This is a couple weeks old now, but in case, like me, you don’t happen read the L.A. Review of Books religiously but, like me, do happen to be a fan of Sherlock Holmes — and especially if, like me, your favorite pre-J.J. Abrams Star Trek movies are The Wrath of Khan and The Undiscovered Country (it’ll all connect in a moment) — then you should read this essay by filmmaker and writer Nicholas Meyer, who wrote three Holmes novels (starting with 1974’s The Seven-Per-Cent Solution; it had the famously addicted Holmes receive treatment from Sigmund Freud) before gaining somewhat greater fame for directing the Trek flix and the TV movie The Day After.
Each age gets the Sherlock Holmes it deserves. During World War II, we got the ineffably patriotic (and anachronistic) Sherlock of Basil Rathbone; in the seventies, Nicole [sic] Williamson gave us the drug-addicted Holmes. Later still, we had the twitchily neurotic Holmes of Jeremy Brett. Each performer’s portrayal (and the same is true for Watson) is informed by the form and pressure of the age in which he lives, what society values or condemns or overlooks. Even the economics of filmmaking are bound to contribute to differing visions — and versions — of Holmes.
Which brings us to the dilemma of Holmes in a postliterate age, and the larger question of how one adapts literature for the movies, for an audience that has never read the original.
With two important points in two paragraphs, Meyer is off to a great start. And it continues well.
I’ll encourage you to read the whole thing, but to sum up: Meyer ends up rejecting my contention (in agreeing with the makers of the current BBC series Sherlock) that “Everything is canonical.” Especially with an eye to the recent characterizations by Robert Downey, Jr. and the BBC’s Benedict Cumberbatch, Meyer suspects that
There is clearly the perceived logic on the part of filmmakers and financiers that Holmes must be “updated” for a modern audience, a crowd that clearly suffers from attention deficit disorder, who cannot tolerate a shot that lasts more than four seconds, who has no use or interest in narrative coherence, merely an appetite for action and eye candy, regardless of logic, and — not unrelated — suffers from a reluctance to cease texting during the movie.
(In the case of Cumberbatch’s Holmes, that last reluctance is shared by audience and character.)
Of course, “This urge to ‘update'” is not unique to the Holmes stories. In the case of Shakespeare, Meyer admits that more creative adaptations can sometimes “be strikingly effective,” but finds it vastly more common that “such experiments seem designed more to show off the director’s inventiveness than to illuminate the text — a text in which they arguably place no confidence. The [Bard’s] plays do not require the fumbling contributions of second-rate minds to sustain them. The same goes for Holmes.”
In the end, he resists singling out any adaptation as being particularly unconfident in the text or any director as being more showy than the other (though he’s especially unhappy about the Rathbone-Bruce movies of the 1940s, asking “Why does a genius hang out with an idiot?”) and simply claims, “I’ve almost never seen a Holmes movie I didn’t dislike.” All fall victim to the need to recontextualize, not to mention the whims of producers, none of whom “invariably… have ever actually read [Conan] Doyle.”
(He does acknowledge that he wrote his own Holmes novels and — very briefly — that he adapted the first for the silver screen, earning an Oscar nomination in the process: “These, of course, are also products of the time, place, and sensibility of a writer working in the latter part of the 20th century in America, but I think I may claim with some justice that they were intended for people who read, not just those who peruse graphic novels and play video games.”)
In the end, he comes to this conclusion:
Not all books can be made into swell films. Indeed, the better the book, the harder the job. Edmund White touched on this recently in Los Angeles when he noted that books leave things to the imagination that film relentlessly literalizes. Like Moby Dick, Holmes and perhaps even Hamlet, they may work best in the mind’s eye.