Elementary, My Dear Watson…You Dolt (TQP #0056)
Recently an announcement was made that there would be a new Sherlock Holmes movie. Reading that sentence – if you keep up with any entertainment magazine or blog, anyway – one of two press releases popped into your head.
Either it was the announcement of an Apatow-produced comedy starring Sacha Baron Cohen as Holmes with Will Farrell as Watson, or it was the news of a fast-paced, Guy Ritchie-directed revamp starring Robert Downey, Jr.
Which popped up first probably depends on which sounds like the more entertaining idea (or, if you’re like a lot of message board posters, which sounded like the lesser of two evils).
I’m sure the studio executives are already pulling their hair out trying to figure out how to avoid concurrent release dates, but for my money (which I suppose I mean literally, since I’ll likely catch both of them), I’m in favor of releasing them at the same time.
It wouldn’t be the first time two films with similar high concepts were neighbors. Deep Impact and Armageddon showed audiences two distinctly different yet equally crappy visions of a world faced with the threat of a giant meteor; First Daughter and Chasing Liberty asked America to pick which president’s daughter they’d prefer: Mandy Moore or Katie Holmes.
(My uniquely useless ability to recall details of movies I’ve never seen led me to realize not only do I remember the leads, I remember who played the youthful secret service agents AND who played the president-dads. So I’ll put this question to you: Who would you rather vote for – Mark Harmon, or Michael Keaton? Discuss.)
Anyhow, I think the reason I’m so enamored of this dual release (aside from the fact that I like both production teams and casting choices) is that I love seeing how differently an icon can be interpreted while still being recognizable as that icon.
For the sake of full disclosure, I’ll admit I’m not a huge Sherlock Holmes fan. I like the idea of Holmes, but my brief experiences with him in literature gave me the impression of the character not as an eccentric genius so much as a fickle asshole who surrounds himself with remarkably stupid people to make himself feel smarter (to the extent that I wonder who handed a numbskull like Watson a medical license).
There’s no singular movie-Holmes in my mind, either. Sure, visually Basil Rathbone is the icon, but I’ve never been enthusiastic watching any movie featuring the character, aside from a cheap-looking USA pilot with a younger actor (the bland Hugh Dancey), and a fairly decent BBC deconstruction of the character in his waning, drug-soaked years (the always dependable Rupert Everett) – both attempts to re-envision Holmes through a more modern lens.
But, ahhh. Reinterpretation, reevaluation. Beating the dust and dirt off a hundred-year-old character to find out why he’s still sticking around. Finding new angles and sharpening worn-down edges. This, I can get into.
I don’t think I even care so much about the movies themselves, so much as I am in love with the notion of reinterpreting. As a writing exercise, it’s a blast, even if – sometimes especially if – you don’t have any particular affinity for the material.
Loyalists hate this notion. I’m a comic reader, so I get to see vitriolic reactions whenever a new writer without a professed obsessive love of the source gets on board, say, Batman, or Superman. (One of my fears is that my ostensible fantasy novel gets published, and I get to hear the backlash when people realize I don’t particularly like the genre.)
But when a lover of the character climbs on board, it’s not to do anything new. It’s usually a return-to-basics approach, because they believe there was nothing wrong with the character in the first place, he just needs a bit of a spit-shine to make everyone see that.
Back in 1995, Karl Kesel took over Daredevil, and being a 60’s loyalist, took the character back to his bouncy, upbeat-swashbuckler roots. Kesel even went so far as to get him back together with his 60’s girlfriend, Karen Page – who, during Frank Miller’s prior revamp, became a junkie porn-star and sold Daredevil’s secret identity for some smack. In this case, the earlier redefinition actually made the original intent of the character unusable.
(I digress even more at this point to invite you to Karen Page’s Wikipedia entry – yes, every fictional supporting character gets his or her own Wikipedia page – for an example of “reinterpretation as literary whiplash.” Read the Character History section, and see if you can spot the moments when a new writer started working on her – it’s fun, in a mildly grotesque sort of way.)
Which leads me to a question: at what point does a character get reinterpreted to the extent that “back to basics” is no longer an option? Can an iconic character be broken down a built back up so many times, that the character itself ceases to be? That there is no more “real” Sherlock Holmes, only bits and pieces, lopped off and accentuated and amped up to the point where it’s impossible to recognize what the character was “supposed to be”?
So who gets to say, definitively, who Sherlock Holmes is (and no, “Arthur Conan Doyle” does not get a say – the character stopped being his alone, even before he died)? Prick, addict, adventurer, intellect, eccentric, relic? Is Hugh Laurie’s Dr. House the epitome of the character, or a cheap knock-off? Did the late-90’s cartoon setting him in the 22nd century (complete with an easily-astounded robot Watson) damage the concept? What’s the bigger affront – a Sherlock by way of Ron Burgundy, or “Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Holmes”?
Things to think about, when we get to see the results of two vastly different exercises in reinterpretation in the theatre next year.
(And I like to think it’s a sign of my maturity that I can consider this in terms of a philosophical discussion. If I’d written this back when, oh, say, Joel Schumacher’s reinterpretation of Batman was released, there’d be sooo much more swearing in this post.)