I don’t mind that Guy Ritchie seems to have turned Sherlock Holmes into an action figure since Arthur Conan Doyle regularly implied that Holmes was in fact an action figure.
Saving Avatar for New Year’s Day and taking Pop Mannion to Sherlock Holmes this afternoon---Mom Mannion will be using the opportunity to rest up from all her Mother Christmasing over the last few days.
Is any fan’s ideal Sherlock Holmes the character as Conan Doyle wrote him or as Sidney Paget drew him? Pop Mannion’s Sherlock Holmes was Basil Rathbone. Mine is Jeremy Brett. But Brett taught both of us that there is no one way to play Holmes, although having seen and enjoyed The Seven Per-Cent Solution I’m not sure it’s a lesson I hadn’t already learned from Nicol Williamson, who come to think about it played Holmes as a bit of an action figure himself.
For the most part his Holmes was a strung-out, drug-addled, hyper-neurotic Freudian case study, but then there was that sword fight on the top of the cars of a speeding train. And I don’t remember thinking that was out of character for Holmes.
That’s because Doyle’s Holmes probably could fence. Why not? He was a crack shot. He could box. He was strong, as strong as Downey appears to be playing him in the movie. Take this scene from The Speckled Band in which the villain shows up at 221B Baker Street to try to scare Holmes off the case:
"I will go when I have said my say. Don't you dare to meddle with my affairs. I know that Miss Stoner has been here. I traced her! I am a dangerous man to fall foul of! See here." He stepped swiftly forward, seized the poker, and bent it into a curve with his huge brown hands.
"See that you keep yourself out of my grip," he snarled, and hurling the twisted poker into the fireplace he strode out of the room.
"He seems a very amiable person," said Holmes, laughing. "I am not quite so bulky, but if he had remained I might have shown him that my grip was not much more feeble than his own." As he spoke he picked up the steel poker and, with a sudden effort, straightened it out again.
It’s true Doyle rarely showed Holmes in situations that required him to duke or shoot it out with a bad guy. Rarely. And, remember, Doyle only showed Holmes as Watson saw him, and Watson was not the constant companion that popular imagination has him. Watson and Holmes shared rooms on Baker Street, but not a room. Watson spent his days at his surgery. Then he got married and moved out. He moved back in after Doyle widowed him but the Watsons were married for a while and during that while Holmes and Watson saw each other only on occasion. When they got together, Holmes usually hinted at three or four cases he had solved in the meantime without Watson’s aid and advice. And those cases often sounded more romantic and dangerous than any of the ones that became the basis for Watson’s stories.
In fact, Holmes seemed to encourage Watson to write up those cases because they were less romantic and violent and then objected to the little bits of romance Watson worked into those. Holmes wanted Watson to record and tout his methods of detection not his adventures while detecting.
"To the man who loves art for its own sake," remarked Sherlock Holmes, tossing aside the advertisement sheet of the Daily Telegraph, "it is frequently in its least important and lowliest manifestations that the keenest pleasure is to be derived. It is pleasant to me to observe, Watson, that you have so far grasped this truth that in these little records of our cases which you have been good enough to draw up, and, I am bound to say, occasionally to embellish, you have given prominence not so much to the many causes celebres and sensational trials in which I have figured but rather to those incidents which may have been trivial in themselves, but which have given room for those faculties of deduction and of logical synthesis which I have made my special province."
"And yet," said I, smiling, "I cannot quite hold myself absolved from the charge of sensationalism which has been urged against my records."
"You have erred, perhaps," he observed, taking up a glowing cinder with the tongs and lighting with it the long cherry-wood pipe which was wont to replace his clay when he was in a disputatious rather than a meditative mood--"you have erred perhaps in attempting to put color and life into each of your statements instead of confining yourself to the task of placing upon record that severe reasoning from cause to effect which is really the only notable feature about the thing."
We also know that Holmes had extensive connections among the denizens of London’s underworld and spent lots of time there, and not always because he was investigating a case. Holmes led a double life and he enjoyed keeping the details from Watson. He also seemed to think Watson wouldn’t be able to handle it if he did let him in on what he’d been up.
Then there were the years after Reichenbach Falls during which, Holmes wasn’t, as he says he’ll be doing at the end of The Seven Per-Cent Solution, spending his time on the stage passing as a concert violinist named Sigerson.
His smarter younger brother’s name, by the way.
I travelled for two years in Tibet, therefore, and amused myself by visiting Lhassa, and spending some days with the head lama. You may have read of the remarkable explorations of a Norwegian named Sigerson, but I am sure that it never occurred to you that you were receiving news of your friend. I then passed through Persia, looked in at Mecca, and paid a short but interesting visit to the Khalifa at Khartoum the results of which I have communicated to the Foreign Office.
I think I’d like to know what made that short visit to the Khalifa interesting.
As for the scenes in the trailer that show Holmes as a robust, randy, and somewhat kinky heterosexual, well, there isn’t anything in Doyle’s stories that insists definitively that he wasn’t. Holmes is usually brusque to the point of rudeness with women who cross his path---upper class women, at any rate---and he leaves it to Watson to act the gentleman with them. And he routinely drops remarks that are more than typically Victorian in their sexism. They border on misogyny and shock Watson, who has a high regard for women in general and is regularly quite admiring of individuals---he makes a point of noting female clients’ intelligence, courage, and level-headedness. Holmes talks as if he thinks all women are borderline hysterics. Watson is always ready to assure his readers that no actual hysterics have ever showed up at Baker Street.
Of course, we know that Holmes knows that there is at least one woman who is not an hysteric.
Who shows up in the very first story.
She is the only woman---the only person---who ever outwits Holmes and he likes that about her. He likes her. He may love her. It may be that every thing he says about women and the way he treats them, when on a case or considering taking a case, is defensive. He is pushing back against any feelings that could cloud his thinking. On a case, he needs to be cool-headed to the point of being a machine. (It makes perfect sense that Spock is one of his descendents, a possibility that requires us to believe that Holmes married and reproduced.) But it may also be that what we are hearing is the result of his comparing every woman who comes after to the woman.
Or to the women he knows from the opium dens and dive bars and---why not?---whorehouses he visits without Watson around to complain or fret or judge.
So it may be that Guy Ritchie has simply taken what’s implied is going on in the background of Conan Doyle’s stories and moved it to the foreground where Watson can see what his friend’s really been up to for once.
What I’m dreading is not what Ritchie might have done with or to the character. I’m dreading what he might have done with the movie, which is to have made it into a big noisy mess.
But I’m also dreading one more thing.
Rachel McAdams in a corset, garter belt, and thigh highs.
I’ll tell you why when we get back. Movie’s starting soon. We’re off. Catch you later.
Take a virtual tour of Holmes’ study at 221B Baker Street.