Book Review: 'Sherlock Holmes On Screen' Is An Exhaustive And Informative Look at Pop Culture's Greatest Sleuth

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by Drew Taylor
January 30, 2012 12:05 PM
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First appearing in 1887, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes eventually featured in four novels and 56 short stories and the legacy of the sleuthing detective is unparalleled, and the devotion of his fans is, to this day, truly remarkable. Holmes has been adapted and appropriated endlessly, either in straight reworks of the original stories, or riffs, parodies, or spin-offs. It’s telling that just this moment there are two highly visible Holmes in popular culture – Robert Downey Jr’s brawling take in “Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Thrones” and Benedict Cumberbatch’s erudite modern incarnation on the BBC series “Sherlock” (it just wrapped its second season). So it’s no small task to try and catalog the various on-screen Holmes appearance. Thankfully, Alan Barnes is up to the challenge with his wonderful new compendium, “Sherlock Holmes on Screen: The Complete Film and TV History.” Sherlock himself would have been proud.

After a foreward by “Sherlock” creator Steven Moffat (in which he claims it’s “the best book about the biggest hit in the entire history of fiction”), Barnes takes over, and explains the basic set up of the book. Almost every entry is catalogued, and then dissected, by the case, the investigation, the solution, and then (and here’s where it gets fun) Barnes’ analysis, charting the fidelity of the adaptation with the original material, where it might have strayed too much, and where it reinvents things (for better or worse). Barnes is a talented writer, and lays things out in a way accessible to both academic-types and the more casual reader. As he notes in the introduction, “Any survey of such a vast subject has to be curbed at some point, and I have, albeit reluctantly, limited the scope of this book to fiction films and TV programmes which contain characters or stories originated in the Sherlock Holmes stories of Doyle.”

Of particular fun is the way that Barnes notes when certain actors have appeared in previous Holmes adaptations but in different roles. For example, Christopher Lee, was Sherlock himself in "Sherlock Holmes und das Haslband des Totes" but also played Mycroft in "The Private Life Of Sherlock Holmes" (more on that in a moment) replacing the originally cast George Sanders, who fell ill. Barnes draws you into the Holmes universe, painting almost all of British film as a web-like maze of Holmesian connections.  

Barnes may have “curbed” his investigation (you can picture him wearing the deerstalker hat, a pipe pitched out of the side of his mouth) but not my much. His research is thorough, his scope unimaginable. Take, for instance, his write-up of a 2009 episode of zany Cartoon Network series “Batman: The Brave and the Bold” called “Trials of the Demon!” Not only does he discuss the episode in terms of Holmes mythos, but he uses the occasion to investigate all modern instances of the Holmes character appearing in DC mythos (and even notes that a 1965 Holmes adaptation, “A Study in Terror,” referred to the detective as “the caped crusader”). It’s amazing and exhausting to read, but it’s an early example of one of the book’s key selling points – its intoxicating mixture of nebbish authority and bitchy sarcasm. When Barnes points out that, in the episode, Watson “appears to complete a black magic evocation,” he follows it up with a pithy “Holy deerstalkers!”

Elsewhere, Barnes helps explain what led to the controversial modernization of Holmes, starting with 1942’s “Sherlock Holmes and the Voice of Terror.” Barnes contextualizes Universal’s decision to adapt the Holmes character (who had yet to slip into the public domain) as being a key one that helped save the ailing studio after a string of executives nearly drove it into the ground. In short: Sherlock Holmes rescued Universal Studios. It’s truly incredible. Barnes defends the World War II-era Holmes productions, both in their conception and their content, but notes some interesting quirks. Since the actors portraying Holmes and Watson had appeared in earlier, more period-appropriate iterations, “...neither Holmes nor Watson appear to have aged since they were last seen.” Sounds like a mystery worthy of the great detective!

Particular attention is paid to the fascinating debacle surrounding Billy Wilder’s aforementioned, and now-warmly-regarded “The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes,” which Wilder claimed at the time “should keep audiences in the theatre for around three hours,” before being severely truncated and rearranged. Barnes takes you through what you would have seen with the film’s extra stories (it was to have four distinct movements or cases), before analyzing the film as it stands now. (Barnes concludes that, even though some of the lost footage was recovered in the early 1990s, a complete version of the film will never see the light of day). While the film is clearly a mess (an enjoyable one, for sure, but a mess just the same), Barnes makes it a point to note that Robert Stephens’ Holmes “remains much the most human and affecting interpretation on film.”

Barnes cannily picks apart failed takes like Gene Wilder’s “The Adventure of Sherlock Holmes’ Smarter Brother,” which he feels was the victim of the writer/director/star’s massive ego and the lack of involvement of original director Mel Brooks, who could have brought the same level of stylization and wit that had made the pair’s “Young Frankenstein” so infectious, and makes links between two historically-based Holmes-versus-Jack the Ripper tales, 1965’s “A Study in Terror” and 1978’s unfairly marginalized “Murder by Degree” (while adding, of course, that “1977’s ‘Classics Dark and Dangerous: Silver Blaze,’ was the first piece of Holmsiana to feature actor Christopher Plummer as Sherlock”). You can picture Barnes making connections like Holmes – seeing the inner network that we all miss.

Somewhat surprisingly, Barnes is kind to both of the current Holmes adaptations. While he picks apart the internal logic and plot mechanics of Guy Ritchie’s 2009 “Sherlock Holmes” (“’Did you take a wrong turn somewhere?’ wonders Holmes, seemingly in an expression of the three scriptwriters’ shame!”), Barnes admits “all such churlishness aside, there’s much for even the fustiest Sherlockian to admire, however grudgingly.” The author particularly enjoys Ritchie’s evocation of busy, dirty, messy Victorian London and his approach to the fight sequences, which emphasize Sherlock’s wily intelligence over his brute strength.

But Barnes saves the real praise for Moffat’s contemporary “Sherlock.” Barnes first shares some behind-the-scenes details, like how Moffat originally conceived of the series as being hour-long episodes each, before the BBC dictated that they be three 90-minute-long movies (and thus the pilot was completely re-filmed), and how the third episode (“The Great Game”) was the first to be filmed, thus dictating the pace and look for the subsequent episodes (including the re-shot pilot). His praise is far reaching – from Una Stubbs’ portrayal of Holmes’ landlady Mrs. Hudson (“unquestionably the character’s finest ever on-screen incarnation”) to the scripts for each episode (“some of the smartest dialogue ever given the detective, inside or outside of the blessed Canon”) to the stylistic embellishments (“brilliantly stylish use of on-screen pop up texts, messages and symbols”). But Barnes says that the most important change is something that only a true Sherlockian could pick up on – that the characters in the series are referred to as Sherlock and John. “That one, small, semantic shift renders ‘Sherlock’ unique,” Barnes writes. “Making its two leads the most likeable since Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce. Loveable, even; for their frailties, not despite them.”

After reading through the 300-or-so pages of “Sherlock Holmes on Screen,” you might want to pronounce yourself an honorary Holmes scholar. But what you really understand after readin the book, is that each era will have its own Sherlock Holmes and that he will continue to multiply, through ever-evolving mediums, and what the future will hold is just as exciting as any of the previous Sherlocks put on screen. The case, it seems, will never truly be solved. [A]

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