Reading the Screen: Welcome Holmes

By now you all should have seen Sherlock Holmes, the splendid movie starring Robert Downey Jr. and Jude Law as Holmes and Watson (and, might I add, Rachel McAdams as Irene Adler). The movie was a hit in theaters, and now it’s on DVD and Blu-Ray.

If you haven’t seen it yet, here’s one of its many trailers:

The movie is based, of course, on the Sherlock Holmes stories written by Arthur Conan Doyle. But here’s the thing: it’s not based on any particular story, but rather — sort of, in a roundabout way — on all of them.holmes 

Holmes and Watson are about to part company (Watson is getting married), but when Irene Adler bursts onto the scene, reopening old emotional wounds, Holmes gets caught up in a web of intrigue that involves conspiracy, murder, and the Black Arts.

If you’re a fan of the Holmes stories, you already know who Irene Adler is. If you’ve never heard of her, don’t panic: the movie will tell you. It’s full of  references to the Holmes stories, clear enough to give fans a little thrill but not so blatant that they’ll make newbies say, “Huh? What?” Think of the references as DVD Easter eggs: if you spot them, great; if not, it doesn’t really matter.

The movie looks great, and Downey and Law give it the ol’ Paul Newman/Robert Redford gusto (check out Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, for example), but what really struck me, as a Holmes fan from way back, was the way the film put the oomph back into the characters — one of them in particular. After too many decades of foppish, goofy Watsons, we finally see the man Conan Doyle created.

Read the Holmes stories (you can read many of them online at Project Gutenberg). You’ll find two men who are great friends, who care deeply about one another, but more than that: you’ll find a Watson who is emphatically not a dandy, a fop, a wimp, a dimwit (thank you, Nigel Bruce), or a numbskull. He is a physician and a war veteran, with a keen intellect and not a small amount of bravado.

Sherlock Holmes  is a wonderful movie, for all sorts of reasons (and, if it looks like I’m ignoring Downey, I’m not: he’s perfect as Holmes). But for me, and I think for a lot of fans of the stories, it’s the chance to see the real Dr. Watson that makes it such great fun.

And, although you’re certainly not required to, I suggest you take a peek at Martin Booth’s The Doctor and the Detective (2000), a very good biography of Arthur Conan Doyle that explores the real-world influences on his famous fictional creation.



About the Author:

David Pitt lives in Halifax, Nova Scotia. In addition to reviewing for Booklist, he writes a monthly column about paperback fiction and nonfiction for the Winnipeg Free Press. He has contributed to The Booklist Reader since 2010.

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