31 July 2011

Deductive Delights: A famous detective's resurgence in the 21st Century-which is best?

It's safe to say that the world's most famous fictional detective, Arthur Conan Doyle's creation, Sherlock Holmes has been amazing the world's population since his inception in the 19th Century.  Readers in Victorian England were appalled when Holmes was "killed" in battle with his foe, Professor James Moriarty that Conan Doyle eventually brought him back.  Since then, Holmes has been present in various forms right up into today.

Confession of a 21st Century Sherlockian: Though I have been aware of the great adventures, I have never become more interested, fascinated, or passionate about Holmes, his "friend and colleague, Dr. Watson", or their adventures until a few years ago.  Since my discovery of the fictional American medical genius Dr. House--a character, whose creator plainly admits was inspired by Sherlock Holmes--I have been intrigued.  However, two of his most recent incarnations definitely may share his name and talent, but actually quite differ from one another.  After this quite long comparison, one will shine through as a clear winner for me, but others can reach their own conclusions.

I want to take a look at both of the current adaptations: one an action-proned sleuth, still set among the handsome cabs and Victorian guise. The other, a young, on-the-edge, self-described sociopath, set in our modern times.  Is one better than the other?  One has to decide for themselves.

Sherlock Holmes: A detective of action

The Sherlock Holmes Warner Bros. movie franchise was introduced to the movie-going public in 2009.  A film directed by Guy Ritchie, starring Robert Downey Jr. as Holmes and Jude Law as Dr. Watson.  The movie saw our protagonists in  the somewhat familiar setting of Victorian London; however, this London was a darker, dirtier and grittier.  It almost seemed to be set within a Dickens novel itself. Perhaps I missed something, but being a reader of both Holmes' adventures and Dickens's novels I never found Conan Doyle's London to be so dark.  It was strange to see the heroes in this London as opposed to the I felt I knew from the Canon and Granada series.  London itself has always been a character just by Holmes' sheer knowledge of every street, however, changing the character of the city seemed to work for this particular interpretation. The story also added supernatural elements and a new foe to the familiarity of characters and places.

London was not the only character to change.  Holmes was transformed from the intellectual, lanky, gentleman to a muscular, action-bound sleuth, while Watson, essentially staying the familiar loyal friend and companion, gave Holmes as good as he got (the anti-thesis of the bumbling Watson from the amazing Basil Rathbone/Nigel Bruce series).  It wasn't easy for me to get used to this more action-mannered Holmes, even though he was known to get in a few fisticuffs in the Canon, but the movie makers created such an interesting way to illustrate Holmes' thinking and process of deduction that I soon accepted this Holmes for what he was...and I liked it.

RDJ, who seemed to pull off a fairly good English accent (at least to the ears of this American, but what would I know), brought to life a new Holmes for a new generation.  Jude Law's Watson continues to return the character to his canonical beginnings.  David Burke along with Edward Hardwicke in the faithful Granada series showed the uniqueness and importance of the friendship to both characters.  The on-screen chemistry between RDJ and Law allows the friendship to shine through quite convincingly.  I will be the first to admit that I love this latest big screen adaptation--having flocked to the theatre in 2009, own the DVD, and will be one of the first in line to see the sequel next December--I can only comment that this interpretation seems to place a more action-seeking, 21st Century Holmes within a dark, 19th Century London.   That, for better or worse, is a combination that spells box office, movie success.

Sherlock:  Canon characters in a modern setting

 This YouTube fan video I decided to post in lieu of a clip or trailer is one way fans  
show their appreciation.  This happens to be one of my favorites highlighting clips of Holmes and Watson's adventures and friendship from the pilot and three episodes of the first series.

Co-creators Mark Gatiss and Steven Moffat have, in many interviews, told the story of the birth of the idea that is the BBC's newest incarnation of Sherlock.  Fans of the show (like myself) will know that the concept, conceived by Gatiss and Moffat on trains between London and Cardiff, of modern day Holmesian adventures taking place in 21st Century London was brought about from the mutual admiration of the Rathbone/Bruce series of films from the late 1930s and early 1940s.  Having now viewed and enjoyed the films that place Holmes and Watson in not only adventures against Moriarty, but also the evils of the second World War, it is no surprise why the newest modern, small screen, television interpretation has garnered the following and accolades in the UK and abroad.

This version asks (and illustrates), as did its creators, why can't Sherlock Holmes and John Watson live and function in a world laced with technology and modern multimedia devices at their fingertips?  In the span of the canon, readers can clearly see Holmes use every modern tool and resources of his time from telegraphs to telephones.  Rathbone and Bruce successfully showed that the friends could exist in the 20th Century with automobiles, now Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman do the same for television viewers.

With this version, everything is familiar.  London is the large, modern metropolis locals and visitors can recognize from its well-known gathering places like Trafalgar Square to modern-day skyscrapers.  It is a London today's viewers can identify with and understand.  Cumberbatch's Sherlock sends texts rather than telegraphs, uses a computer for research, and has a website.  Similarly, Freeman's John keeps a blog to tell their adventures instead of writing them up for publication.  In this familiar, modern London, it doesn't seem odd at all.  They are modern men in a modern time.

While being modern men, Sherlock and John are still the familiar friends that we know from the original stories.  Sherlock has returned to the tall, lanky, eccentric (who keeps a head in a fridge!), violin-playing man who annoys detectives at (New) Scotland Yard and gets information from London's street population.  While he can still give a good fight, he is not the action man the big screen portrays.  As in the original, John has returned invalided from a new war in Afghanistan and remains the steadfast friend and blogger, while showing his fascination and frustration with his friend. In all versions he exhibits courage in light of their crazy often dangerous adventures.  Cumberbatch and Freeman, two of Britain's hardest working actors, are less known to US audiences which, being a fan of Sherlock and now familiar with their previous work, makes me feel like part of an elite club.  Their on-screen chemistry is second to none save for maybe (and I do stress maybe) Jeremy Brett and Hardwicke.  In fact, I wouldn't be adverse to putting them on equal grounds as the four best actors to have portrayed the friends...granted in two different centuries.

So, what do these two modern, yet different interpretations do for Sherlock Holmes and Dr. John Watson?  No matter which version speaks to a viewer the fact is that it speaks to them.   Viewers of the modern versions and readers of Conan Doyle's adventures enjoyed great stories with great characters. I expect to feel equally shocked when my own Sherlock takes his fall, as implied in the title of the last episode of the next series...The Reichenbach Fall.  But, then again, I can always go back to the silver screen and see another adventure.  Even though neither of these versions fueled my initial resurgence in Holmesian stories, Sherlock is still the modern adventure that speaks to me as it provides a sort of bridge to another time, place and brilliant characters.  Which one can serve as one's own bridge can, in my opinion, only be determined by enjoying both versions.