf of difference between crappy Hollywood blockbusters and transcendent film, the difference between Who Wants to Marry a Millionaire  and The Sopranos  is enormous.

Or I assume it is – I haven’t actually watched Who Wants to Marry A Millionaire.

Anyway, as an avid television watcher as well as a compulsive reader, I thought I would highlight a few programs which might live up to the high standards of the reader.

Californication (Showtime)

This story of stunted novelist Hank Moody is, without question, one of the funniest and most tragic shows on television.  It’s also one of the dirtiest.  But, if you can look past the gratuitous sex and drug use, you’ll find a profoundly sad and touching story of squandered talent, emotional self-destruction, and painful love.  What sets this show apart from other shows which have mined this vein of human emotion is the razor-sharp writing and the phenomenal cast.  This show isn’t for everyone – aside from the raunchiness, the show goes to some very dark places, albeit masked in frivolity and humor.  Just as with a good book, however, the viewer will laugh, cry, and run the gauntlet of emotions in between, along with the characters.

Dexter (Showtime)

This series, based on a series of novels by Jeff Lindsay, chronicles the life of Dexter Morgan, a blood-spatter expert with the Miami P.D. by day and a serial killer by night.  Yet, despite his homicidal and sociopathic tendencies, Dexter is a decent guy.  This conflict has created one of the most watchable and complex characters on television.  Michael C. Hall is brilliant as Dexter and the supporting cast is just as strong.  Like Californication, this is not a show for everyone.  As you might expect in a show about a serial killer, the violence content is quite high.  However, Dexter provides a character study as intriguing as in any good novel.

Breaking Bad (AMC)

Remember the dad from Malcom in the Middle?  Now imagine him as a scowling, cancer-ridden crystal meth manufacturer.   Welcome to Breaking Bad.  This show has so much going for it – smart dialogue, great acting, beautiful cinematography.  But the brilliance of this show lies in the relationship between the two central characters –   Walter White, the chemistry teacher turned meth cooker and Jessie, his former student and helper.  Through this relationship, the writers have spun a dark morality tale of slippery slopes, rationalizations, and greed.  If Stephen King were to write a book about a meth cooker, this is how I’d imagine it would come out.

Sherlock (BBC)

This reboot of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s famous genius imagines Sherlock and Watson in contemporary Britain.  Far better than last year’s Robert Downey Jr./Jude Law pic (which was not a bad movie by any means!), this three-part series features Benedict Cumberbatch as Holmes and Martin Freeman as Watson.  The stories are well-told, the filming fast and exciting but the joy of this show is watching Cumberbatch play Sherlock Holmes.  Far from Downey’s macho interpretation, Cumberbatch imagines the character as a quirky techie, almost Aspergerish in his arrogance and genius.  It’s a wonderful reinterpretation, one which any fan of the original would appreciate.

That’s a small sampling of what I think are some of the best television programs available.  Are there any other shows or series which you think are of literary value?