Guy Ritchie’s Sherlock Holmes, 2009

  1. Arthur Conan Doyle’s story “The Mazarin Stone” is a brief foray into the world of his famous detective Sherlock Holmes. This story, which takes place entirely within Holmes’ rooms at 221B Baker Street, is a concise example of Holmes’ classic style of deduction based on detailed observation and footwork (which is described, but not done, within this story). This particular story is mostly dialogue, but it sets up Holmes’ usual modus operandi quite neatly. The fact that the main suspect that Holmes is investigating for jewel theft shows up at 221B to speak to Holmes directly illustrates that in fact fame and flair are an inherent part of Doyle’s famous creation. Holmes’ place as a boy’s adventure character writ large – and grown up – is well established by the time Doyle writes this story, as demonstrated by the lack of exposition. The character and his associates are known and beloved quantities by this point.
  2. Guy Ritchie’s 2009 film Sherlock Holmes draws on many of Holmes’ original characteristics from Doyle’s stories and brings them to noisy Technicolor life on-screen. As Holmes, Robert Downey Jr. is a grown-up boys’ adventure hero with a ready wit and ready fists. So, for that matter, is Dr. Watson (Jude Law). Ritchie employs similar visual fight styles – slow motion, elaborate Foley work for high-impact sounds – as he has used in his other films featuring the criminal element in modern-day London. This 21st-century Holmes-inspired work (the screenplay is an original story) becomes, in Ritchie’s hands, a hyper-kinetic modern action film.
  3. Guy Ritchie’s 2009 Sherlock Holmes is not a direct adaptation of any one Sherlock Holmes story, though it shares a few elements with “The Mazarin Stone.” It is a clear example of the differences between going back to Doyle’s original detective stories and the rafts of prior Hollywood versions of the iconic detective. Ritchie doesn’t employ any of the visual or verbal “shortcuts” that earlier film (and television) versions have taught the audience to expect – no deerstalker cap is worn, nary an “Elementary!” is uttered – when presented with the character of Sherlock Holmes. Since Holmes himself has been embraced by countless other creators of film, television, books, stories, video games in untold permutations, taking apart Ritchie’s Holmes on a few visual details is pointless and somewhat beside the point. The elaborate hugeness of the conspiracy – and the danger – in Ritchie’s film appears out of stride with Holmes’ usual M.O. of deduction based on small details, set out quite succinctly and clearly. Overall the feelings of adventure and discovery telegraphed to the audience in Ritchie’s film are in keeping with the spirit of Doyle’s works, but blown up largely and loudly for modern action-adventure audiences.
  4. io9 has an interesting piece on the failings of several modern Irene Adler characterizations, including Ritchie’s.
    The New Yorker examines several filmed versions of Sherlock Holmes (and comes down firmly on the side of Basil Rathbone).
    Word and Film’s take is that Doyle’s stories are inherently about imposing order on a chaotic and changing Victorian England. To this end, it supports Ritchie’s movie for their nearly “conservative” longing for the orderliness of the British Empire.
  5. The multi-tentacled beast of Ritchie’s overarching villainous plot stands just a bit too far outside the logic-based world of Doyle’s Holmes to succeed intellectually as an adaptation. However I would argue that emotionally, Ritchie’s film rings true to the sense of adventure present (or at least alluded to) in many of Doyle’s Holmes stories. The many implied supernatural causes for Lord Blackwood’s reign of terror in the film’s gritty London sit at cross-purposes from the earth-bound nature of Doyle’s mysteries. And though Lord Blackwood’s plot is ultimately revealed to be “earthly” after all, as a villain he still represented himself and his cause as ones supernaturally ordained. As “The Stone of Mazurin” shows, Doyle’s Holmes is more comfortable in the down-to-earth details of cab rides and hiding places, though he indulges in a few secret passages! It’s that sense of play evinced in “The Stone of Mazurin” via the waxwork Holmes in the window, the cunning use of secret passageways, and his joke of planting the missing jewel on Lord Cantlemere at the end – that sense of play is what Ritchie gets correct with Sherlock Holmes. The partnership between Holmes and Watson is friendly and even-handed, and the jokes they make fall right in line with Doyle’s joke-making detective. Even in a brief tale set essentially in a single room, like “The Tale of Mazurin,” it is possible to see the fun, adventurous spirit inside Doyle’s Holmes that Ritchie punches up and exploits for his action-adventure tale.

