Vithal Rajan – Holmes vs Holmes

We can’t get enough of Holmes. As a follow up to our extract from Holmes of the Raj, we asked author Vithal Rajan how true he thought the new Sherlock Holmes was to the book…

In Guy Ritchie’s Sherlock Holmes, starring Robert Downey Jr, the great detective has morphed completely from the cold, intellectual Victorian into today’s cool cat, adept at the martial arts, snappy in his remarks, and as casual in his attire as he is adventurous in his love life. Today’s heroes have to be more than slightly mad – a point made in Amadeus , much to the distaste of serious musicologists studying Mozart.

Ritchie’s reinvention of Holmes is one of many departures from the original. In the love scenes between Holmes and the legendary Irene Adler, the only person known to have beaten the detective at his own game, Sherlock Holmes takes us beyond Conan Doyle’s sketchy hints of their relationship. Jude Law’s Watson is also much more the man than his original creator ever allowed him to be – he is an equal to Holmes on most occasions. Also, the measured articulations of a long-standing friendship now give way to sharp-witted squabbles and crackling repartee, and the male bond that Conan Doyle never emphasizes runs as a barely concealed subtext to the gentlemen’s romances with their ladies.

Even London is vividly reimagined. Instead of the genteel streets of the Victorian metropolis we are given its seamy underbelly– grimy, ugly and vicious. Of all the bold reinventions, this is the most felicitious. For the blue-gray fast-edited images of the city seems to capture London, hundred and fifty years ago, better than any prettified images Hollywood has given us thus far.

Is this new avatar of Holmes true to the original?  It doesn’t actually matter. The character created by Conan Doyle has now become part of the mythology of our times, and like all mythologies it is continuously reinterpreted in the symbols and languages used by every new generation. To avoid doing so would be to kill the character.

The question isn’t if Sherlock Holmes the film is true to the books but how one tells the story of a 19th century detective for the 21st century?  The new films of James Bond (perhaps the only truly comparable fictional character with a similarly iconic status)  avoid this dilemma by placing the Cold War spy in modern scenarios, but to take Holmes away from his world is impossible. My solution was to approach my novel as a tongue-in-cheek Oriental fiction, and indeed, emphasize the period. Our knowledge of India in the late 1880s, through the turn of the century, and the years immediately preceding the First World War, is derived primarily from dry political and sociological tracts and speeches. But those were stirring and lively times, and ought to be seen in some more of their complexity and colour. By enlivening the backdrop and focusing on it, I hope I gave the venerable detective a new lease of life.

Ritchie’s approach is the opposite. By making Holmes more cool, he has taken away the period quality feel of the stories. This gives the film its magic (the smart-alecky throwaway lines, the modern way in which London is reimagined, the way the scenes are shot), and also detracts from it (the endless stock fight scenes). But no matter. The most important thing is that the film Sherlock Holmes may prompt some young viewers to revisit the original Holmes stories – a genuinely literary genre of light fiction. My book and Ritchie’s film ultimately pay homage to these.

Vithal Rajan has served as a mediator in Northern Ireland and was founder and faculty member ofthe School of Peace Studies, Bradford University, UK. He has worked with numerous civil societyorganizations and NGOs in India, and has held various positions across Europe such Chair of World Studies, International School of Geneva, and Executive Director for the Alternative Nobel Prize (Sweden). In 2006, he was made Officer of the Order of Canada—the country’s highest national honour—for a lifetime of achievement. His other fictional works include The Legend of RamulammaSharmaji Padmasree, ‘Not So’ Stories for Older Children, and The Anarkali Diary. He lives in Hyderabad.

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