Film Friday: Comparing Ritchie’s Sherlock Holmes to Conan Doyle’s Stories

Movies Features Sherlock Holmes

I don’t think I’ve ever been spotted defending a Guy Ritchie movie, and I’m not yet convinced that I’ll defend his latest. It’s premature to say, since I haven’t yet seen it. But I’m eager to defend its subject, the characters of Sherlock Holmes and Dr. John Watson, not from Ritchie but from those who think the filmmaker is taking vast liberties. Maybe he is—we’ll see—but not everything in the trailer that’s causing some people to roll their eyes is a whole-cloth invention.

The studio calls the film “a dynamic new portrayal,” by which they mean it’s ass-kickin. To some eyes this ass-kickery, these fisticuffs, this witty banter, this sexy woman, these knees-to-the-groin, and this punchy sidekick may not fit the detective stories as we’ve come to know them, but at least some of the fault belongs to the previous film and TV adaptations of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s stories, most of which were sanitized to exclude Holmes’ drug use or to focus on his deductive skills instead of his other qualities. They often portray Watson as a passive observer and make Holmes seem more like a Vulcan than the brilliant but frequently unpredictable oddball in the text. Ritchie’s adaptation may take liberties in the opposite direction—I can’t remember the original Watson kicking down any doors or punching his good friend in the face after a particularly snarky comment—but based on what I’ve seen in the trailer, the characters in the new film may be no further from Conan Doyle’s portraits than a portly and somewhat dim-witted Watson has been for decades, or a Holmes who quietly thinks but never engages in physical combat. In some respects, Ritchie may be closer to the real deal.

What’s more, Conan Doyle published his stories in serial form, in magazines, before he bound them into novels and collections, and detailed illustrations were printed alongside them. The stories and pictures were popular entertainment, with exciting events, twisting plots, and dramatic character traits. They were forerunners of comic books and graphic novels, and their goals were pretty similar to those of the modern film franchise. Thrill. Entertain. Conan Doyle even killed off Holmes—or so it seemed—in a literal cliff-hanger, but he brought him back a few years later with dubious explanations about what really happened at Reichenbach Fall. Justifications for releasing new episodes of a popular series aren’t unique to Hollywood.

With that in mind, I’ve paired the seemingly untraditional aspects of the new film with selections from the stories, with handy links into the original text. Compare. Contrast.

Sherlock Holmes, Bare-Knuckle Brawler

In the trailer we see Holmes, played by the always enjoyable Robert Downey, Jr., fighting in slo-mo with sticks. It seems odd, yes, but “A Study in Scarlet” tells us that Watson once listed this among his Holmes’ abilities. Watson was so taken with his friend’s eclectic tastes and his surprising limitations that he put them down in a document, noting that Holmes’ knowledge of literature, philosophy, and astronomy is “nil,” that his knowledge of politics is “feeble,” but that his knowledge of chemistry is “profound.” “He plays the violin well, is an expert single-stick player, boxer, and swordsman,” and he “has a good practical knowledge of British law.” Since this was the first Sherlock Holmes story, Conan Doyle seemed to be laying down an outline of his character to follow in future stories, a detective whom we could also guess was somewhat difficult to pin down. Watson felt that even this inventory was inconclusive. It was a list of disparate traits that didn’t add up to a whole, and after writing it out he tossed it into the fire.

The trailer includes ample slo-mo fighting—not just with sticks but fists as well—so you might begin to assume that Holmes’ is some sort of fighting expert. And right you’d be. In “Gloria Scott” Holmes remarks that he didn’t have many athletic tastes in college besides fencing and boxing. And in Conan Doyle’s last collection of stories, Holmes reveals that, SPOILER, he did not die at Reichenbach Fall, locked in mortal combat with his nemesis Moriarty as everyone was led to believe, but instead bested his foe with a martial art called baritsu, “the Japanese system of wrestling, which has more than once been very useful to me”. (Wikipedia says that Conan Doyle was probably referring to the real martial art bartitsu.) It’s strange that Watson had known Holmes for so long without being exposed to this particular skill, but, of course, it was one of many.

Sherlock Holmes Grasses Villains

Baritsu may have been new to the Holmes universe, but hand-to-hand combat wasn’t. On one occasion, in “The Naval Treaty,” Holmes skulked outside a house for his mark, and when the man came out onto the lawn, they threw down.

He flew at me with his knife, and I had to grass him twice, and got a cut over the knuckles, before I had the upper hand of him. He looked murder out of the only eye he coulees see with when he had finished…

I love the image of a Holmes who occasionally needs to “grass” somebody. Who occasionally needs to grass somebody twice. Who needs to sit there for some time beforehand, eager to spring into grassing action. Even before the fight, Holmes enters the grounds by bounding over a fence instead of using the gate. Someone says to him later that the gate was surely open, but Holmes says, “I have a peculiar taste in these matters.”

