Is that Holmes?

The new movie makes a good case for reinterpretations of classics

Written by Thejaswi Udupa | Published:January 6, 2012 2:57 am

Sherlock Holmes is no stranger to being plucked out of his comfortable Baker Street residence and planted in surroundings alien to Arthur Conan Doyle’s Victorian imagination. In the Basil Rathbone movies at the height of World War II,he matched wits against the Nazis,even going as far as the US chasing international spy rings. In Michael Chabon’s The Final Solution he helps a Jewish refugee kid find his lost parrot. Jamyang Norbu had him discuss philosophy with the Dalai Lama,and Vithal Rajan had him playing cricket at Madras. With time,the surroundings have gotten decidedly bizarre. There have been Martians,zombies,and werewolves too. A personal favourite is Neil Gaiman’s award-winning A Study in Emerald,a masterpiece of misdirection and ancient magic.

Most of these alternate histories (and futures) of Sherlock Holmes have had their appeal limited to fans of the original canon,and I doubt if it has created any new fans of the character. 2010 (technically speaking,the last week of 2009) changed that. There were two adaptations,unapologetically mainstream both,and both far removed from the Doyle-version that left some old fans grumbling but introduced Holmes,Watson,Moriarty,Moran,etc. to a whole new audience. First,Guy Ritchie made a Sherlock Holmes movie. With Robert Downey Jr. as Holmes and Jude Law as Dr Watson,there was no way this movie was escaping attention. Then in July there was the BBC series Sherlock which ports all the dramatis personae to a contemporary setting for three feature-length episodes of Sherlockian crime-solving. It is unfortunate that the BBC series is not as widely known in India as the former,for it is the better reinterpretation. 2012 has brought with it the second season of the series. While those in the UK and the Democratic Republic of Internet are gushing over the first episode,in India it is the sequel to Ritchie’s movie that has been giving people their Holmes fix.

Doyle with his Sherlock Holmes stories,like with any author who writes many stories featuring the same set of characters,had defined the template of how these stories unfolded,on how each character behaved,what their quirks and mannerisms were and,most importantly to detective stories,what their “methods” were. When others adapted or reinterpreted Holmes,these Doylean characterisations slowly solidified into a set of tropes that defined a Sherlock Holmes story. The tropes naturally carried over into other mediums as well — the Rathbone movies,the TV series starring Jeremy Brett,etc. — the Sherlock Holmes in them was instantly recognisable,and to fans of Doyle’s original stories,immensely likeable.

But Ritchie’s Sherlock Holmes and now its sequel A Game of Shadows make mincemeat of these familiar tropes. Holmes in the movie is closer to James Bond than a cerebral detective. He sets up a dinner date with a beautiful woman,sweeps a tarot card reader with exotic good looks off her feet,and gets into rather improbable fight sequences. There are more punch-ups than logical deductions. There are more bomb blasts than conversations. And in the true tradition of James Bond movies,there is even interrupted romance on a train preceding a long stunt-filled action sequence.

The movie also twists familiar tropes in devious ways — Holmes’s begrudging admiration of Irene Adler’s intelligence gets interpreted as a full-blown romance in the movies. Holmes’s mild disdain for women and especially Watson’s wife in the original stories gets translated here as a strong homoerotic undercurrent between Holmes and Watson. Holmes’s mastery of disguises now makes him look like a cross between Tim Curry’s sweet-transvestite in The Rocky Horror Picture Show,and Heath Ledger’s Joker. Little wonder then,that there has been considerable outrage from fans — not too dissimilar from the kind of outrage one encountered from intensely loyal fans of Tintin comics when the Spielberg movie came out.

But just like liberal reinterpretation of its source material did not make Tintin any less enjoyable as a movie,same is the case with Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows. As a silly steampunk romp through some excellent recreations of late 19th century London and Paris,it does even better than the first movie. The movie does not completely ignore fans of classical Sherlock Holmes either — there are little touches that have been thrown in that will please a true fan — like the note for Watson left behind by Holmes,or the predominance of violin in Hans Zimmer’s score.

A Game of Shadows makes a good case for reinterpretations of classics — an idea often approached with a lot of trepidation. Also,the success of the first movie and now this opens up a market for new Sherlock Holmes mysteries — both serious ones,like the new Anthony Horowitz book,and the kind I prefer,pastiches. Maybe I should do something about the image of Sherlock Holmes eating a masala dosa at CTR in Malleswaram that keeps popping up in my head every now and then.

The writer is based in Bangalore,where he manages a cricket website,express@expressindia.com

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