Andrew Martin: Can I have my Sherlock back, please?

Holmes is not, unlike Ritchie's man, active and acrobatic; he is reflective and clever

Andrew Martin
Monday 26 December 2011 01:00
Comments

When people berated Steven Spielberg for dumbing down Tintin, I looked on with bemusement, but then I didn't spend half my childhood reading Tintin stories. I did spend half of my childhood reading Sherlock Holmes stories, which is why I have a bone to pick with Guy Ritchie, director of the Christmas blockbuster and nominal Holmes film, A Game Of Shadows.

Sherlock Holmes, Mr Ritchie, is not, unlike Robert Downey Jnr, a pretty, button-eyed sprite of about 5ft 8in. He is, as A Study in Scarlet states, "rather over six feet, and so excessively lean that he seemed to be considerably taller. His eyes were sharp and piercing". Nor is he relentlessly tooled up and constantly engaged in gun battles. He carries a revolver only in exceptional circumstances. Holmes is not, unlike in Shadows, a regular at white-tie functions, inhabiting a world with all the strained aspiration after glamour – and about as much wit – as an advert for After Eight mints. His favourite food is eggs on toast, and he often visits quite dowdy locations, for example Norwood – Upper Norwood in The Sign Of Four, Lower Norwood in The Norwood Builder.

Also, he is not, unlike Ritchie's man, hyper-active and acrobatic. He is reflective and clever; he has written "the definitive monograph on the polyphonic motets of Lassus", whoever he is, and whatever they are. He sometimes lies on his sofa for days on end, and the stories are full of bookish languor, as in The Five Orange Pips, where "the equinoctial gales had set in with exceptional violence", but Holmes sits one side of the fireplace "cross-indexing his records on crime" while Watson sits on the other reading a sea story. He might, as in A Case Of Identity, solve a case without leaving his rooms, and when he does make a deduction, we can follow his reasoning, whereas in Shadows, Holmes's epiphanies are lost in a blizzard of fast cutting.

In Crime And Mystery: The Hundred Best Books, HRF Keating attributed the success of the stories to the passing of the Education Act of 1870, which created a society that "could tackle reasonably difficult material". We are now relieved of that obligation.

A Game Of Shadows – which should be called A Videogame Of Shadows – is a function of our society's stress on the physical, which is also why my local branch of Barclays Bank has just been decorated with huge pictures of Premier League footballers. That said, the latest television Holmes, with Benedict Cumberbatch – which returns on New Year's Day – swims against the tide. As Holmes, Cumberbatch conveys stillness and abstraction. We can believe that here is a man who "cannot live without brainwork", whereas Ritchie's Holmes is more like a man who can't live without a self-repeating machine pistol.

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