Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Conan Doyle and Sherlock

The final episode of the first seasons of the British Sherlock showed (in rebroadcast) this past weekend; yesterday, I finished reading A Study in Scarlet, the first Holmes story (a novella).

A Study in Scarlet is certainly an odd beast. Like The Hound of the Baskervilles, which I read more than 30 years ago, it's structured like a typical Holmes story but expends much more energy and time on the backstory to the mystery (and allows Holmes himself more room to be annoyingly voluble in his explanations). For Hound, you get the tale of the Baskerville clan, which is rife with intrigue. For Scarlet, you get a story of a dying man and child in the American West, an fortuitous (at least initially) encounter with Utah-bound Latter-Day Saints, and a slow-developing story of nefarious Mormons and long-term revenge. This backstory takes up the entire second half of the tale and, likely because Conan Doyle is unmoored from his usual scenic harbor, the prose becomes forcedly poetic and unconvincing. It's not bad writing, but it draws attention to itself the way prose shouldn't, as an attempt to tell me something. The landscape is mostly believable; the way the Mormons talk seems highly unlikely (they're like unhinged Amish without a sense of humor . . . which I suppose is possible); and the story itself, though it shifts protagonists, turns out to a good one. The problem comes when one returns to the mystery itself, which feels somewhat flat.

The first Sherlock episode, "A Study in Pink," picks up on one element of the tale, the poison pill, and makes that the center of both the mystery and the murderer's thinking. The ending plays out a bit stiffly (oh, the difficulty of third acts), somewhat like a comic book conclusion in its fragile motivations, but it's held together by strong performances. The third ep, "The Great Game," actually uses other elements from A Study in Scarlet, including Watson's complaint that Holmes doesn't know the Earth revolves around the sun, but it also (confusingly, if one knows the stories) tosses in references to several other Holmes tales, which left me struggling to follow the plot. (Near as I could tell, the second episode didn't draw on any Conan Doyle stories directly.) The conclusion included an incredibly tense confrontation with Moriarty (by a pool rather than a waterfall). Actor Andrew Scott (and the writer) takes the character into the psychotic realm, his voice not tied to the content of his words, his emotions wildly meandering from context. Great great fun.


Calvin said...

We watched the BBC Sherlock a few months ago. I thought it interesting, and plausible, that they pushed this Sherlock beyond the charmingly eccentic into the distinctly unlikeable. I also thought their play on Moriarty very interesting.

I found the recent movie versions with Robert Downey Jr. distinctly underwhelming. A great opportunity for him to ham it up, and for him and Jude Law to engage in homoerotic subtext, but unfortunately it otherwise felt much more like "Michael Bay makes Sherlock Holmes" (it was Guy Ritchie, but still...). The BBC series was, despite its flaws, more complex and more moving.

William Preston said...

I saw part of that first Downey movie on TV. Its relation to the source material was tenuous, and the thing itself was just standard Hollywood overkill.

One of the things I appreciate most about the BBC Sherlock is the role of Watson: he's been, for the first time, made not only interesting but the point of view character, the person over whose shoulder we watch Holmes—and in an engaged way rather than a passive way. Making Watson merely Holmes's foil is the standard ploy; making him the more interesting character (while also rounding Holmes as a character) was the big leap the creators took.

William Preston said...

As for unlikeable: The Brits are more comfortable with that than Americans (see The Office, forex), but I thought you could actually connect with this fellow more easily than you could Brett's Holmes, who is utterly remote. Yes, the Cumberbatch version can piss off Watson more readily, but he's also more personally engaging, despite himself.