Tuesday, December 22, 2009


It's not like I habitually sit around reading USA Today. But if I'm dining alone in some unfamiliar restaurant, and said establishment provides a copy of today's paper for the presumed edification of lonely patrons, I might as well take advantage, right?

Which is how I found myself reading an article by Susan Wloszczyna in which she details all the ways that the new movie Sherlock Holmes has "knocked the stuffiness" out of the title character, starting with the fact that the cap, cape and "that silly pipe" are gone from this movie.

Fine, whatever. Everyone with even a cursory knowledge of the character knows that the cap and cape were utilized mostly in the illustrations that originally accompanied Arthur Conan Doyle's stories, and never an integral part of the author's conception. That "silly" pipe, on the other hand, is central to Conan Doyle's characterization of the great detective--after all, how else can you have a "three pipe problem"?--as a symbol of his vices and as a crutch he'd lean on almost subconsciously, and if the current movie has indeed jettisoned it, one wonders why they even bothered retaining the name.

Two paragraphs later, Wloszczyna trumpets Robert Downey's bold new conception of the character, "as likely to rely on kung-fu skills and swordplay as on his powers of detection."

Uh, Susan? This is nothing new. Conan Doyle repeatedly stressed Holmes' superb physical condition, fencing skills, and yes, even his mastery of martial arts. He doesn't really display any of this in practical use, but these are known aspects of his character. And if we're discussing previous cinematic interpretations, Downey would have to go some way to be a bigger badass than John Neville in A Study In Terror, to name just one example off the top of my head.

But there's more to the new movie than Downey, of course, and Wloszczyna wants us to consider Jude Law, "who gives bumbling Dr. Watson a much-needed shot of virility."

OK, now you're just trying to piss me off. Bumbling? Conan Doyle always stressed Watson's intelligence. Sure, he wasn't as brilliant as Holmes, but who would be? And occasionally, Watson's insights (especially into matters of the human heart, with which Holmes was not always familiar) would provide his partner with the key to the solution. And as far as virility, Watson served in the military, carried a gun and sometimes acted as Holmes' muscle.

That whole "bumbling Watson" trope originated (and pretty much ended) with those Basil Rathbone/Nigel Bruce movies from the thirties and forties, but honestly, does anyone even remember them? Or at least, does the average reader of USA Today? If Holmes and Watson are known by the general public at all these days, it is likely due mostly to Conan Doyle's original stories, which have after all remained in print for a century or so.

And though I wouldn't necessarily expect Wloszczyna to sit down and read every single one of them, is it really too much to expect her to do some desultory research before writing her little puff piece? She may be a lowly entertainment journalist (which means she's actually a rung or two lower than sports columnists on the credibility scale), but she's still a professional, and has no business repeating idiotic misconceptions as accepted facts.