Tuesday, December 29, 2009

The Real Sherlock Holmes

Another cool article from Alex Knapp:

“I have some knowledge, however, of baritsu, or the Japanese system of wrestling, which has more than once been very useful to me.”
– Sherlock Holmes

I am a huge, huge fan of John Varley, and I regularly read his commentary and reviews on his home site. However, I admit that I was a little dismayed at one of his latest commentaries, in which he completely dismisses the upcoming Sherlock Holmes film, sight unseen:

"Now I’m going to outdo myself and review a movie that hasn’t even been released yet. Now comes a movie even more dreadful in its concept than either of those loathsome things, a movie that almost makes me nauseous to even think about. Why? Because it is obvious from the trailer that they have turned Sherlock Holmes, one of the most cerebral characters in literature, into a rock-‘em sock-‘em action hero. In less than three minutes we see Holmes in a bare-knuckle fistfight, using things that resemble nunchucks, overpowering someone with some sort of kung fu moves, in a sword fight, firing a pistol in at least three different scenes, and in mortal combat with a hammer-wielding giant. We see explosions. We see a hair-raising fight on the precipice of an unfinished bridge. We see… Oh, I can’t go on."

What’s wrong with all those things, you ask? Nothing, in and of themselves. It is even possible that this will be an okay action-adventure film. But not with Sherlock Holmes!!

I have seen variants of these comments ever since the first trailer came out, and I have very strong opinions about it. I am a huge fan of the Sherlock Holmes stories. I have read all of Doyle’s stories on multiple occasions, and have also enjoyed a number of the non-Holmes versions. I love Sherlock Holmes, I always have. So to Mr. Varley and all of the other folks complaining about an “action hero” Holmes, I can only say this:

What Holmes stories have you been reading?

Doyle’s Holmes is a fighter! In our very first introduction to Mr. Holmes, the story “A Study In Scarlet”, Watson describes Holmes as “an expert singlestick player, boxer, and swordsman.” In “The Adventure of the Illustrious Client,” Holmes is on the losing end of a stick fight. In describing his fight with Moriarty in “The Adventure of the Empty House”, Holmes reveals that he was able to defeat Moriarty in combat thanks to his knowledge of Baritsu. And there are several action scenes in the Holmes stories, such as this one in “The Red-Headed League.”

"Sherlock Holmes had sprung out and seized the intruder by the collar. The other dived down the hole, and I heard the sound of rending cloth as Jones clutched at his skirts. The light flashed upon the barrel of a revolver, but Holmes’s hunting crop came down on the man’s wrist, and the pistol clinked upon the stone floor."

Another revealing exchange about Sherlock Holmes’ physical prowess is this scene in “The Sign of Four”, which features Holmes’ exchange with the Boxer McMurdo:

“Very sorry, Mr. Thaddeus,” said the porter inexorably. “Folk may be friends o’ yours, and yet no friend o’ the master’s. He pays me well to do my duty, and my duty I’ll do. I don’t know none o’ your friends.”

“Oh, yes you do, McMurdo,” cried Sherlock Holmes genially. “I don’t think you can have forgotten me. Don’t you remember that amateur who fought three rounds with you at Alison’s rooms on the night of your benefit four years back?”

“Not Mr. Sherlock Holmes!” roared the prize-fighter. “God’s truth! how could I have mistook you? If instead o’ standin’ there so quiet you had just stepped up and given me that cross-hit of yours under the jaw, I’d ha’ known you without a question. Ah, you’re one that has wasted your gifts, you have! You might have aimed high, if you had joined the fancy.”

Now, I’ll grant you–Doyle’s Holmes did most of his fighting “off-screen” with little bon mots like “if it weren’t for my knowledge of stick fighting, I’d be a dead man…” but I don’t mind seeing it on-screen. It’s true to his character.

“It is cocaine, a seven-per-cent solution. Would you care to try it?”
– Sherlock Holmes

I’m also pleased to see that the movie isn’t trying to class Holmes up. Doyle’s Holmes is a self-described “Bohemian” and rampant drug abuser. Watson, on more than one occasion, describes his utter horror at Holmes’ housekeeping, describing him as “the worst tenant in London.” On more than one occasion, Holmes and Watson have to break into other people’s houses, and Holmes is described as being able to rather easily pick locks.

What is NOT true to Doyles’ Holmes is the popular TV and movie portrayals of him–which turned him into a classy, upper-class gentlemen. Holmes was not a “gentleman.” He wasn’t passive. He didn’t wear a deerstalker cap. He was great friends with the working class and while he had a lot of upper-class clientele, it’s clear that he didn’t care much for most of them. Doyles’ Holmes was more like an artist–a messy, drug addicted, self-absorbed, dirty fighting genius. I, for one, am looking forward to watching a screen adaptation that actually comes close to the Holmes that I’ve read about.


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