Sunday, January 3, 2010



I know I have been promising to finish the blog on American Evangelicalism and the Economy, and I will have a second installment up tonight or tomorrow, but this has been an unusually active weekend for Tina and me on the movie theater front, and the second film we saw was Sherlock Holmes. I want to share a few thoughts on that.

Someone said about Augustine that he was like a guy who had spent too much time reading and rereading too few books. (That is not my comment on Augustine, by the way.) One might have made a similar comment about my reading practices when I was a teenager. Though I did read hundreds of books from age 13 to 18 (actually, probably between 1,200-1,500 altogether in those five years--my dad was always complaining that I read too much), I was also guilty of reading some books over and over again. Among my favorites were Tolkien's four volumes (which I read four or five times in that period, and I have now read 25 times), Asimov's Foundation Trilogy (which I think I read three times in those five years), Cooper's The Pathfinder ( a couple of times), Zane Grey's Riders of the Purple Sage (three or four times), and Arthur Conan Doyle's The Complete Sherlock Holmes (three or four times at that time and several times since). There were several other science fiction books that I read more than once, but the books above were the biggest impact on me during those mid-teen years. I also read the Bible through several times during my years 17-18.

When you read the same texts over and over again, you create your own mental image of what that world is like, how the subjects speak, how to pronounce the names (especially a challenge with Tolkien), and the actual look of the location of the events (the old west) or even of the building where these events occurred (i.e., 221 B Baker Street). So, when one of these stories is finally presented in film, you can have a tendency to hate the film because it gives a different mental image of how that "world" looks than the one you have envisaged. That was a barrier to me when the Lord of the Rings films appeared a few years ago, though I was pleasantly surprised at how much of it was similar to my own imagined understanding, though I did not like the departures from the script (Tolkien's) that happened repeatedly in those films.

With Sherlock Holmes and the new film starring Robert Downey, Jr. the situation was different. There have been previous attempts to capture Holmes, dating back to "The Hound of the Baskervilles," in 1939 (what a magic year for film), starring Basil Rathbone as Holmes and Nigel Bruce as Watson--still one of my favorite films. There have been several other, not very notable, attempts in recent decades to capture the Holmes essence. For me, the only one who really "got" Holmes was Rathbone. Even now, when I read "The Adventure of the Copper Beeches," or "Silver Blaze," for instance, I can see in my mind's eye Basil Rathbone, curved pipe held in right hand, deep in thought in his big shabby chair there in London. He and Bruce collaborated on fourteen SH films in fourteen years.

I expected to be disappointed by Downey, Jr. I have never liked him very much as an actor. I am not even sure I know why. I just thought him to be unremarkable. (I have not see Iron Man yet, though I am planning to very soon.) I was surprised. I really liked him as Holmes. Let me go through the downs first and then the ups.

The story plays fast and loose with the person of Holmes created by Conan Doyle. Though he fancied himself something of a boxer, he is not an "Extreme Fighter" in Conan Doyle's novellas and short stories. But he is here. Several times in the film he is engaged in serious fisticuffs that would have made Steven Seagall or Mel Gibson proud. At first the Victorian hackles on my neck rose and I wanted to say to my wife, "Let's get out of here--this is not Holmes." But I didn't, and I will tell you why in a minute. Then there is Irene Adler. She figures heavily into the film, and figures as someone with whom Holmes had apparently had a liason in a hotel. Hmm, Adler is in the stories, but she is a character in only one of the short stories ("A Scandal in Bohemia"), and there is absolutely no hint of anything romantic between Holmes and Adler. Doyle's portrait of Holmes is of a rather stuffy Victorian bachelor when it comes to anything resembling romance. He admired Adler, but only her mind. I think that even if she had remained in London and been featured in other stories, that their relationship would have been, specifically, Platonic. Plato believed the philosopher-kings (or queens!) would have no need for or interest in romance and marriage, hence the term, "Platonic relationship." If anything, Holmes would have qualified for philosopher-king in a different political world.

These are the two most egregious departures from the "historical Holmes" (if you can have a "historical" figure who was fictional). So, what of it? My response? No Big Deal! New looks at older figures almost always have to go through some kind of metamorphosis. That is especially true if you want to make any money on the art. I don't think that most twenty-first century Americans would be interested in a film that recaptures the essence of Holmes himself. We live in a time when detectives get in fist fights--all the time. We live in a time when crime-fighters have a woman on their arm--a beautiful woman. If anyone is going to sell Sherlock Holmes at the box-office today, it would have to be something like this new Holmes. I did not say that I like it; I merely acknowledged that this is the nature of the case. So, no big deal! I like the movie, and I am about as fussy a curmudgeon as you will find on the Holmes image.

OK. Now to the positive. I really liked the film, and I really, really liked Robert Downey, Jr. He is better as a middle-aged Londoner than as anything else I have ever seen him play. He really has captured the essence of Holmes more than anyone, with perhaps the exception of Rathbone. And that is good, since it appears there will be a sequel. He captures the heart of the Holmes, who sometimes uses drugs when he does not have a case to work on, whose habits are less than tidy (the film may have overplayed this element), but who strikes to the heart of any situation with his incredible attention to detail and his decisive intellect. Downey, Jr. nailed that! He also captures Holmes's wit. Sherlock Holmes was often a funny guy! At least, he appreciated humor. He was not slapstick, but he was humorous in a very British way. This new Holmes does that even better than Rathbone did.

Other strengths? Dr. Watson! I have to say that I love Nigel Bruce the actor, but I always thought that he only portrayed one side of the Dr. Watson in the stories--as the foil for Holmes's intellect. I felt he was too bumbling and dim-witted. Watson in the stories usually does not grasp the situation as Holmes does, but he had been a doctor in the British Army in Afghanistan, and he is sharper than the image depicted by Nigel Bruce. But Jude Law gets it! He is great. Also, the sets, the photography, the directing were all magical.

I want to see this one again. With all the caveats I throw in to the mix above, it is still one of the best nights at the theater we've had in a while.

Chad Owen Brand


  1. Thanks for the post, I enjoyed reading it, and wondered if I should see the movie. -Pete Christianson

  2. Thanks Brad. I had heard so much negative about this movie that I had decided not to see it. I too read the SH corpus a number of times, once the entire thing to my wife. We loved it.

    This makes me want to see it. Thanks.

    Blessings for 2010.

    michael Haykin.