Updated stories lose something
In a previous life as a movie reviewer and theater critic, I was sometimes asked to write about period productions that had been placed in a modern setting. Maybe an ancient Greek tragedy would be re-imagined in a trailer park. Shakespeare’s “Richard III” might cast the title villain not as an old English king, but a contemporary Orwellian dictator. Many of us are familiar with “Scrooged,” a 1988 movie in which Charles Dickens’ famous Christmas scold is a latter-day TV executive.
For the most part, these facelifts for vintage material aren’t my cup of tea. They often seem rooted in the patronizing premise that audiences won’t be able to appreciate a story unless it unfolds in the present. Staying stubbornly in one’s own time seems as provincial to me as refusing to leave the city limits to visit other places.
All of this comes to mind with the news that “Sherlock” is returning to public television this Sunday night at 8 as part of the “Masterpiece Mystery!” series. More new episodes continue at 8 p.m. on May 13 and 20.
“Sherlock” imagines what it would be like if Conan Doyle’s Victorian detective and his loyal sidekick, Dr. Watson, were to live in today’s England rather than the fog-shrouded, gaslit London of the 19th century. Benedict Cumberbatch does a fine job in the title role, and Martin Freeman proves equally gifted as Watson. Even so, any resemblance to Conan Doyle’s original stories is merely coincidental. I screened a DVD of the May 13 episode, “The Hounds of Baskerville,” a radically rewritten take on Conan Doyle’s “The Hound of the Baskervilles” in which a spectral canine might — or might not — be the result of genetic engineering. The performances and production values are solid, but Conan Doyle wouldn’t recognize the story as his own.
I understand the argument for shaking up Conan Doyle’s formula. After so many traditional productions of “Sherlock Holmes,” why bother making new adaptations that trod the same ground? There’s precedent, too, for fast-fowarding Holmes. In the 1940s, Basil Rathbone’s Holmes used his powers of deduction against Nazi villains.
But meeting Sherlock Holmes as Conan Doyle originally envisioned him, you realize that Victorian London is as much a character in the story as Holmes himself. To reconnect with the Sherlock Holmes tales as the author intended them, I’ve been reading Michael Dirda’s “On Conan Doyle,” a slender volume, published last year, in which Dirda reflects on his longtime interest in the Baker Street detective. I like the way that Dirda, a veteran book critic for The Washington Post, can write about a book as a breathing thing, a creature that can quicken the pulse of the person who holds it. Dirda recalls his childhood encounter with “The Hound of the Baskervilles,” first reading it alone in a darkened living room “just as the heavens began to boom with thunder and the rain to thump against the curtained windows.”
Inspired, I’ve just added “The Hound of the Baskervilles” to my summer reading list.