January 25, 2009

A Rose By Any other name...

... would still smell like a rose. A thing is defined by its nature, not its name. Conversely, calling skunk cabbage "swamp roses" wouldn't do much to alter the stench.

Which is why the upcoming film featuring Robert Downey Jr. might be entertaining as all hell, but it won't be about Sherlock Holmes.

First, some background;

Sherlock Holmes is the fictional character created by Arthur Conan Doyle in 1887. In his first adventure, A Study In Scarlet, we learn a great deal about this unusual hero, as Doyle sets up the world inhabited by Sherlock Holmes and Dr. John Watson.

Watson, initially, is shocked by what Holmes doesn't know:
His ignorance was as remarkable as his knowledge. Of contemporary literature, philosophy and politics he appeared to know next to nothing.
Holmes himself explains these particular gaps in his knowledge:
“You see,” he explained, “I consider that a man’s brain originally is like a little empty attic, and you have to stock it with such furniture as you choose. A fool takes in all the lumber of every sort that he comes across, so that the knowledge which might be useful to him gets crowded out, or at best is jumbled up with a lot of other things, so that he has a difficulty in laying his hands upon it. Now the skilful workman is very careful indeed as to what he takes into his brain-attic. He will have nothing but the tools which may help him in doing his work, but of these he has a large assortment, and all in the most perfect order. It is a mistake to think that that little room has elastic walls and can distend to any extent. Depend upon it there comes a time when for every addition of knowledge you forget something that you knew before. It is of the highest importance, therefore, not to have useless facts elbowing out the useful ones.”
He is also described by other characters in the story:
“Holmes is a little too scientific for my tastes — it approaches to cold-bloodedness."
But it's after Watson reads an article in the paper that we learn what Sherlock Holmes purports to be:

“What ineffable twaddle!” I cried, slapping the magazine down on the table; “I never read such rubbish in my life.”

“What is it?” asked Sherlock Holmes.

“Why, this article,” I said, pointing at it with my eggspoon as I sat down to my breakfast. “I see that you have read it since you have marked it. I don’t deny that it is
smartly written. It irritates me, though. It is evidently the theory of some armchair lounger who evolves all these neat little paradoxes in the seclusion of his own study. It is not practical. I should like to see him clapped down in a third-class carriage on the Underground, and asked to give the trades of all his fellow-travellers. I would lay a thousand to one against him.”

“You would lose your money,” Holmes remarked calmly. “As for the article, I wrote it myself.”

“But do you mean to say,” I said, “that without leaving your room you can unravel some knot which other men can make nothing of, although they have seen every detail for themselves?”

“Quite so. I have a kind of intuition that way."
Doyle referred to Holmes' occupation as "consulting detective" and "armchair detective." Most of his work was cerebral, although there were occasions where he visited the scene of the crime himself.

So what am I fussing about? An article in the New York Times, describing the new movie titled "Sherlock Holmes," starring the aforementioned Robert Downey, Jr.
Sure, he will still be smarter than everyone within a three-planet radius, and he will retain his uncanny ability to intuit whole life stories from the tiniest speck of dust on a shoe. But he will do those things while being a man of action, a chaser, shooter and pummeler of criminals — “like James Bond in 1891,” Joel Silver, one of the film’s producers, said last fall.
Don't get me wrong: I enjoy James Bond as much as anyone. But when I want a Bond adventure, I turn to a Bond story.

It gets much worse:
Lionel Wigram, who conceived the story and is also a producer of the film, said that reinventing Holmes as an action hero made perfect sense. “I never agreed with the idea of the fairly stuffy Edwardian-type gentleman,” Mr. Wigram said. “It wasn’t my idea of Sherlock Holmes.”
First, Sherlock Holmes was a Victorian gentleman, and in the original stories he was far from stuffy. But Holmes would not have been at all impressed with James Bond. The entire point of Sherlock Holmes is to have a detective that relies more on logic and knowledge than physical strength to solve crimes.

Second, no one gives a shit about Lionel Wigram's "idea of Sherlock Holmes." He didn't create him. Sherlock Holmes has remained popular for over a hundred years; when Mr. Wigram has been selling books, records and films for that long, his opinion on the subject might possibly gain some merit.
Susan Downey, a producer on the film and Mr. Downey’s wife, said Holmes is “a bit of a ladies’ man, a bit of a brawler,” adding: “He has a gambling problem. If you’re a Sherlock Holmes fan who is in love with the original stories, then you’ll appreciate him.”
Those of us who are fans of Sherlock Holmes understand that Holmes was neither a womanizer nor a gambler. And while it is certain that Holmes could carry his own in a fight, it's out of character for him to look around for brawls as a form of amusement.

