A while back, I exchanged words with a long and close Internet friend on the recent Sherlock Holmes movies, featuring Robert Downey Jr. I like them well enough — or, rather, I like the first one; have yet to see the second — as I know the material, I knew ahead of time that these were silly Hollywood action movies, and as they work really well as stupid action movies based on Sherlock Holmes. Given that they are stupid Hollywood style action movies — Hollywood being more about a state of mind than a birth certificate — they are unusually faithful. My friend objected that, having read the entire body of Doyle’s work at least eight times over, the movies were actually one of the most accurate adaptations out there. There was a bit more violence, but otherwise their vision of Holmes is very close to as written.
Thing is, there’s a difference between being accurate and not being inaccurate. The Downey movies may not technically be inaccurate; that doesn’t make them truly accurate.
Prior to about 1980, nearly every adaptation of Sherlock Holmes was deathly inaccurate. Since the Granada series with Jeremy Brett, the popular image of Holmes (and, particularly, Watson) is actually pretty close to the source material.
To date that’s probably still the most accurate portrayal in terms of the character motivation and dynamics. The recent Steven Moffat series is also weirdly accurate, despite all the liberties it takes. I don’t think I’ve seen another adaptation that focuses on Holmes’s complete ignorance of facts and concepts outside of his area of study (like that the earth revolves around the sun, or who the current prime minister happens to be).
The Downey movies go with a fun interpretation, that actually hews closer to the facts and themes of the material than one might expect. The way it extrapolates the facts and themes, though, ain’t close at all.
The boxing scene is a key point of reference. Holmes is an expert pugilist, true. He is also very observational. He is not, however, a sensor. Outside of a few parlor tricks that he has mastered in order to impress potential clients, he needs time and thought and focus to make sense of his observations. Put him against an untrained ruffian, and Holmes will deftly apply his memorized technique to get the upper hand. Put him against a professional boxer, and he will have no instincts. Even if he may conclude that his opponent is from Devonshire and chews a particular brand of tobacco, his observational skills will not be of the required sort and the speed to guide his hands like an assassin. That’s not the way his brain works.
The skill of Sherlock Holmes is in identifying important information in a sea of noise. Making sense or use of that information is another skill entirely, and one that comes to him with far more difficulty. Likewise, that focus comes at a great cost elsewhere for the character.
In adaptation, the inclination is often to burden an odd and cranky but otherwise well adjusted character with superhuman powers of observation and extrapolation. You get a bunch of the super power in Moffat’s adaptation as well, and it can get tedious. You do get far more than usual of the cost, though. And it’s on that point that the show is interesting.
In the Downey movies, the super powers are bolted on top of a stock action hero. The movie goes into more than the usual detail on the nature of his observations, allowing the audience to follow his line of reasoning. The speed and application of his conclusions, however, remains mystical.
It’s that misreading, or rather deliberate misinterpretation, of Holmes’s mentality that informs the pace, structure, and thematic weight of the films. They need to work like a stupid Hollywood blockbuster, and if you squint then Doyle provides the material to bend. So if you know the material back and front, then yeah, the movies are surprisingly clever in how they use it. That doesn’t make them a faithful representation of that material. Their faith lies somewhere else entirely.
That’s fine, because they’re good natured in the way they use the material. I don’t think the movies make any secrets about what they’re up to, and nearly every beat is accompanied by a wink. It’s fun to be free with this stuff, sometimes. Break a few expectations and shine a new light in an old, dusty room. The Granada series did just that by hewing starkly to the original material for the first time ever, and breaking out of all of the material that pop culture had aggregated on top of it. For 1980, that was revolutionary. In his weird way, Steven Moffat is cutting even closer — while at the same time bending the concept (and any characters outside of Holmes and Watson) to his own whims.
It’s just — all the good will in the world doesn’t make it accurate.