Sherlock Holmes On Screen [Book Review]

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle introduced Sherlock Holmes to the world in 1887 and the iconic, deductive detective hasn’t been out of the spotlight since. He was the leading character in hundreds of movies and TV shows and he made guest appearances in hundreds more. If you add in the times the character was parodied and copied the references would fill. . . at least 320 pages.

Sherlock Holmes on Screen is a detailed reference book by former Doctor Who magazine editor Alan Barnes. The book was originally published in 2002, but Barnes has since gone back and updated it to include the new Robert Downey films and some more obscure references that he’s uncovered since.

This new edition, published by Titan, was released on January 31, 2012 and they were kind enough to send me a copy for review.

Each film and TV series in the book begins with a cast list and a plot synopsis broken down into The Mystery, The Investigation and The Solution. After that, Barnes spends from a few paragraphs to a page giving you his personal thoughts on this particular incarnation. That’s what makes this book more than a reference volume. It’s actually readable. Barnes writes with a strange mix of pop culture references, $10 words and phrasing that fits the Holmesian era. I found myself intrigued by his knowledge and often amused by his turn of a phrase.

One thing I found particularly interesting was Barnes’ nearly total disdain for a large number of projects. Here he is on the 1988 adaption of The Hound of the Baskervilles starring Jeremy Brett.

“The dead hand of corporate constraints often extolled by zero-budget filmmakers as a spur to creativity and imaginative corner cutting, seems to have had the opposite effect here: the whole project is a dreary, enervated, spiritless – in fact, more or less dead.”

Here’s Barnes’ take on the same film produced as a 1972 movie of the week. The film was a pilot meant to go along with pilots featuring two other literary detectives, Nick Carter and Hildegard Withers. If a hit, the producers would alternate movies with each of the three characters on a weekly basis. I remember and adored Robert Conrad in The Adventures of Nick Carter. Barnes’ opinion of the Holmes pilot isn’t so gracious.

“If the Carter and Withers films were even a fraction as insulting to the memory of their literary progenitors as this Holmes, it’s deeply unsurprising that the mooted tripartite film sequence never happened.”

Don’t hold back, Barnes, tell us how you really feel.

He does give credit where it’s due, heaping praise on the 2010 updated Sherlock series from the BBC for example. As for Robert Downey Jr.’s take on Holmes, Barnes says, “Only a fool would argue with the facts.” Facts that include awards, a fast-tracked sequel and a box office bonanza.

The only problem I had with the book was the choice to list the projects alphabetically, rather than chronologically. Alphabetically allowed Barnes to group all of the Hound of the Baskervilles incarnations under the same heading, but I would have preferred to see the progression from silent movies to Universal classics, to Hammer Horror and on to TV. There is a chronology in the back of the book but there are no page numbers referenced, so it’s not easy to find each listing if you wanted to read the entries in production order.

But that, right there, is nitpicking. Sherlock Holmes on Screen is an enjoyable read that is sure to stir up the emotions of any Sherlock Holmes fan. Who was the best Holmes? Rathbone, Brett, or maybe Roger Moore? How do you feel about the Holmes comedies such as The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes’ Smarter Brother or the cartoon version on BraveStarr (with Lost in Space star Jonathan Harris)? Is there anything new to say about this old soul, or will Sherlock Holmes go on forever?

I’d love to hear your Sherlock Holmes thoughts and memories. Please share them in the comment section below.

Sherlock Holmes on Screen is now available on Amazon.com.

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