Who in the World is Sherlock Holmes?

Or 5 Improvements from Modernizing the Quintessential Detective…

Due to the range and depth of the canon surrounding Sherlock Holmes (see my post here) the task of presenting a modern spin on such a beloved character must be handled with care. When the first movie, Sherlock Holmes (2009) came out I was pleasantly surprised to find Robert Downey, Jr. had made the detective fun while still emphasizing certain essential traits. The modernizing had reinterpreted Sherlock Holmes and while, yes, he acted much the same as other modern action heroes the echo of the quintessential detective remained. This makes an excellent base from which to develop sequels.

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In order for a sequel to flow and maintain continuity it relies on the canon already created by the first movie. Changes to the canon already in place can alter the character for worse or better. In A Game of Shadows the same is true and in some ways these changes improved the franchise and in others it ruined the character. Today I’ll explore the 5 improvements to Sherlock Holmes.

“Holmes was a gentleman, but he was also a street guy who could scruff it up a bit. I thought the story had lost that part of its essence,” Ritchie says. “I like street life, but I like grand things, too. Being able to move within those two worlds appealed to me. Besides, he was the West’s first martial artist.”

It’s obvious from Guy Ritchie’s Esquire interview in Nov 2009 that for his take on Sherlock Holmes he wanted to tap into a physically oriented face of the quintessential detective. This particular part of his character had thus far been overcast by his rare intellect in the various incarnations portrayed previous to the current movies. I’d even hazard to say his point was to update Sherlock Holmes into a modern action hero, not a bad idea for a movie franchise. And as a modern British director with a bit of street cred he felt rather up to the task! This decision on Ritchie’s part though was a writing decision. It is a detail of the famous detective Sherlock Holmes that defined his character.

Esquire’s, Tom Chiarella, goes on to prompt a little more from Ritchie on his thinking for the famous character:

I [Tom Chiarella] note that it almost seems as if Downey’s eye-rolling, somewhat callous Sherlock Holmes suffers from some form of Asperger’s.

“He’s plagued by his acute functions and dysfunctions. He’s very awkward socially,” Ritchie says. “Of course, one of the blessings of autism is that it elevates your observation to a point beyond the prosaic.”

We can see why he chose Robert Downey, Jr. to play the part. As a production decision, he made a really smart choice because Downey embodied the high energy and exuberantly physical Holmes that was Ritchie’s vision. For a movie, typically the production choices are seen as most important as they tend to cost the most money. Really though, don’t both writing and production choices play a vital role in the experience of the audience? I think a case can be argued that who Sherlock Holmes is as a character actually changes depending on whether good choices or bad choices were made. When good story decisions work with great production values everyone wins, but especially the audience.

Some of the best moments in the movie were the train after Mary is dumped off and when Holmes died and Watson brought him back. Actually the train is a really good part of the movie. Period. And this can be set at Jude Law's feet. His straight man is a perfect foil for Downey's goofiness As you can tell in this photo...Are your eyes as immediatly drawn to Law (over Downey) as mine are?

Some of the best moments in the movie were the train after Mary is dumped off and when Holmes died and Watson brought him back. Actually the train is a really good part of the movie. Period. And this can be set at Jude Law’s feet. His straight man is a perfect foil for Downey’s goofiness… As you can tell in this photo… Are your eyes as immediately drawn to Law (over Downey) as mine are?

#1 – A MODERN WATSON

My favorite scenes in A Game of Shadows are between Holmes, Watson and Mary on the train. With good reason as they are between three characters whose relationships are the only ones properly retained from the first movie. The writers even handled those relationships properly: reestablishing those relationships in new scenes, building on the first movies’ relationships, and advancing those relationships to new places. Mary and Watson get married. Mary accepts she comes second in Watson’s life but doesn’t like it. And Sherlock accepts that Mary is here to stay, though he does everything he can to oppose it. It’s all done with a subtle hand and feels natural.

Side Rant: This idea of a homosexual tension is exasterbated by the humor played out in the franchise. It's like any time a story nowadays involves two men it means it’s all about sex and we must pander to that by skewing every little interaction in that direction. If that were true then the same would have to be said about two females or even the traditional male and female combo.

Side Rant: This idea of a homosexual tension is exacerbated by the humor played out in the franchise. It’s like any time a story nowadays involves two men it means it’s all about sex and we must pander to that by skewing every little interaction in that direction.

The simplicity of Watson’s dilemma is enhanced by the fact this particular conflict hasn’t been explored with other Watsons and Holmes. Watson is pulled between growing up and being in love and acting the hero and being a part of history. Holmes realizes that Mary, Watson’s bride, is changing things. He also knows Watson is serious about the changes coming. Like any self-centered male he doesn’t want those changes. Or any changes for that matter. So of course there is tension. Naturally rising character tension coming about by good writing choices. Some might skew this as a kind of homosexual tension between Holmes and Watson. No so I say, it’s just an old-fashioned ‘men must eventually grow up’ tension. (Sure, it’s titillating to wonder about two men and their sexuality but must it be considered as a possibility in every male relationship from here to eternity?)

