Let me say first that while I was watching Guy Ritchie’s update of Sherlock Holmes, I enjoyed every minute. Robert Downey and Jude Law have terrific chemistry; and as a lifelong fan of the literary Holmes, I never was worried about many of the objections people were making in advance of the movie.
To take these one by one: Downey’s Holmes can indeed be a man of action, since Doyle makes very clear that Holmes was not only physically fit, but skilled in a number of martial arts. Changing Irene Adler from the retired adventuress of the story, to a very active one – also no problem: it’s a bit of artistic license that brings much needed estrogen to the leading cast. If Downey’s Holmes is much more lively and emotional than most of his big screen predecessors, that also is true to the stories. It was only the movie versions of Holmes who were Spock-like in their cold rationality, while Doyle’s Holmes is so mercurial that these days, we might suspect him of having bipolar disorder. And Jude Law’s Watson is beyond praise because he’s the first actor to portray the good doctor as Holmes’s equal in all but deductive powers, not the dim bulb of most previous films. Since Watson is the narrator of Doyle’s stories, he can’t boast of his own abilities, but he must have been Holmes’s equal. Why else would the world’s most famous detective choose him as his partner and best friend?
The movie spins along at a gallop, but still takes the indispensable time to show Holmes’s ingenuity and deductive processes and even gives him a few minutes to reveal them at the end. And the story is convoluted and cleverly plotted enough to keep us guessing. It is indeed a lot of fun to watch, mostly because of Downey and Law. So what was the problem? After it was over, it just evaporated from my mind. Really good movies stay with me afterwards, and I began to realize that something essential was missing. I went back to the stories to figure out what it was.
All of Doyle’s stories have solid dramatic ideas in them. What’s a dramatic idea? It’s a conjunction of characters, conflicts and choices that leaves you feeling like something significant has happened, maybe even makes you wonder how you’d respond in a similar situation. The movie’s plot involves an occultist nobleman’s plan to take over England. And while exciting incidents abound as Holmes unravels the conspiracy, the whole thing ends up being remarkably bland and generic. The bad guy has no personality or motives except standard megalomania; his followers are standard adherents and henchmen, the people he murders are cardboard targets, and there is never the slightest doubt that Holmes will ultimately thwart his world-ending evil overlord scheme. So much is put at stake,that in the end, nothing feels real or threatened.
Doyle’s stories never involve national catastrophes; they’re nearly always private mysteries of concern to only a few. Yet the characters and situations are so specific and vivid, that they stay in the memory: the genial but greedy pawnbroker who becomes a pawn of the Red-Headed League; the governess wondering about the strange demands of her employer at the Copper Beeches; the doctor worried about the bizarre behavior of his Resident Patient. They’re all memorable in their own ways, because they’re both ordinary and unique.
That’s what Guy Ritchie missed when he tried to give Holmes a big, superhero type problem. And this surprises me greatly, because Ritchie is the director of one of my favorite movies, the black comedy Snatch, which is crammed with specific, memorable characters and situations. But this time, he was so busy going for the evil overlord stakes, that he lost the accumulation of small details, particular characters and events, and concrete human conflicts that make Doyle’s stories so authentic and enduring.
The moral for us worldbuilders- don’t try too hard! Let’s hope Ritchie does better with the next one.