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Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Sherlock Holmes

Generally speaking, I join the literary world in irritation when a beloved book becomes a movie.  I would have to write an entire blog just on the strong feelings I have against the Disney remakes of The Chronicles of Narnia.  I actually have point by point disputes with the way the movies tamper with and destroy some of Lewis's main points.  It keeps me up at night to think that kids today come out of theaters having seen Disney's idea of Lewis's works and think they love Narnia.  They don't even know Narnia.  They have no clue about the real Aslan.  They just drank poison and called it whole milk. Arg!  In my opinion  in many book-to-movie cases, the movie greatly cheapens the impact of the story.  My only hope is that people who watch the Narnia movies will be compelled to read the books.  Poor Lewis!  He is, I am certain, convulsing in his grave.  

But, as I said, that is an entire blog in itself.  My angry rant could stretch for miles.  The point of this post is to consider, with some reserve, the newest versions of Sherlock Holmes (not the plot, but the character.)  I always wanted to read the books and managed to pick up a copy of the complete "Adventures" at goodwill a few months back.  I was impressed with Sherlock as a character in the same way that I enjoyed analyzing Hamlet.  There's something deeper to him than meets the eye, but the movie Holmes and the book Holmes are worth contrasting.

In the movie, Sherlock is 1/3 luck, 1/3 observer, and 1/3 genius.  Of course, it's an odd combination that shows up in extreme quirkiness, frequent boredom, and rampant arrogance.  The last of which is a quality which defines much of Sherlock's personality, which is fascinating because where his intellect fails (and it occasionally does) luck comes in and fills in the gap.  Sherlock doesn't believe in anything supernatural.  His outlook is entirely fatalistic, naturalistic, and Darwinian.  His story emphasizes survival of the fittest (namely, himself) and when it comes to relationships, he likes to give off the aura that he is highly detached.  Regardless, the audience knows that he cares deeply for several people and for goodness in general (which is why he has devoted his life to saving the world even if his means of doing so are not always kosher.)  He's lovable, but misguided and appeals to the audience with the same attitudes as Jack Sparrow.  

This picturesque characterization differs from the book in one important way.  In the book, Sherlock is 1/2 observer and 1/2 genius.  Luck isn't a factor and the implications are huge.  Emphasis is placed on facts rather than fiction, encouraging an interest in real life rather than a currently popular escapism. 
"There is nothing so unnatural as the commonplace."  
"Life is infinitely stranger than anything which the mind could invent."
The literary Sherlock also has a smidgen less of the arrogance than his cinematic counterpart.  Though the literary Sherlock gently chides Watson for not noticing details and at times seems rather patronizing in explaining how he came to his conclusions, he makes a point of deflecting praise when he can.  In the mystery of The Red-Headed League, he ends his remarks with a French quotation meaning, "The man is nothing- the work is everything." Sherlock worships the factual realm and is willing to concede credit to that realm even at the expense of his image.  (Detached as he is, he has little concern for his image and doesn't need to care about it since it is more secure than Scotland Yard.)

People often marvel that they miss what he catches because his observations are incredibly commonplace.  "Omne ignotum pro magnifico," he sighs to Watson meaning, "The unknown always passes for the marvelous."  But that's just it.  It isn't truly marvelous, it's simply unknown.  Holmes implies that he has simply taught himself to think outside the box.  Sherlock is aided by a vast store of knowledge gained by avid reading and a Hamlet-like personality developed with artistic and musical pursuits; these excellent resources prime him to be the greatest crime-fighting thinker in the history of Europe.  Unlike the cinema Holmes, the literary Holmes never has an intellectual failure.  He does sustain one casualty because of timing during the Scandal in Bohemia when he is outsmarted by Irene Adler.  (I won't go into the interesting fact that in the book only a woman could outsmart Holmes...) 

Watson elaborates, "In his singular character the dual nature alternately asserted itself, and his extreme exactness and astuteness represented, as I have often thought, the reaction against the poetic and contemplative mood which occasionally predominated in him.  The swing of his nature took him from extreme languor to devouring energy; and as, I knew well, he was never so truly formidable as when, for days on end, he had been lounging in his armchair amid his improvisations and his black-letter editions.  Then it was that the lust of the chase would suddenly come upon him, and that his brilliant reasoning power would rise to the level of intuition, until those who were unacquainted with his methods would look askance at him as on a man whose knowledge was not that of other mortals."  

This passage serves two purposes.  1. It agrees with my assertion that Holmes has a Hamlet-like quality to him (an irreconcilable dual nature that is not entirely comfortable with itself.)  2. It agrees with the fact that his methods were odd only to those who did not know him.  Holmes was, indeed, a mortal.  And his gifts were simply the result of having honed and developed aspects of the mind that other men possessed, yet chose to suppress or neglect.

It is this stability that Holmes of the movies lacks.  The movie Holmes is an interesting character, a little darker and more cynical than the Holmes of the books, but engaging nonetheless, and not so far from the Holmes of the book that the movie is unwatchable.  That said, I can't necessarily recommend the movie.  People who are intensely devoted to the book (and have read all the stories...I'm still working through them) will have much better opinions about this.  In the meantime, may your life be infinitely stranger than anything fiction can invent.  

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