Watson is at the core of these relationships with a simple, credible story arc that worked and worked well. This is all due to good story choices. Why does this simple arc work so well? Jude Law rocked Watson. The old, simple Watson has so many story reasons to exist and really is a perfect foil to Sherlock but I don’t care! Law’s Watson is more than worthy of existing. Without this version of Watson, Downey’s Sherlock wouldn’t work. He brings such credibility to this version of Holmes. He’s an adult and wants to have an adult life. Yet he’s drawn to Sherlock and his crazy ways. You’re willing to follow Downey’s Holmes anywhere because Law’s Watson is willing to follow. Without the straight man all you really have is an overactive man-child who needs some medication. Jude Law provided that straight man without losing his heart. Watson’s story and Law’s Watson worked together to improve Sherlock Holmes’ story and Guy Ritchie’s movie, all due to good writing and production choices.

Moriarty and Sherlock Holmes' first confrontation face to face! An excellent writing choice made even better by Jared Harris' powerful performance.

Moriarty and Sherlock Holmes’ first confrontation face to face! An excellent writing choice made even better by Jared Harris’ powerful performance.

#2 – JARED HARRIS AS MORIARTY

On the Watson-Law high I can talk about another stellar part of A Game of Shadows. Jared Harris as Professor James Moriarty. He really embodied the character for me, the best version of Moriarty. Period. In this case Ritchie’s directing style was an asset. By allowing Harris more freedom in developing the feel of the villain, one with a more open relationship between Moriarty and Holmes, the character came to life without any support from the actual story in the first half of the movie. I say this because the first half was a rather jumbled mess with only the barest structure really working. During the setup with Irene Adler and the moments leading up to her death the pace edged out frenetic, like a madhouse of crazies with psychedelic visions and plenty of uppers. Only when Jared Harris came on the screen did the pace subtly change, and we came out of the madhouse and into a slightly more sedate and take-in-able carnival of crazy. From this point on the audience could sit back and enjoy the movie and all due to an excellent production choice.

The writing choice to transition a shadowy Moriarty to an out in the open Moriarty as Adler exits stage left was an excellent one. It helped to hide the writing problems up to this point. You assume the hitch in the pacing is due to the solemn loss of Adler and Sherlock’s pain over it. (Really this is quite absurd as Sherlock never felt this strongly over a woman.) As it stands a shadowy Moriarty would have done nothing to save the second half of the movie. On the other hand an out in the open Moriarty with Jared Harris at the helm did quite a lot.

As well as soothing the out of control pace of the movie, he also dulled some of that Downey craziness and gave Downey’s character quite a bit of credibility as an adult and a man. One of the best moments between them is when Moriarty realizes the moment when Holmes made the switch on him for the book. Much was due to Harris and his subtle expressions. Sometimes Downey’s version of Holmes is so child-like it’s hard to watch. Holmes gained credibility due to the production choice of Harris and his performance as well as the writing choice to bring Moriarty out into the open where the two locking minds head to head could play out for the audience.

This is the sweet spot of A Game of Shadows. The casting choices pay off here, writing choices triumph as character and plot crescendo playing out in Ritchie's Holmes-o-vision in a Sherlock Holmes ending.

This is the sweet spot of A Game of Shadows: the confrontation. The casting choices pay off here, writing choices triumph as character and plot crescendo playing out with Ritchie’s Holmes-o-vision in a Sherlock Holmes ending that is at once visual and mental.

#3 – HOLMES AND MORIARTY OVER THE EDGE

Probably what makes the difference between enjoyable and trash for A Game of Shadows is the movie’s payoff. Any way you look at the plot or the characters, when you realize Holmes is going through the options right then, that there are no other options but possible sacrifice, you are wowed. Really wowed. Your mind goes back immediately to the gadget Mycroft brought to the meeting before the ball and you hope you already know what is going to happen. I think it was a bit of a cop-out to have him come back in this movie but such is the way of modernity. We have to know a sacrifice isn’t really a sacrifice. And the studios want the audience to know that a sequel is possible – no mistaken impressions are desired. Still it doesn’t change the beauty of the interaction between Moriarty and Holmes and you are happy that no matter how stupid Holmes appeared through the entire movie that his one saving grace – his gutsy attitude – saved the day. This is one of those times when production choices, of which Ritchie has excellent judgment and taste, really work. Holmes-o-vision captured the Sherlock slant of this payoff in a way that captures the quintessential detective’s unique characteristics.

