Friday, June 14, 2013

To Their Own Selves Be True

The Beloved Spouse and I recently watched the second of Robert Downey’s Sherlock Holmes films, A Game of Shadows. I kind of liked the first Downey/Holmes effort, but this was bad. Transformers bad. Full of frenetic action that served no evident purpose other than to disguise holes in the plot, at its end the movie made no sense. Say what one will about the original stories by Conan Doyle, they made sense in the universe he created.

This got me to wondering about why this film so offended me, and I think I have the answer. The character played by Robert Downey is not Sherlock Holmes. He has a few of the elements Holmes possesses—superior powers of ratiocination, Victorian England, a restless and probing mind—but none of his personality. Doyle’s Holmes is very much a lazy man, who can rarely be roused from his flat unless the game is afoot. He would not kiss a woman on the mouth in public—not even Irene Adler—and invite her to dinner. He is not a raconteur. He is not Chuck Norris, beating half a dozen armed men into submission at a time. Sherlock Holmes lives very much in his mind. The external world exists, to him, as a trough from which he may feed that ever-hungry mind when so inclined.

The major fault here is a death of creativity, and an excess of sloth. Why take a character who has come to be so real in many minds people often ask to be shown 221B Baker Street when touring London (there is no such address) and change him to fit your desire to make a action film? I thought of two options in the car within five minutes, both of which provide space for Sherlock Holmes and Watson to play important roles: the new lead can be Holmes’s cousin; or, even better, the new protagonist is Holmes’s father’s unacknowledged bastard, who has Holmes’s gifts but none of his reserve. Opportunities for crime solving, action, and conflict with Holmes abound, but no. Too much like work, I guess.

(The same weekend we also watched The Other Guys, with Mark Wahlberg and Will Ferrell. This was at least as stupid as A Game of Shadows, but I laughed my ass off. In retrospect, The Other Guys made it clear from the title sequence this was a satire of the kind of movie it purported to be. Everything was established as a caricature of what it represented, and they pulled it off.)

The corruption of the Holmes character reminds me of what I find so distasteful in Robert Altman’s adaptation of Raymond Chandler’s masterpiece, The Long Goodbye. I can live with Altman’s different context, disparaging Chandler’s idea of the hero. Hell, even Marlowe knows he’s a man out of his time. What I can’t forgive is the ending, where Marlowe goes to Mexico, finds Terry Lennox, and kills him. Up till then, Altman and Elliot Gould’s portrayal of Marlowe is a depiction of where someone of Marlowe’s code of ethics often ends up: disillusioned, broke, more or less going through the motions. The ending is a repudiation not just of Chandler’s vision—which is fine; reasonable men may differ—but of Marlowe’s character. The point Altman tried to make is well taken and valid; why not create a different, similar, character to do it?

I understand movies are a different storytelling medium. I’d never consider converting anything I’d written into a screenplay because I don’t understand the mechanics well enough. Still, what successful adaptations do best is capture character. I once spent a weekend watching Get Shorty, then immediately reading the book because I was so taken with how closely Scott Frank followed the novel. Boy howdy, was I surprised. Lots of changes. What he got right were the people: Chili, Harry Zimm, Karen Flores, Ray Barboni, all, dead on. That’s why the movie worked.

If you want to change the character, change the name. Don’t pass him or her off as someone else. Aside from the fact it doesn’t work very well, you owe it to the author as a creative artist yourself. Characters like Holmes and Marlowe (and even Chili Palmer) occupy a unique space, less than real, more than fictional. Respect that. Working around it isn’t that difficult.

(Don’t even get me started on this whole “vampires walking around in broad daylight” business.)


Ben Sobieck said...

I haven't seen the new Holmes movies, but I'm guessing they sanitized out the drug use, right? There are more Holmes stories that open with him shooting dope than not. That was one part of the character that was always interesting to me, and removing it would demolish the "would he still be a genius without the drugs?" questions. To me, that's more interesting than a bunch of special effects.

Dana King said...

Sherlock Holmes use drugs? n these movies? Are you daft? The NSA reads these, you know. Don't be a trouble maker.

Ben Sobieck said...

But at least one person on staff at the movie shoot had read 1 or 2 of the stories, right? Right?

Seriously, the lamer movies and TV get, the more bad ass books become.

Dana King said...

Well, maybe they have. Don't assume anything. I once heard Robert B. Parker speak about the TV show Spenser For Hire. Reading the source material was optional for those involved in decisions. You'd like to think the writers had at least taken a peek, but we know how much clout they have.

Another true Parker story: he and his agent were pitching a movie idea that involved Wyatt Earp. The young studio executive listened to their pitch for half an hour, then said, "This all sounds pretty good, but who's this Wyatt Earp guy?"