Sherlock Holmes and Other Modern Myths

There are some fictional characters that have achieved a kind of immortality outside of the stories from where they were conceived, and they get interpreted over and over again in new books, television shows, plays and movies.  These include Sherlock Holmes, Dracula, Tarzan, Ebenezer Scrooge, Frankenstein, Superman, James Bond, and to a lesser extent, Elizabeth Bennet and Mr. Darcy, the March sisters (aka Little Women), and so on.  The list is surprisingly short compared to the millions of books that have been published.  And it’s fascinating to note the fading of some of these characters, like Nick and Nora Charles, Dick Tracy, Perry Mason, etc.

One way to understand fictional immortality is to study how various Shakespeare’s plays have been in and out of fashion over the last four hundred years.  We like to assume we’re getting the true Shakespeare when we read the plays, but are we?  Read a play and then watch it performed.  It comes to life with actor’s performances and the director’s interpretation.  I have read that Shakespeare changes with the generations and centuries. 

Another specific way to see mythmaking in action is to study Wyatt Earp.  Sometimes a famous fictional character is based on a real human.  Read a handful of Earp biographies and then watch several of the dozens of movies based on the Earp myth, especially the films with Kevin Costner and Kurt Russell.  You’ll begin to see how myths are created.  Absolute facts don’t count, but the defining of a Platonic Form that makes the character recognizable no matter when and where he or she appears and in what guise.  Wyatt Earp is still Wyatt Earp in My Darling Clementine, even only a damn few facts remain.  That’s the power of myth.

Many people hate when their favorite book is made into a movie because the filmmaker’s interpretation of their beloved character is different from how they brought the character to life in their mind.  But everyone’s mental interpretation is different, so I don’t criticize movies for seeing characters different.  In fact, I love seeing multiple interpretations, especially when moviemakers are trying to be faithful to the original story, or trying to tell the original story in a modern setting.  I love when actors inhabit a character and make them come to life.  I’m critical when a writer uses an iconic character for a stock performance, especially when they obviously don’t strive to add life to the character.

I found one source that said Sherlock Holmes has been played by 75 actors in 211 films, but it was dated 2005, so we know it’s at least 76 and 212 now, if not a good deal more.  Arthur Conan Doyle wrote four novels and fifty-six short stories featuring the detective adventures of Sherlock Holmes, so there’s a wealth of literary history from which to define the Holmes mythology.  And I think that’s what’s happening, our popular culture is giving life to modern myths.  I wonder if this is how the Egyptians, Greeks and Romans gave life to their gods?  We only see faint shadows of those ancient individuals today, and have no idea what their fully empowered identities were like.

Sherlock Holmes has been around since 1887, and Wikipedia has a fascinating summary about Arthur Conan Doyle’s creation, which also backs up many of the details in the new Guy Ritchie/Robert Downey, Jr. interpretation of the cerebral sleuth.  I am not a rabid aficionado of Sherlock Holmes – I’ve read some of the original short stories and seen many different Holmes movies over the years, so I can’t accurately judge how Guy Ritchie treats the canon, but read Tom Richmond for a true fan’s view. 

People who haven’t read Sherlock Holmes stories, or even seen any of the older Sherlock Holmes films will have a virgin impression of Holmes, and that’s fascinating by itself.  If they are now inspired to read the stories or watch older interpretations they might be shocked and dislike the non-Robert Downey versions.  Often filmgoers and readers imprint with the first encounter with a characterization, like ducklings to their mother, and find reasons to dislike any other performance.  I think this is especially true of Colin Firth’s Mr. Darcy.  For baby boomers and older folk, Basil Rathbone is the definitive screen Sherlock Holmes.  Such bonding is unfortunate because it restricts the evolution of the mythic character.  Often the character must be reinvented for each generation.

I hope I live long enough to see the Harry Potter books get made into a second set of films – to be epic mythic a character needs to have been in dozens of films.  Not that I don’t like the first productions, but I’m anxious to see new interpretations.  I suppose this is why there are nearly a half a million fan-fiction retellings of the Harry Potter stories.  I was very excited to see the new Sherlock Holmes movie hoping it would instill new life into the fading Baker Street citizens, and acquire a new generation of believers for the Holmes mythology. 

But here’s my problem, even though I can buy Robert Downey, Jr. as Holmes, and especially Jude Law as Watson, and love Rachel McAdams as Irene Adler, I’m not sure I can buy the plot of the new movie as a standard Sherlock Holmes story.  While watching the film I predicted how it would wrap up and I was satisfied with the direction the writers took, but think Ritchie went too overboard with the violence, explosions and especially the scene at the shipyard.  I absolute adored the recreation of Victorian London.  I would have been happy if the only action had been Holmes and Watson strolling for two hours around town and just chatted.

I bet the Sherlock Holmes virgins had a far more exciting time watching the new film than most of us older fans because they weren’t burden with worrying if the story disrupted the canon.  Besides the first time is always the most memorable.  Many Pride and Prejudice faithful can’t stand any of the film versions because they want to adhere to the purity of the novel, knowing any aspect of a film version can drown out content from the original story.  Most people will always think of Tarzan as Johnny Weissmuller even though the original 26 Edgar Rice Burroughs books describes Tarzan very differently.  I’m sure there are lots of kids that have never read the Harry Potter books but worship the films and they would be shocked to discover a very different Harry Potter described by his creator J. K. Rowling.

But I don’t think any of this matters.  Everyone can tell a cat from all other animals even though they come in an endless variety of appearances.  There seems to be an indescribable natural form that is the cat ideal.  You can always spot a Tarzan in any TV show, movie, book, comic, video game, cartoon, or other fictional venue.  Ditto for Dracula, Sherlock Holmes, Ebenezer Scrooge and Frankenstein.  In popular culture this is also becoming true for Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy, but isn’t as widespread as those already mentioned.  I think the March sisters from Little Women have potential to evolve into 21st century famous fictional pop culture identities.  They were major in the 19th century, and they maintained their fame since at a steady low level, but I sense a new surge.  Pop culture prefers flesh and blood people to make famous, but it’s fascinating to see word and sentence people gain worldwide fame.

It will be fascinating to know if Sherlock Holmes or Tarzan, or even Harry Potter continue to exist one hundred, two hundred or a thousand years from now.  Isis and Osiris are still around, but how many average kids know who they are.  How many kids even know Odysseus or Gilgamesh.

JWH – 1/6/10

One Response

  1. I have to say that I quite liked the new approach to Sherlock Holmes , though my favourite is still the Granada series with the wonderful Jeremy Brett. I could never undertand that in the Rathbone films Watson was portrayed as a bumbling oaf, which of course is entirely different to the books where he is the intelligent, educated, narrator! Having seen the new film only recently and having read the stories the first time about forty years ago, I am now about half way through the complete works again.
    Of course for a completely different approach, John Cleese with Arthur Lowe as Watson was spectacularly funny, and one of Eric Morecambe’s last recording was a comic version of a Holmes story. Wonderful stuff

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