Guy Ritchie’s Sherlock Holmes made it to HBO Saturday night, and although I had managed to avoid it when it was in the theaters and certainly wasn’t going to buy it when it came out on DVD, I gave in and watched, even though everything I had heard or read about the film had inspired little incentive to run out to the local Cineplex. While I am not quite a fanatic about Holmes, not one of those Baker St. Irregulars or anything like that, I do fancy myself something of an aficionado, and the idea of Sherlock Holmes as a kind of 19th century action hero was more than I was willing to stomach.
Holmes was a master detective who dealt with crime by using what another iconic sleuth would call his “little gray cells.” My Holmes wore a deer stalker, played mournfully on his violin, and had the lean and hungry look of Basil Rathbone. He had nothing in common with a bemused, “bemuscled” Robert Downey, Jr. He didn’t jump out of windows and engage in bare-knuckle brawling. His sidekick wasn’t a handsome, youthful Jude Law, but Nigel Bruce, a harrumphing gray-haired bumbler who never seemed to have a clue what was going on.
I watched¸ and sure enough what we’ve got here is Sherlock Holmes as a 19th century superhero minus mask and spandex. True, there are traces of Holmes. He is fond of disguises. He is subject to depression. He fiddles with a violin, but never as sweetly as Basil. He is a keen observer with remarkable deductive powers, both of which are emphasized by directorial film tricks. Nonetheless, this is not Sherlock Holmes; this is somebody else using his name. But the odd thing is that it didn’t really matter. This was a fairly entertaining movie: farfetched plot certainly, but entertaining enough. If only they had called the hero something else.
On the other hand, people have been taking liberties with Sir Arthur’s creation for quite some time. Ritchie’s Holmes at least lives in the 19th century, unlike the latest avatar that somehow managed to show up to some critical acclaim on that venerable purveyor of all things British, Masterpiece Mystery. Benedict Cumberbatch is no superhero, and while he may sport a Dickensian name he is very much a modern denizen of the 21st century. Watson turns up as a veteran of the war in Afghanistan. One would think the one thing you couldn’t do with Sherlock Holmes is pry him out of the 19th century. But then it occurs to me—and I have to check Wikipedia—that my beloved Basil Rathbone spent some time dealing with the Nazis back in the day. Indeed, it is more than likely that the first time I saw him on the big screen he was my contemporary. One forgets so easily. Holmes, it seems, can transcend time.
Come to think of it, back almost 50 years ago I remember getting half-price tickets to a Broadway musical called Baker Street. I don’t remember much about the production. Fritz Weaver played Holmes. Whether he sang and danced escapes me, I have to assume he did, and somehow the idea of Sherlock Holmes the song-and-dance man is as strange as that of the superhero Holmes. Yet the show ran long enough to start selling half-price tickets (311 performances according to Wikipedia), so there must have been an audience that didn’t find it offensive. Myself, I can’t remember anything about it. Wikipedia says that the show was “loosely based” on Conan Doyle’s story, “A Scandal in Bohemia,” and that it interestingly takes a liberty in creating a romance for Holmes with Irene Adler, a liberty which it turns out Ritchie’s Sherlock Holmes also takes.
If there is a lesson in all this, it is that when you create an iconic figure, it isn’t always easy to control what future generations will do with it. Think of Count Chocula. Think of Frankenberry cereal and Young Frankenstein. Think of all the incarnations of Robin Hood, from Errol Flynn to Russell Crowe by way of Kevin Costner. Think of what’s happing to our friend Spiderman on the Great White Way, as we speak. If they can do it with Sherlock Holmes, is anyone safe?
Back when I was 13, the first book I ever bought with my own money was the Modern Library edition of two collections of Holmes stories, The Adventures and Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes. I still have it. I think I’ll go get it and read a few of those stories once again. Robert Downey, Jr., Benedict Cumberbatch, Fritz Weaver, and even my beloved Basil Rathbone may be well enough as they go, but in the end, I guess there’s no substitute for the real thing.