And as he waited on the lawn for the physical confrontation, he says he felt “the sort of excitement about it that the sportsman feels when he lies beside the watercourse and wits for the big game.” Sherlock Holmes: eager to kick some criminal ass.

Holmes and Watson Pack Heat

Even if he gets a few grass stains on his trousers, hand-to-hand combat and stick fighting are elegant forms befitting a gentleman like Holmes, you might say. So what’s with all these pistols in the trailer? Again, nothing new. In “The Adventure of the Dancing Men,” someone says that Holmes surprised a villain and “clapped a pistol to his head”.

Here’s Watson doing the same, in “The Adventure of the Empty House,” while helping his friend out of a tight spot:

At that instant Holmes sprang like a tiger on to the marksman’s back and hurled him flat upon his face. He was up again in a moment, and with convulsive strength he seized Holmes by the throat, but I struck him on the head with the butt of my revolver, and he dropped again upon the floor. I fell upon him, and as I held him my comrade blew a shrill call upon a whistle.

One major difference between the film (it seems) and the stories is that many of the action sequences in the text are described after the fact, by Holmes or some other witness, whose testimony is recounted by the story’s narrator, Watson, who sometimes wasn’t even there. Such events effectively happened off-screen. Ritchie, on the other hand, will no doubt take us to the scene, cut the action rapidly, and deliver it with thuds. It’s an obvious difference of style but not necessarily of character, although Conan Doyle’s approach allows for ambiguities and other interpretations, like David McKie’s intriguing theory about what really happen at the Fall and about the true identity of Morarity. Nobody but Holmes really knows.

With such prominent use of the revolver’s butt, as opposed to its bullets, you might wonder if Holmes was ever willing to pull the trigger. Indeed he was, or at least he made people think so. It’s the only way to credibly stage a Mexican standoff, one of which Watson witnessed first-hand:

The old man, still clad in his surplice, burst into such a string of foul oaths as I have never heard, and pulled out a revolver of his own, but, before he could raise it, he was looking down the barrel of Holmes’ weapon.

Still, if Holmes could get by with just a stick, he would:

I was not surprised when Holmes suggested that I should take my revolver with me. He had himself picked up the loaded hunting-crop, which was his favorite weapon.

Holmes broke a bust of Napoleon with that hunting-crop, by the way. Don’t let him into your china shop if he’s got that crop on his person.

Sherlock Holmes (Un)Bends Steel

True, Holmes did bend a steel poker with his bare hands, or rather straighten it, but remember that it had been bent moments before by a foe who probably weakened it for our hero. Or it was very thin steel. He was, after all, only human.

Watson: Neither Portly Nor Staid

In an interview with Robert Downey, Jr., the Hollywood Reporter asked, “Since when is Watson such an attractive guy?” referring to Downey Jr.’s handsome co-star, Jude Law.

Well, I’d peg the date around 1887, if the Reporter must know, when Watson met an old chum in London who remarked on his appearance : “You are as thin as a lath and as brown as a nut.”

Now, Watson, as the narrator of this story, may have been exaggerating. Or perhaps the chum was being complementary, like calling an old lady 80 years young. But there’s nothing in the stories to suggest that Watson was anything other than slim, tan, and thinly mustachioed. Several years after Watson’s encounter in London, after the doctor was married, Holmes remarked that “Wedlock suits you. I think, Watson, that you have put on seven and a half pounds since I saw you.” So a mere 7.5 pounds was a noticeable quantity for a keen observer. Even illustrator Sidney Paget, whose work was published alongside Conan Doyle’s text in Strand Magazine drew Watson (shown on the left) more like Jude Law than Nigel Bruce

Watson was also, by the way, no wallflower in the dance of the adventurers. He was an army doctor who served in Afghanistan where he was shot in the shoulder, but I can see how someone might overlook this historical detail from the doctor’s own colorful biography, since it’s buried deep on the second page of the very first Sherlock Holmes story.

The Head of Sherlock Holmes Swivels for a Particular Woman

Say, who’s this woman in the new movie, this Irene Adler played by Rachael McAdams in the film? Why, she’s an adventuress known to Holmes, quite well in fact. An adversary of sorts, a rival who has, as Watson notes, a “superb figure” (medically speaking, no doubt). She appears in one story but is mentioned in many others, because she left quite an impression on Holmes. Maybe we get a hint of his feelings at the end of one particular adventure: as thanks for solving the mystery in “A Scandal in Bohemia,” a King offers Holmes a valuable ring, but Holmes says he’d rather keep the King’s photograph of Irene (in evening dress) instead. Let’s call it even, he seems to say. And keep it he does, thereafter referring to Adler as ”the woman,” says Watson.

Sherlock Holmes, Eccentric Chemist (and Dope Shooter)

Back in that first Holmes story, Watson’s list of his friend’s traits was helpful for himself and readers alike. Having lost the list in a fire (because of an unlisted trait), he tries to recall it from memory in another story, and, he does a pretty good job except for relabeling Holmes’ knowledge of chemistry as “eccentric” instead of “profound.”

