Dec 28 2009
Sherlock Holmes has always been a favorite fictional character of mine. He is a deeply flawed character, and that is likely part of his appeal and popularity. But mostly, at his core, he is a profoundly rational character, combining impeccable logic, keen observation and attention to detail, and an astounding fund of knowledge.
I doubt there is a fictional character more famous than Holmes for his towering intellect.
Like any fan, I approach a new imagining of a favorite hero with some trepidation – and that is how I approached the new Sherlock Holmes movie starring Robert Downey Jr. and Jude Law.
There is simply no way for me to discuss this movie without massive spoilers. So do not read on if you have not seen the movie and are planning to. I do recommend the movie – so go see it, and then come back and read the rest of this post.
If you have read this far, then I can assume you have seen the movie or don’t care,
First, let me say I was pleasantly surprised by the film. The previews made Holmes seem more like an action hero, but that was not the case. Holmes was more brawny than previous incarnations, but except for occasional fisticuffs, Downey’s Holmes was as effete, proper, and pompous as ever. But more importantly, he remained every bit the intellectual the character should be.
I liked the way Watson was portrayed. He was less Holmes lap dog and more his equal, every bit as sharp as Holmes. And it was obvious that Holmes really cared for him. The one small downside to this, however, is that Watson was less in his role of needing everything explained to him. So there was less running commentary on Holmes musings about the case.
This was a factor in my only minor complaint about the movie – the clues were not sufficiently accessible to the audience. Holmes figures things out by applying his rarefied knowledge, which is fine and is certainly part of the character – but there also should be a balance of those clues that can be reasoned out even without knowing ahead of time that a paralytic poison can be made from dehydrated rhododendron.
Perhaps this difference results from the medium – cinema vs book – but I don’t think that entirely explains it. My concern is that it makes scientific knowledge seem inaccessible – almost magical.
I have this quibble, however, because otherwise the movie was awesome and true to the rational icon of Sherlock Holmes. Throughout the movie the villain attempts to take control by using trickery to duplicate paranormal powers. He attempts to use fear and superstition to panic the masses. He even makes an all-out effort to get Holmes to abandon his strict adherence to rationality and “broaden his view” to accept the apparently paranormal happenings around him.
While watching the film I was concerned that the writers had thrust Holmes into a paranormal universe. That would have been a disaster, and I would be writing a very different review if that were the case. But in the end we are rewarded – Holmes did not waver from reason for a moment. And in the end reason wins the day.
And that, of course, is my favorite thing about the character of Sherlock Holmes. He is a celebration of reason, rationality, science, and knowledge in general. I have read that Arthur Conan Doyle (who himself believed in fairies and spiritualism) meant for Holmes to be a caricature of the hyper-rational snob. But Holmes took on a life of his own – it seems the public liked Holmes and his superstar intellect more than Doyle.
Recently we have seen a resurgence of the Holmes archetype in fiction. House is a carbon copy of Holmes, down to his narcotic addiction. The Mentalist, The Eleventh Hour, CSI, and Bones all have characters that channel the great detective.
And now Holmes is brought back to the big screen, with an obvious setup for sequels. I hope we are seeing a cultural backlash against the burgeoning irrationality of the last couple of decades. Let the pendulum swing.
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