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The screen has been unfaithful to Holmes

Guy Ritchie is hardly the first filmmaker to take liberties with the venerable detective.

December 25, 2009|By Tirdad Derakhshani

Haunted lately by an eerie, ripping noise?

That's the sound of Sherlock Holmes purists rending their garments at the prospect of Guy Ritchie's $80-million extravaganza "Sherlock Holmes," which stars Robert Downey Jr. as the inimitable master detective, Jude Law as a surprisingly edgy Dr. John Watson -- and Rachel McAdams as a seductive Irene Adler.

The movie opens today, but trailers already have mingled gorgeous views of Edwardian London with jolting shots of a bare-chested, bloodied Holmes in a makeshift boxing ring.

Holmes brawling bare-knuckled a la "Fight Club"? Shocking!

Holmes going all Jackie Chan on the villains? Gasp!

Holmes flirting? Oh, my!

What is this Ritchie guy doing?

"Get a grip!" growls noted Sherlockian Leslie Klinger, who's fed up with fans pointing out the obvious -- the film takes liberties with Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's stories.

"There have been over 200 films about Holmes," says Klinger, editor of "The New Annotated Sherlock Holmes," a multivolume collection of Doyle's work released in 2005.

The Guinness Book of World Records lists Holmes as the most-portrayed character on screen. More than 70 actors have stepped into his shoes, including Eille Norwood, Christopher Plummer, Peter Cushing, Matt Frewer, Peter Cook, Douglas Wilmer, Ronald Howard, Vasily Livanov and Roger Moore.

"Everyone has taken liberties with Holmes. There's never been a 'Hound of the Baskervilles' version that is true to the original," Klinger says, referring to Doyle's most famous tale, which has engendered 20 films.

And that's just one of 60 Holmes-spun tales that Doyle published between 1887 and 1927. One of the earliest Holmes dramatizations, the stage play "Sherlock Holmes," written by and starring American actor William Gillette, ended with impending marriage for Holmes. (Doyle's hero remained a bachelor.) Gillette famously wired Doyle for permission to marry off Holmes.

Doyle's reply is classic: "You may marry him, or murder or do what you like with him."

Does that mean that anything goes?

Certainly not, says Klinger, who served as an unofficial advisor for Ritchie's film and helped prep Downey for the role. Klinger has certain basic hopes and expectations for the film: "That it would be respectful of the original stories and that it not be a jokey satire or distortion."

Sadly, Holmes' celluloid debut was hardly respectful. Produced by American Mutoscope & Biograph in 1900 (some scholars date it to 1903), "Sherlock Holmes Baffled" was a one-reel spoof that ran between 30 seconds and a minute.

"They use trick photography to make this burglar appear and disappear and Holmes is trying to get ahold of him and can't," says Holmes expert David Morrill.

Sherlockians generally praise two screen incarnations of Holmes: One is British actor Jeremy Brett's portrayal of the sleuth in TV series from 1984 to 1994, and the other is by Plummer in the 1979 film "Murder by Decree," which costars James Mason as Watson.

Several things concern Holmes fans when it comes to portrayals of their man, including his look, his physical prowess and age, his attitude toward women, his mood swings and the historical setting.

Steven Rothman, editor of the Sherlockian quarterly Baker Street Journal, says it wasn't until 1939 -- in Fox's production of "The Hound of the Baskervilles," starring Basil Rathbone -- that Holmes was shown in the correct era.

"Holmes is very much a late Victorian / Edwardian person," Rothman says. "Doyle's whole literary world, at least for me, is tied up with hansom cabs and the telegraph. Holmes is set in this world that is recognizable but no longer very close to ours."

In the popular imagination, Rathbone, who made the deerstalker cap Holmes' signature accoutrement, is the epitome of Holmes.

After making another period piece at Fox, Rathbone starred in 12 Holmes films for Universal, with the setting shifted to contemporary times.

Rathbone and Arthur Wontner, who played Holmes in five films from 1931 to 1937, seemed ordained: Each bore a striking resemblance to Holmes as Doyle's illustrator, Sidney Paget, drew him.

"Those two actors are the standard by which we judge the resemblance to Sherlock Holmes," says Morrill. "They had the look: the thin, tall figure, the high forehead, and the hawklike nose."

But they lacked a key ingredient: youth.

We've come to associate Holmes so much with middle-aged actors that we forget he was a young man. Sherlockians agree that Holmes was about 27 when he began his first case, while Watson was 29 or 30.

Wontner was 56 when he made his debut as the detective; Rathbone was 47 when he starred in "Hound."

Rothman says many films portray Holmes as all mind and no body. While Downey Jr. may overplay Holmes' physical prowess, Rathbone played him too much like a weakling, says Rothman.

Doyle's Holmes is no armchair detective.

"We know [Holmes] has been a bare-knuckle boxer," says Klinger. "And he also has studied a form of martial arts, which Doyle calls Baritsu." Doyle meant Bartitsu, a martial art derived from jujitsu and judo. In Doyle's stories, however, most of the smackdowns occur off-screen, as it were, and are recounted after the fact.

What is clear through all these 200-plus screen prisms is that Holmes continues to fascinate -- far beyond the confines of Doyle's stories.

"The biggest mystery in the Holmes mysteries isn't the mysteries but who he is," says Klinger. "He's the biggest mystery of all. And I think that's what really keeps all the mystique alive."

Derakhshani writes for the Philadelphia Inquirer.

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