Last night, our industrious little Netflix friends dropped off Sherlock Holmes: Game of Shadows, big budget blockbuster sequel to the 2009 big budget blockbuster Sherlock Holmes movie. You know the ones: Robert Downey and Jude Law as Holmes and Watson. I know, Game of Shadows was so last year, why write about it now? ‘Cause it’s my blog and I feel like it, okay?
Holmes is big right now, actually. I blame Kindle. When I got my Kindle, it was loaded with a few free books to start off with, and one of them was a complete collection of Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories. I’d read them all many times before, of course–I was a Holmes nut in high school–but getting the Kindle gave me an excuse to read them all over again. And of course, there have been lots and lots of Sherlock Holmes adaptations over the years, including comic books and stage plays and, I’m not kidding, board games. Sherlock Holmes adaptations have included many many films, and not a few TV series.
If you think about it, Holmes should actually work better on TV than on film. Doyle wrote 56 short stories, and only four novels–Holmes just works better in shorter forms, I think. And of the novels, you really can’t make a film of A Study in Scarlet, I don’t think. It’s just so insanely anti-Mormon, what with all the Danite nonsense, which is, like, central to the plot.
That’s why I’m so nuts about the BBC Sherlock TV series. It’s set in modern London–Holmes is as good with computers as you imagine he’d be, and Watson chronicles his adventures in a blog. Benedict Cumberbatch is superb as Holmes, plus, he’s named Benedict Cumberbatch, the greatest name ever for a British actor. Martin Freeman (otherwise known as Bilbo Baggins) is a tremendous Watson. In fact, Watson is such a compelling character, he’s every bit Holmes’ match. Of course, the cops don’t really want to work with Holmes, leading to this exchange: “why should we work with this psychopath?” “High functioning sociopath, do your research.”
Okay, obvious point, but Holmes is brilliant; that’s the appeal, that’s why we read or watch him (or, I guess, play the board game). And you’d think we wouldn’t need a modern Holmes, what with all the CSI guys with their fancy DNA tests and spectrometers and electron microscopes and hadron supercolliders. At the heart of Holmes is just . . . observation. He notices things. And then puts the pieces together. Just smart people thinking clearly; heck, that’s still dramatically compelling.
And that’s why the Downey Holmes movies are so dispiriting. Yes, they do show Holmes thinking problems through. They do this thing where they’ll show Holmes looking around a room, and they jump cut from close-up to close-up of things in the room, and we see him putting it all together. Those moments are great, if too infrequent. And I’ll also grant you that Doyle’s Holmes could defend himself–Watson says he would have been a boxing champion if he’d set his mind to it.
But both Downey movies have also been big and noisy and frenetic like all American action movies, all fight scenes and ‘splosions. Downey’s Holmes isn’t just a brilliant detective, he’s Jason Bourne. When Holmes fights off an entire assassination team that’s cornered Watson on a train, it’s preposterous in the way all big American action films are preposterous. It’s un-Holmsian. And a turn-off. I put up with the first Downey Holmes, rather liked it, in fact. The second one was a chore to watch. It had a few fun moments, and I liked the actor who plays Lane Price (Mad Men) as Moriarty. But it’s essentially and basically an action movie, and the Sherlock Holmes stories are not essentially and basically action-adventure fiction. They’re just. . . not as good. As good as what? Most other Holmes movies and most other Holmes TV series.
Yes, Holmes can fight, and yes the movies do show him thinking. But the balance is all off. And the fact that the BBC series is set in the 21st century, and that the Downey films are late Victorian ends up mattering a lot less than the fact that the Downey films have turned Sherlock Holmes into a superhero. I like Downey as Iron Man. I don’t like him as Sherlock Man.
This fall, there’s another Sherlock Holmes TV series coming to CBS. Jonny Lee Miller as Holmes, Lucy Liu as Dr. Joan Watson. I admit to being skeptical. I’m a Holmes snob, I admit it. But I absolutely will watch it. It’s Holmes.