Adaptation Paper of Sherlock Holmes

1: Literary Work of the Holmes series/adaptations

There is no single Sherlock Holmes book, rather the famous stories written in the late 1890’s through early 1900’s, have been anthologized numerous times by numerous publishers over the years. In all, the complete Sherlock Holmes anthology authorized by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the original creator of Holmes, consists of 4 novels and 56 short stories. These stories have been augmented by contemporary authors who claim to have “found”  Sherlockian stories. Since his debut into the public arena in a short story entitled, A Study in Scarlet, published in 1887, the character of the great detective has inspired a river of stories, movies, television and radio series, as well as a seemingly unlimited number of physical items as souvenirs of this well-loved creation of English literature.

The public attachment to the person of Holmes is the hallmark of his popularity. Since his inception, we have known Holmes to be a “singular” man of remarkable (but not super-human) reasoning skills, who is a bachelor, a loner and recluse, whose only known friends are Dr. Watson, his side-kick and chronicler of his triumphs, and his brother, Moycroft. It is peculiar that this anti-social man would spark such loyalty and popularity far after his author has passed. What accounts for Holmes’s popularity?

One reason he may have found almost instant popularity is the times in which he was created. In the late 1800’s, England (especially London) was undergoing a major transition to an industrialized city. “Nineteenth-century London was as much a city of science and art, theatre and literature as it was a commercial and manufacturing centre and a centre of poverty and crime.”

(http://www.oldbaileyonline.org/static/London-life19th.jsp). In fact the city of London where Doyle’s characters lived was the largest most cosmopolitan city in the world and had grown in the 19th century at a phenomenal rate. This backdrop of massive change, over-crowding, large and diverse ethnic groups and a vast gap between the wealthy and the poor (also known as the “criminal class”) may help explain why a character like the brilliant Sherlock Holmes would have been seen as a hero.  His main source of charisma is his mind, and it is a mind that can bring order out of chaos, and can get the “bad guys” dead-to-rights. He is a “modern” hero in that he uses his brain, not his brawn, and except for his sidekick, he works alone to bring justice to an increasingly amoral, confusing world.

 

The key to Holmes’s character is in his cool, non-emotional rationality. It is from his studied detachment that he can see into the nature of men and deduce much about their past and future. In an age before ours, before the explosion of knowledge, a diligent, disciplined student could have a passing acquaintance with many of the known fields of knowledge. Holmes was a student of men and their accouterments, and like an archeologist, he deduced men’s and women’s motives and actions from the “stuff they carried.” The miracles he performs are not supernatural, rather they stem from the gifts of every man. He appealed to the masses in the 19th and 20th centuries because he could make things right again by using his natural, although highly focused, gifts. This makes his triumphs all the more appealing because they seem so normal, so within reach of all of us. Sherlock Holmes might not have been a jovial or easy man to live with, but he is/was loved because he uses his gifts and talents for the benefit of all, with justice, integrity, and a levelheaded sensibility that most modern men wish to emulate.

The early adaptations to radio shows where the original stories were simply read and augmented with sound effects did justice to the original because it WAS the original, just in a different format. Later, the first movie (a 30 second item) about Sherlock Holmes was made, and when the motion picture industry developed, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s material was adapted to film again and again.

2: The 2009 Film

The 2009 film version of Sherlock Holmes is the latest in the series of new film and television adaptations of the classic tales of Sherlock Holmes and his partner/friend Dr. John Watson. This version of the movie portrays Sherlock as an action hero, which pleases the crowds of today. The filmmakers must have considered that a traditional Sherlock would make everything boring for today’s movie audiences. This contemporary Sherlock also differs in the qualities of the book version because he is way too arrogant and sarcastic; his constant squabbling with Watson in the movie was never before seen in the source literature. While this banter between the lead characters might be useful to keep the audience interested and amused, it detracts from our sense of Holmes’s original virtue. In fact, in the movie, Sherlock occasionally exhibits a mean-spirited annoyance with his old, and perhaps only, friend. That said, in the book Holmes shows his highly civilized manners by gently patronizing Watson while simultaneously giving him a back-handed compliment. “‘It may be that you are not yourself luminous,’ Holmes tells Watson, ‘but you are a conductor of light. Some people without possessing genius have a remarkable power of stimulating it (www.sherlock-holmes.org/uk/world/conan_doyle.php).’” From Holmes, this is high praise indeed.

The movie-version of Holmes can be painted as a tortured soul because he goes through what is “best described as sensory overload in which we see that his ability to infer lots of information from tiny details may be more of a curse than a blessing when there is no immediate puzzle to be solved, seeking out complex riddles in order to experience serenity.” (www.whatculture.com/film/how-faithful-is-guy-richies-sherlock-holmes-to-arthur-conan-doyle,php). This version of Sherlock also has a love for martial arts, which is shown in a few fight scenes in the movie, including the climactic fight between Holmes and the “aristocratic serial killer” Lord Blackwood on the yet to be finished London Bridge. Guy Ritchie makes a valiant effort to update the character of Sherlock Holmes and bring him into the 21st century. However, it is a losing battle because the more refined, civilized Sherlock cannot “exist” in today’s violent world without losing some of the very sterling qualities that he is known and loved for.

3: Interesting Problems and/or Questions Regarding this Film Adaptation

The books of Sherlock Holmes have been adapted into at least one hundred movies and about fifty TV shows since 1900. The Sherlock from the original books has characteristics that make him attractive to readers including his integrity, trustworthiness, rational decisiveness, lack of emotionalism, and intellectual superiority. These attributes are measured and reported by Dr. Watson, an educated man of the early 20th century. Watson (a doctor like Doyle) brings humanity to Holmes, who, without Watson’s sympathetic telling, would come off cold, inaccessible, and unpleasant. In the book, when Holmes finds something useful to solve a case, he moves frantically and loudly explains his find and its signficiance. In The Speckled Band he carries on about the deadly snake saying, “‘It is a swamp adder!’ Cried Holmes, ‘the deadliest snake in India. He has died within ten seconds of being bitten. Violence does, in truth, recoil upon the violent, and the schemer falls into the pit which he digs for another’” (Doyle, 37).

In the movie, when Sherlock has that sensory overload in the restaurant, it shows that he has a highly sensitive psyche for which he pays a great price. On the other hand, in the book, there isn’t really much that would lead to a similar conclusion. Yet, one could argue that his infamous cocaine use in the book is a sign of his overactive mind. In both book and movie, Holmes clearly has difficulty managing his own genius and temperament.

While Doyle’s Sherlock is portrayed as a man with weak social skills but a strong intellect, the Robert Downey Jr. version of Sherlock is a smooth talking, handsome, action-type character (http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0988045/faq?ref_=tt_faq_sm#.2.1.33). One could deduce from the film that Guy Ritchie and Co. felt that the traditional intellectual Holmes would not translate well on the big screen for today’s sped-up, technology-rich, instant-gratification culture. So, to keep him alive, they sculpted Sherlock’s traditional traits to fit with contemporary expectations. As a thinking-man’s action-hero, this new Holmes attempts to bridge what was valued by a past civilization to the values of  post-modern society. How well he did this is in some respects chronicled by the excellent returns at the Box Office, and by 70% of the critics who gave the film positive reviews.  Whether this film will last in the public’s mind more than a century, as the source literature has done, is yet to be seen. 

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