As far as modernity goes this scene makes all of Holmes over action-ized character totally reasonable and plausible. The action side of Holmes is now necessary for the character to be able to carry off this part of the plot. Let me make myself clear…I don’t hate the action side of Holmes one bit. I love and embrace this side of him, it’s just it’s odd to have it be the main focus of the character. So when you have a payoff like this for the end of the movie you feel the character clicking into the plot a lot better than, say, during the setup of A Game of Shadows. The first movie was a little more balanced between the mind and actions sides of Holmes. So now we need this kind of scene to make the shift in character (to less mind and more action) seem less contrived for modernity’s sake. When a payoff works, especially due to good writing choices, the audience tends to excuse any other problems from other parts of the movie. And when character and plot come together just right the audience’s sweet spot goes into overdrive.

These screenshots don't do this sequence justice...but even so...wow!

These screenshots don’t do this sequence justice…but even so…wow!

#4 – THE LOOK

A Game of Shadows shares this strength with the first movie. The look of the world transitions nicely from Sherlock Holmes. Guy Ritchie is undeniably a movie maker and knows his techniques. His stylized camera work fits the idea of a modernized Sherlock Holmes. The slow motion “photos” of the bombs going off around Holmes, Watson and the gypsies were some of the best shots of the entire movie. Wow! Took my breath away. These production choices were undeniably derived directly from Guy Ritchie’s strengths as a director.

At first, his Holmes-o-vision seemed different to me but after watching the technique again in clips I realized it’s only been slightly adjusted from the first movie so much so you almost don’t notice the differences (unless you’re me I guess). This technique worked again in the sequel to bring together the “thinking” Holmes and the “action” Holmes. This time around Holmes-o-vision is used in such a way to reflect thinking as to almost make obsolete actual mental connections in the mystery. Fascinating that a visual technique can take over for mental processes. With Sherlock Holmes you have to expect the act of thinking so if a visual technique can be used to support this character essential then all the better to strengthen the story as a whole. While good production choices definitely rule this improvement I believe that without Holmes-o-vision you can’t truly say this is the Sherlock Holmes that millions of people across the world know and love.

Robert Downey Jr. as an action hero Sherlock Holmes - the west's first martial artist...highlighted in many a fight scene!

Robert Downey Jr. as an action hero Sherlock Holmes – “the West’s first martial artist”…highlighted in many a fight scene!

#5 – ROBERT DOWNEY, JR. AS SHERLOCK HOLMES

Last but not least is Robert Downey, Jr. as Sherlock Holmes. Downey has the enviable gift to take what he’s learned about a character and using his skills as an actor create a version of said character that feels like all the elements the audience knows about said character. He did so in Iron Man as Tony Stark and now in Sherlock Holmes as Sherlock Holmes. This ability is nothing to sneer at – it really is what makes Robert Downey, Jr. a genius actor. With the lightened emphasis on plot you need the character to embody what the story is missing. His take on Sherlock Holmes and his ability to make you feel traits not supported in the story is what makes both movies so very popular even with the disconnect between character and story. In A Game of Shadows Downey’s ability is relied on to the nth degree. It makes the movie watchable, lovable and ultimately big blockbuster-able.

With a modern approach I don’t think it a bad thing that Guy Ritchie chose to focus on the physical. We all love our action heroes. And it was a neglected part of Sherlock Holmes. The ability to disguise himself and the fight are other characteristics we only saw glimpses of in other incarnations. So all around great details to include for the character which equate to great writing choices. And paired with Robert Downey, Jr.’s skills, the physical aspects of the quintessential detective came to the forefront. This focus dovetails well with modern audiences love of the action hero.

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The details of a character are vitally important. The plot that character moves through reflects our protagonist’s character into action. Those secondary characters our character interacts with allows our character to be himself. We are what we say and do. We are how we interact with others. When we have a well-loved character this is even more important as we deal with canon and the audience’s expectations. With a movie being such a visual medium, production choices are important as they relate directly to how the audience is influenced by your writing choices. Due to Guy Ritchie’s sound movie making abilities we have a production that has in large ways enhanced our quintessential detective.

NEXT UP: Modernizing Losses…

There it is though, at the heart of it, Sherlock Holmes uses his brain to solve mysteries, his mind is his greatest asset. Really who in the world is Sherlock Holmes if not the quintessential detective that can solve the unsolvable? Downey is so successful with his simulation of Sherlock Holmes that the writers of the script seemed to feel that actually incorporating Holmes traits would unnecessarily complicate their simple plot. This created five losses that came about through the modernization of Sherlock Holmes.

2 responses to “Who in the World is Sherlock Holmes?

  1. Pingback: The Smartest Man in the Room…Really? | Perspective of a Writer·

  2. Pingback: Is this Really the Sherlock Holmes the World Knows? | Perspective of a Writer·

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