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Holmesie Don’t Play That

January 4th, 2010 · 13 Comments

I haven’t seen Sherlock Holmes yet, but I’ve seen way too many writers who ought to know better pitching the so-contrarian-its-now-CW line that Guy Ritchie’s transformation of Conan Doyle’s überrational sleuth into a two-fisted brawler is actually faithful to Conan Doyle’s original stories. After all, Holmes is described as being not just a skilled boxer, but a master of singlestick, fencing, and “baritsu.” In a few brief scenes over the course of of 56 short-stories and four novels, we even see him employ these skills.

It’s also true that in several of the Gospels, we get some version of a story in which a hungry Jesus gets pissed that a fig tree hasn’t grown any figs for him yet, and zaps it with Jesus-magic. But while I can imagine a cinematic adaptation where the Passion of the Christ turns out to be miraculous weed-whacking, it would be a Life-of-Brianesque farce, not a sincere attempt at interpretation.

There are, incidentally, all manner of allegorical readings of the fig tree story, but I’ve always liked the rather more straightforward one: That it really is an aberration, the point of which is to draw your attention to how aberrant it is. Let’s face it, you’d been bitten by a radioactive Holy Ghost, this is exactly how you’d use your divine abilities: You’d wither inanimate objects in fits of pique, sling Avada Kedavras at babies on planes, burst the heads of queue-cutters like eggs in a microwave, and generally act like the superpowered anime badass Jesus from that last Left Behind book. The fig story reminds you that Jesus could act this way, has all the emotional plumbing that would motivate him to act this way, but doesn’t act this way, because he’s Jesus, and you aren’t.

This is probably not the right way to read the Gospel story, but I do think it works for the Holmes stories. The rare fight scenes establish that merely physical challenges are no real challenge at all for Holmes: He wins his fights quickly and handily. Combat is just one more discipline he’s studied and mastered. But they also underscore, by their very rarity, that Holmes could be much more of an “action hero”—and chooses not to. He’s capable of throwing a punch with the best of them when it comes to that, but usually manipulates circumstances so as to render such crude displays unnecessary. Despite being an expert marksman, he typically relegates pistol-brandishing duty to Watson or the police, leaving him free to deliver witty remarks to their quarry.

I’ll still go see it, of course; by all accounts it’s a ripping yarn. But I’ll think of it as the story of a Victorian action hero who, by sheer coincidence, shares a name with that detective fellow.

Tags: Art & Culture



13 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Alex Knapp // Jan 4, 2010 at 12:00 pm

    Holmes employes plenty of brain in the new adaptation, fear not. (Plus the “master of disguise” aspect of his character that’s one of my favorities is also heavily featured.)

    There’s also a nice theme of “superstition vs. reason” running throughout. The action scenes you see in the trailer are pretty spaced out in the film and, more importantly, actually serve to move the story forward.

  • 2 Jesse Walker // Jan 4, 2010 at 12:28 pm

    Maybe it’s the movies that had Holmes fighting the Nazis, maybe it’s the novel that revealed that Holmes was Jack the Ripper, maybe it’s the book in which both Holmes and Moriarty were time-traveling creatures from the future, but a film that puts a bit more emphasis on Holmes’ combat skills than we’re used to doesn’t strike me as all that out of line for a post-Doyle Sherlock Holmes story. Reinterpreting the character is part of the game. (If they wanted to make a movie completely faithful to the pop image of Holmes, they should have called it Solar Pons.)

  • 3 Sean Carroll // Jan 4, 2010 at 1:11 pm

    I didn’t mind the fight scenes, and Holmes does use his brain quite a bit. But there’s no question that Guy Ritchie’s version of Holmes isn’t exactly bookish or even scholarly. I don’t remember him opening a book or doing anything like research — just using his Holmes-magic to deduce things by looking at them.

    Likewise for James T. Kirk, who was quite well-read in the original Star Trek, but is a frat boy in the reboot. Both movies were very enjoyable, but didn’t quite have the courage to feature a hero who could be both a scholar and an accomplished fighter.

  • 4 E.Z. // Jan 4, 2010 at 1:18 pm

    It’s not clear from the trailers, but Holmes’s combat skills in the movie come largely from his ability to analyze his opponents’ weaknesses incredibly quickly. It’s portrayed more as a natural extension of his reasoning abilities than anything else.

    What I like best about the film (in addition to the ‘master of disguise’ bit mentioned above) is that it shows the antisocial behavior, slovenliness, and drug use that was in Doyle’s stories but seems missing from most screen versions of Holmes.

  • 5 Glen // Jan 4, 2010 at 2:29 pm

    Overall, I was somewhat disappointed with the movie — but not because of the action scenes. As E.Z. indicates, the fighting is depicted as an application of intellect. I think you’ll appreciate how it’s handled.

  • 6 sam // Jan 4, 2010 at 3:00 pm

    “What I like best about the film (in addition to the ‘master of disguise’ bit mentioned above) is that it shows the antisocial behavior, slovenliness, and drug use that was in Doyle’s stories but seems missing from most screen versions of Holmes.”

    That reminded me that in the 1939 version of The Hound of the Baskervilles (Rathbone, edition), the last line of the movie is, “Watson, the needle!”

  • 7 Michael B Sullivan // Jan 4, 2010 at 3:25 pm

    I thought that it was weird that two introductory fight scenes have the whole “plan/analysis” combat thing going on, and then it never comes up in any of the more serious fights.

    I wasn’t wildly thrilled with this movie, but while the trailers make it look like Holmes does nothing but kick ass and has never heard of detecting, the movie does have a reasonable amount of detective work in it.

  • 8 Greg N. // Jan 4, 2010 at 11:13 pm

    I’ll echo E.Z. and Glen; the fight scenes are actually pretty cool, even if they are shot exactly the way you’d think Ritchie would shoot it (maybe because of that). Also, if I recall correctly the fighting moves the plot forward, so it’s not completely indulgent.

    Glen: my wife and I just finished season 1 after a friend bought us the DVD for Xmas (he loved the show so much he bought season 1 for all of his friends and family). We LOVE IT and we can’t wait to watch season 2!

  • 9 Nick // Jan 5, 2010 at 11:29 am

    It’s pretty true to tone; the original Doyle stories are, quite honestly, horrible schlock, so any reasonable adaptation would also have to be. The fact that they are horrible schlock that avoids trying to describe fight scenes doesn’t mean that translating them to the big screen shouldn’t change the emphasis.

  • 10 Nick // Jan 5, 2010 at 11:33 am

    Which is not to say that I don’t love them, by the bye. I just love them for the same reasons that I love the Ritchie movie.

  • 11 Bill jones // Jan 14, 2010 at 4:21 pm

    It’s a fucking movie, you clown.
    Go and see it.
    It’s good

  • 12 m65 // Mar 7, 2010 at 8:41 pm

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  • 13 Hugh // Mar 31, 2010 at 2:24 pm

    1) Guy Ritchie is no Jeremy Brett.

    2) In the “Infancy Gospel of Thomas” (one of the gospels that didn’t make the cut) Jesus does all sorts of things that, as my favorite theology professor put it “you would do if you were a little kid and you were also god”. At 3:3-5 and in following verses he withers and smites other kids who upset him until Joseph takes him aside, admonishes him, and eventually has to yank on his ear to get him to stop. Apparently some of the early Christians had similar ideas about “Jesus-magic”.

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