I’d say Holmes’ knowledge of chemistry is a little of both. He mixed his own solutions for his intravenous drug use—a seven percent solution—and invented a blood analysis compound that allowed him to distinguish fruit stains from old blood stains. Think of it as the Victorian equivalent of DNA testing; “that’s merely a fruit stain” would no longer be a valid excuse with Holmes on the job.

(Watson tries to recall the list just as Holmes is talking about his own near-photographic memory, rationalizing why he must now take down a volume of the encyclopedia to look something up, explaining that he only keeps commonly used information in his head. How nice that as I’m finding my seventh-grade memory of Holmes to be a bit spotty I discover that Holmes, too, fell back to reference materials, he to the encyclopedia, and I to Google Books.)

In a scene from the film’s script uncovered by Gawker, Holmes seems to medicate himself with large quantities of whisky. I’m not sure that Conan Doyle’s detective ever drank much, but he did shoot cocaine and morphine regularly. Watson disapproved. Between cases Holmes seemed to withdraw from the world, alone with his one vice, shooting up three times a day for months on end. “My mind rebels at stagnation,” he said to Watson.

If Ritchie and company have replaced the cocaine with alcohol as the script snippet implies, they may arguably still be closer to a chemically dependent Holmes than the classic films starring Basil Rathbone, 14 movies that never once showed the detective shooting up. It was a lie of omission, and the filmmakers knew it. The closest they got to revealing this darker side was in the last scene of the first film where, having finished the case, Holmes says, “Now if you don’t mind, I’ve had rather a strenuous day. I think I’ll turn in. Good night.” He turns to leave, but then he pauses, as if remembering something. “Oh. Watson, the needle.” Cue the credits.

The later films starring Jeremy Brett, on the other hand, were much more faithful to this aspect of the stories, including both Holmes’ use and Watson’s disapproval. (My apologies for the Lady Gaga score.)

Still, if intravenous drug use didn’t have quite the stigma in the 1880s that it does today, binge drinking might be a reasonable approximation for a 21st century audience. Every producer of a would-be blockbuster film is aiming the product at a substantial number of teens, and no producer making movies for teens wants to be seen promoting drug use, so switching to alcohol-if indeed the filmmakers have—is probably the simplest option, better than dropping Holmes private excesses entirely, but it’s one that highlights a clear difference in the limits imposed (or self-imposed) on Conan Doyle and Ritchie. And it’s still an important difference. I can imagine that a binge drinking Holmes would seem softer, a little more average, a little more artsy, and a little less intellectually manic-depressive, if only because the slippery slopes of these two vices have distinctly different pitches.

Sherlock Holmes, Eccentric Violinist

If Watson believes that Holmes plays the violin well, why does Jude Law complain about it in the trailer? Maybe this: in the stories, Watson says his friend could play difficult pieces well, since he’d done so at Watson’s request, but on his own he’d “scrape carelessly at the fiddle, which was thrown across his knee.” His powers upon the violin were “as eccentric as all his other accomplishments”.”

Finally, the Hat

The hat in the trailer doesn’t look like the deerstalker that we’ve come to expect atop that big brain. In the stories, Holmes really did wear a “close-fitting cloth cap” when he made the rare excursion into the countryside, but he never wore it in the city where it would look ridiculous. Conan Doyle didn’t say specifically what kind of hat it was, but for those remote trips, Paget drew the hat contemporaneously as the now familiar deerstalker, even when Conan Doyle described it on one occasion as “ear-flapped.” (In the notes that accompany the Penguin version of The Hound of the Baskervilles, Christopher Frayling offers a theory about why Paget may have had a blindness, willful or otherwise, for the literal description.)

My point is that anyone who’s adapting a story, whether it’s an illustrator whose work appears with the text or a filmmaker working a century later, ends up injecting himself into the material: his own personality, tastes, and times, plus his own guesses about what audiences want.

Sticking stubbornly to the text would actually ignore the very real differences in context, and even the best filmmakers make changes to their source material. Consider Kubrick who repeatedly used novels as inspiration but presented his own unique and often drastically different vision each time: Lolita, The Shining, Traumnovelle, and even 2001, which Arthur C. Clark wrote in collaboration with Kubrick. Even if the plot of the film is somewhat similar, the spirit is entirely different.

Ritchie is no Kubrick, of course, but I’ll give him credit for mining the details of the original stories for his own pyrotechnics, even if his Holmes is oddly disheveled and a little short. He may not have been wearing his WWSD bracelet on the set, but I’ll welcome a more active Watson, a more varied Holmes, and a more robust view of adventure than we’ve come to expect, not always correctly, from films about Sherlock Holmes.

Rob Davis is Paste’s chief film critic.

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