The thing is, we don't need anyone to re-invent Sherlock Holmes. Arthur Conan Doyle gave us all we ever needed for him. If you're going to make a movie about Sherlock Holmes, you'd damned well better stick to the history. We don't need re-invention. We need re-discovery.

And we need considerably less of these Hollywood assholes debasing perfectly good stories so they can brag about how they pissed all over it to give it their own stench. If Wigram wants to invent an action hero set in Edwardian or Victorian England, then that is what he should do. He shouldn't steal someone else's signature creation for his movie and give us something entirely different.

I have no doubt that it will be an entertaining movie. But if you're putting Sherlock Holmes in the title role, I'd better get Sherlock Holmes, and not some testosterone-crazed poser.


  1. Two words. Joel Silver.

    Be prepared for Lethal Weapon - Victorian Style.

  2. If they simply made "Lethal Weapon" and set it in Victorian England, I'd be fine with it. But if you're going to make Sherlock Holmes, there's no improving on the original. And by that, I don't mean the dreadful movies from the 30's and 40's.

  3. Well, it could be worse. Canadian TV tried to revive Sherlock with a series of TV movies with Matt Frewer as Sherlock. What? You don't remember Matt Frewer? How about as his most famous character Max Headroom? One of the reviews I read compared his performance to that of Richard Dreyfuss as Richard III in the Goodbye Girl. Ouch.

  4. You sound remarkably like me when I get talking about J.J. Abrams or the Wild Wild West movie. :-0

  5. Here! Here! I'm a member of the Sherlock Holmes Society of London and run on Holmes blog (http://starshipteapot.com/holmesian); I agree 100% with everything you've said and what worries me more about this film is that the graphic novel it's supposidly based on has yet to be published - that just makes me wonder just what they're scared of showing us.

  6. Clearly they've taken some liberties with the original character, and made some seriously stupid remarks to the press, like the ladies man and gambling fantasies. But emphasizing his physical attributes is a welcome new perspective, and concentrating on his down-time (mentioned in the NY Times article) by showing him laying about dirty, unshaven, mentally missing, etc., supplies an ingredient long downplayed by his fans.

    I see maybe 2 movies a year, but I'm sure, as a Sherlockian, I'll see this one. I've seen them all, I think.

    The worst thing you can do is read the remarks of boosters and frauds like the director's publicity agents. Give it a chance! At least see the movie before condemning it outright.

  7. Squathole-
    As I've said, I'm sure the movie will be a lot of fun. But I don't believe that Robert Downey's character will resemble Sherlock Holmes all that much.
    I'd be happier if they made an obvious rip-off of Holmes but called it something else.

  8. I agree with CLJ that it will likely be some light summer entertainment. But Holmes fans wants something with a little more psychological punch, not physical punching.

    One gander at what Joel Silver has produced over the last ten years and I have no doubt when I go see this movie (and I will), I will go in with very low expectations and have a blast.

  9. I would like to point out a couple of things. The NYT article in question has been revised to state that Watson, not Holmes, is the ladies man and gambler. So that appears to have been an error.

    Second, Wigram was saying that Holmes is NOT stuffy. That is, he agrees with you that Holmes is not stuffy. He got the Victorian/Edwardian thing off, but even then, Holmes's cases did last until 1914--Edwardian times. (And in that 1914 case, Holmes indeed WAS a spy, so I don't see how calling him James Bond is an insult.)

    I believe Wigram, like the author of the article, is making a contrast to the way Holmes is portrayed by Basil Rathbone and others, as being stuffy. Wigram is saying that Holmes will be different from stereotype idea, and I for one welcome the change. I am so sick of portrayals of Holmes as being pretentious, upperclass, and overly proper. Holmes is a man who looks down on the King of Bohemia, who played a prank on Lord Cantlemere with the Mazarin Stone, and who almost refused the Second Stain case because the government agents would not spill their guts sufficiently. He is often irreverent and mischievous and anti-authority. That's exactly the kind of Holmes they are talking about bringing forth in the movie.

    Additionally, they keep pointing out that Holmes will continue to be smart in the film; he'll just be physical as well. I don't see anything wrong with that, since Holmes is sometimes very physical. I agree with Squathole's comment. I'm more concerned about the alcoholism substituted for cocaine use. I can't find that in the article, so I hope they changed that in the movie.