In your travels through life, if you are suddenly beset upon by an unemployed game show host who asks who, in your opinion, is the most influential and durable character in English Literature, I would be very surprised if you didn't answer Sherlock Holmes. Of course, a pass will be given if you are one of those people who believes Holmes was a real person. You can talk all you want of Poe's C. August Dupin, but it's Conan Doyle's 1887 creation who captured the world's imagination and never let go. We cannot get enough of the Victorian era consulting detective whose popularity eventually came to so bedevil Sir Arthur. The character whose basis is four novels and 56 short stories took on a life of his own. People who have never read a Conan Doyle story know of 221B Baker Street, of the devoted chronicler Dr. John H. Watson, of Mrs. Hudson and Professor Moriarty.
For over a century the character of Sherlock Holmes has been subject to uncountable adaptions, homages and pastiches of varying success and quality. Actors as diverse as Peter Cushing and Matt Frewer have assayed the role. Some such as Basil Rathbone and Jeremy Brett, despite their wide-ranging careers, are indelibly associated with Sherlock Holmes. One of the first and best to tie his name and image with that of Holmes was the American actor William Gillette (pictured left) who, with Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's permission, adapted Sherlock Holmes for the stage in 1899. While Gillette was working on the project and appearing on stage in San Francisco a hotel fire destroyed both the original Conan Doyle manuscript from which he was working and Gillette's own finished play. He patiently rewrote the entire play which is a lesson for those of us stymied by computer crashes. It was Gillette who gave Holmes his deerstalker cap and magnifying glass, and the line "Elementary, my dear fellow." William Gillette played Holmes for over 30 seasons on the stage and gave his last performance for radio at the age of 79. Orson Welles is quoted as saying "It is not enough to say that William Gillette resembles Sherlock Holmes, Sherlock Holmes looks exactly like William Gillette.” It is not a stretch to imagine that Arthur Wontner and Basil Rathbone must have seen Gillette and been influenced by his interpretation. Surely Rathbone's performance on film and radio influenced future performers.
The mania for all things Holmesian continues into the 21st century. Fans of television mysteries see the clear line from 1880s stories printed in The Strand magazine to David Shore's House, MD, Bruno Heller's The Mentalist and Steven Moffat's Sherlock. My book shelves contain not only my annotated and illustrated original Holmes stories, but many of the homages and imaginings of other writers from Eve Titus' Basil of Baker Street, August Derleth's Solar Pons, Steve Hockensmith's Holmes on the Range series, Laurie R. King's engrossing Mary Russell novels, and more.
A couple of years ago when Guy Ritchie's Sherlock Holmes movie starring Robert Downey Jr. and Jude Law was announced, I was intrigued because I am one of those who can't get enough of Holmes. However, I frequent certain areas of the internet (the IMDb) which suddenly and frightfully became a breeding ground of Holmes purists who were aghast at the thought of the movie. I am someone who didn't object when an animated Holmes was frozen and brought back to life in the future in Sherlock Holmes in the 22nd Century. I have no purist scruples because it has been proven that Holmes is untouchable. Therefore, I was keen on the project until I saw the trailer. My trailer judgements are swift and irrevocable. Strike one, the cinematography had an annoying greyish tint which I supposed was to accommodate CGI. Strike two, there was no discernible plot. Strike three, an alarming amount of slow-mo and an over-reliance on smart-assery. The entire thing left me with an overwhelming sense of "meh". I sighed and dismissed the movie from my universe.
The Harry Potter movies are a tradition the family shares at the theatre so early last autumn I made a rare trip to a movie theatre. It is a rare trip nowadays because I resent the cost, the piped in pop music I spend most of my life trying to avoid, and the commercials. Time was you went to the movies because there were no commercials, but that pleasure can now only be enjoyed in the comfort of your own home. I wept my way through the trailer for War Horse, much to the amusement of my loved ones, and next came a sequel to Sherlock Holmes. I steeled myself for the onslaught of "meh" which did not come. I was amused. I was intrigued. How could this be so? I puzzled and puzzled till my puzzler was sore. Then I thought of something I hadn't before. What if Sherlock Holmes (2009) wasn't a bore? What if Sherlock Holmes (2009), perhaps, was a little bit more?
A couple of weeks before Christmas after a hard day of shopping, I gave Sherlock Holmes (2009) a chance. The family is well aware of my intractable trailer judgments so I bore with good grace my daughter's smirk and raised eyebrow. She does it because she can and because nothing is more annoying to someone who can't raise one eyebrow and whose smirk looks like a grimace of pain.
Back to the movie. The darn thing did have a plot. A wackadoodle peer played by Mark Strong was manipulating a secret society and fear of the supernatural in a plan to TAKE OVER THE WORLD. Cool! Who else but a wackadoodle private consulting detective could defeat such a villain?
My eyes became accustomed to the grey tinted cinematography which may have been to accommodate CGI and might also have been to indicate a smokey, foggy London. At any rate, after a while I stopped wishing someone would squeegy the screen.
Robert Downey Jr. rarely puts a foot wrong as an actor for me, and his Holmes continued in that vein. Jude Law exemplified the perfect Watson. The characters are so firmly established in our imaginations that we had no need to go back and be introduced to them, there they were, fully formed waiting for us to enjoy the adventure. The brilliant and arrogant Holmes, both admirable and aggravating, and the loyal and understanding Watson. Dr. Watson is the friend we all should be or should have - someone who puts up with us.
If there must be a woman in the picture, and there must, then it must the "the" woman and it was. Canadian gal Rachel McAdams played the adventuress Irene Adler as if she were the long lost grandmother of Emma Peel of The Avengers. The spirited action worked in the style of the story told. We even had a peek at a mysterious professor pulling strings from the shadows. Oooh!
I enjoyed an amusing bit wherein Holmes would imagine his next move prior to carrying it out. It was clever and not overdone. All the plot lines tied up nicely at the end for a satisfying movie experience. I thoroughly enjoyed the entire romp and look forward to the sequel. I am only concerned about my heretofore reliable trailer judgment. What else have I been missing out on? Perhaps that movie with the boxing robot - but, no. Let's not be silly.