This week sees the DVD release of Guy Ritchie’s Sherlock Holmes sequel, “A Game of Shadows”. While being a superior film to the 2009 original (if ‘original’ can used to describe yet another reinterpretation of such frequently visited source material), this second Ritchie / Downey Jr. collaboration still felt a bit empty. While both films certainly play well as Victorian Age action thrillers, they don’t really feel very much like Sherlock Holmes movies. I was bothered by all the emphasis on chases and explosions and odd-couple comedy, and almost no focus being given to Holmes’ deductive brilliance, which seems to be taken as a given in these films, and seldom actually demonstrated. Both films are action movies, when I was eager for a compelling mystery.
But after begrudgingly enjoying the recent sequel, I was forced to confront an embarrassing truth about myself: I had never actually read a Sherlock Holmes story, so who was I to judge? To me, Sherlock Holmes was a hodgepodge of pop culture bits collected over the years: Basil Rathbone, lurking mysteriously on the box covers at the video store at which I once worked; the pipe and hunting cap commandeered by countless homages over the last hundred years; an oft employed catchphrase. And such elementary reasoning soon lead me to a single conclusion: snobbery had gotten the better of me. I’d pounced upon the conclusion that the book must be better than the movie, which was so obvious, I apparently didn’t even need to read the book to know it! How was I to truly know how closely Ritchie and Downey Jr. had represented the character if I’d never read any of Doyle’s original stories?
The obvious solution to this critical oversight was to go back and read them, which I did. Fifty-six short stories, four short novels; two volumes, 1,896 pages. Most of my January. In addition to discovering the joy of experiencing Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s virtuosity as a mystery writer, I also came away with some new critical insights about the films.
To begin with, I believe I now like the first film a lot less. As an introduction to Downey Jr.’s new take on the character, building an action plot around the seemingly unrelated realm of the Victorian occult, seems ill-suited at best. Doyle certainly dabbled with the supernatural in his original stories, penning one mystery featuring a suspected vampire, and creating a classic ghost story, The Hound of the Baskervilles, which was drenched in creepy rural superstition. But those stories were chilling for the same reason you start hearing scary noises when you’re alone in the dark: every floorboard that creaks in the house, every branch that snaps in the woods becomes the monster that’s coming to get you. The darkness is unknown and terrifying, and only in the light of day are your fears allayed. The Baskerville Hound was the ghost, and Holmes was the daylight. 2009’s “Sherlock Holmes” was not a ghost story, but a suspense actioneer. When Holmes and Watson are in constant immediate physical danger from henchmen and explosions and threats to the British crown, the mind isn’t engaged in anything but a superficial way. A good mystery challenges one on an intellectual level and a good ghost story on an instinctual one. Ritchie’s first Holmes film does neither, and while it, at times, is exciting, it is not so in the way Doyle’s stories were.
“A Game of Shadows” takes the more successful tact of building its plot around an actual Doyle story, “The Adventure of the Final Problem”. Maybe it’s unfair to the first film that an iconic villain such as Professor Moriarty be saved for a sequel, but he certainly serves the second film well by way of a sinister performance from Jared Harris as the nefarious doctor. Ironically, in spite of all the subsequent infamy garnered by Moriarty as a master villain, for Doyle, he was pretty much a one-and-done bad guy, created as a means to kill off Holmes in what was to be his final adventure. Even after the author was persuaded to resurrect his master detective, Moriarty remained dead and was referenced only in passing in later stories. Screenwriters Kieran and Michele Mulroney gamely stick to the same strategy: introduce Moriarty as a foil to Holmes, build him up as a credible threat, then [SPOILER!] toss him over a waterfall. His master-criminalness is appropriately expanded to suit the big screen, his scheme defeated, and Holmes cheats death to fight another day. My greatest wish is that the filmmakers don’t give in to temptation and bring the evil Professor back for more sequels.
Spread across both films are nice little callbacks to the original stories, such as Holmes’ penchant for creating masterful disguises, and the constellation of characters created by Doyle, including Watson’s wife, Mary Morstan; Scotland Yard Detective Lestrade; Holmes’ brother, Mycroft; Moriarty’s sniper henchman, Sebastian Moran; and Holmes’ clever female counterpart, Irene Adler. Though the films warp Adler into a love interest that Doyle’s Sherlock would never have fallen for (the original detective was what can only generously be described as a gentle misogynist), such things prove the filmmakers are familiar enough with their source material that the differences are certainly deliberate stylistic choices rather than misguided misinterpretation. But it is those very stylistic choices that turn me off as a bibliophile trying to enjoy a good adaptation.
The need to mold Sherlock Holmes into an action vehicle for Robert Downey Jr. is probably the single biggest flaw that prevents me from fully enjoying these films as “Sherlock Holmes” movies. As mentioned above, the reliance on big action set pieces and large scale havoc is so far removed from Doyle’s original tales, that I felt deceived. A victim of flashy Hollywood bait-and-switch. There is a scene in the first film where Holmes boxes against a man twice his size, and his deductive genius is displayed as we watch the pugilistic encounter play out in the detective’s mind, in snazzy start-and-stop slow motion to its only logical conclusion. Fun to watch? Sure. But it was also the most straightforward demonstration of Holmes’ theory of elementary deduction, used not as the driving force of Holmes solving the story’s central mystery, but as a tool to enhance a neat-o action sequence.
Again, “A Game of Shadows” improves upon the original, seeing Moriarty and Holmes employ a similar mental battle in that film’s climactic scene, but while Doyle’s Sherlock was certainly a man of action, the driving force of his adventures were not hand-to-hand combat or bullet-dodging or racing to prevent bomb detonations. It was snooping around, mining suspects and witnesses for information, intense contemplation, forming and testing hypotheses, and orchestrating dramatic reveals. That magnifying-glass is famous for a reason: Holmes was always meticulously analysing every minute detail of the crime scene, and berating the otherwise competent constabulary when they didn’t! You just don’t see any of that in the films, which offer up central mysteries no more complicated than you’d find in a CBS crime-drama, with a quirky hero who solves the case by being only moderately smarter than the rather soft local authorities.
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle seemed, at least two or three times per story, to let Holmes make some extraordinary claim that would baffle Dr. Watson, the police, and the reader, only to explain it in a way that seemed perfectly logical in hindsight. That idea of Holmes being three steps ahead of everyone has taken a backseat to making him quirky and socially dysfunctional . Originally, Holmes would only take on cases that posed some singular interest to him, regardless of their scale or societal importance. He’d just as soon help a coach track down his missing rugby player as he was to solve a murder. Indeed, only about half of the original adventures actually involved anything as serious as murder. He did occasionally assist the British government to help prevent diplomatic incidents, but generally, it was nothing more dramatic than investigating stolen correspondences or submarine plans. For Holmes (and presumably Doyle) the importance of each case was proportional to its novelty and mental stimulation. For Hollywood, it’s about constantly raising the stakes. In the movies, plots revolve around trying to save British parliament from being blown up, and preventing Professor Moriarty from starting a Great World War. In the stories, it was about finding a missing race horse or locating the owner of a lost goose.
To be sure, I can’t imagine something as banal as “The Adventure of the Missing Three-Quarter” (the one about the rugby player) being half as satisfying on a movie screen as it might be in the pages of a book. But abandoning the more intellectual aspects of the character in favor of the sexy and action-oriented duo of Downey Jr. and Jude Law makes me wish Ritchie and company had simply created their own original characters and stuck them in Victorian London. Calling what they’ve made “Sherlock Holmes” really detracts from what are, otherwise and on the whole, pretty decent gas lamp thrillers.
“Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows” is out on DVD this week.