Gurinder Chadha’s Bride and Prejudice, 2004

  1. Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice deals with the intense marriage politics surrounding a certain class of British citizens in the 18th century, and specifically the misunderstandings and miscommunications between Elizabeth Bennet and Fitzwilliam Darcy. Setting aside the intricate social structures of the time, at its heart Pride and Prejudice is a comedy of misdirection. Both Elizabeth and Darcy are shown to have intense pride in their own societal station and their initial impressions of the other, and those initial impressions lead to the prejudicial feelings that hinder them from honestly acknowledging each other’s true character. After labyrinthine meetings, correspondences, he-saids and she-saids, and the machinations of other family members, Elizabeth and Darcy are finally able to confess their honest feelings for one another.
  2. Gurinder Chadha’s Bride and Prejudice is a spirited re-imagining of the basic plot structure of Austen’s original work, drawn in broad brush strokes that play up the emotions of the story rather than the intricate interpersonal machinations. With these broader strokes, the subtle themes are sacrificed for a faster paced plot that suits a mainstream cinematic production. The misdirection is still in place, slightly more ham-handledly executed. The exuberant color palette underlies the emotions as well as the upbeat soundtrack, which can lead to a definite feeling that each plot point is being “telegraphed” somewhat resoundingly.
  3. Chadha’s decision to introduce full Bollywood-style musical dance production numbers in Bride and Prejudice played up the playful, comedic aspects while sacrificing most of the subtlety. The color palettes were gorgeously arrayed to enhance emotional reactions to the characters and situations, even outside the settings of India – for instance, the bright-blue-robed full gospel choir on a California beach with strong sunset colors as well. The underlying relationships between characters, however, often felt merely sketched in. Austen’s work is a precise work of satire; Chadha’s feels a bit like vaudeville.
  4. This Film3 interview with Chadha has some interesting observations on racism and prejudice underlying her work.
    This feminist film review highlights a few interesting emotional points about the way the interactions between Lalita and Darcy never actually appear to make progress once their love is (too soon) established.
    In this piece for the Jane Austen Society of North America, I found a fascinating discussion on the father-daughter relationship in Bride and Prejudice. Part of the cultural aspects of Chadha’s adaptation that are easily overlooked are the way the family model in India plays into the importance of this particular relationship in Austen’s work.
    And lastly…a little (tongue-in-cheek) speculation about what might have happened if Jane Austen took her manuscript to a writing workshop.
  5. Gurinder Chadha’s Bride and Prejudice walks a line between broad comedy and sometimes-painful farce in its translation of a subtle class- and culture-based work to a famously jangling, less-subtle format. The gorgeous sets, music, and dancing introduce Indian (“Bollywood”) film culture without taking a serious look at true Indian culture in the twenty-first century. Discussion Darcy’s family’s possible acquisition of a hotel in Goa, Lalita is angered by the idea of turning India into a sanitized version of itself, a “theme park” for wealthy visitors. Chadha selected the story of Pride and Prejudice to be “[s]omething familiar so that people wouldn’t get freaked out by all the Bollywood stuff” as a way of introducing Bollywood Indian film culture to a multi-national audience. By focusing on this particular aspect of Indian culture in a work with such familiar background material, it serves to illustrate the broad differences in the differing forms. The painful caricature present in some of the characters seems to diminish Indian culture even by celebrating one of its best-beloved (and highly successful) art forms.

Michael Winterbottom’s Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story, 2005

  1. The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman is an inventive, confounding, elaborately discursive novel by Laurence Sterne that is ultimately about the magnificent discursiveness of what it is to be human. Hand in hand with this, it is about the frustrating process of trying to capture such a broad experience in the form of a novel, which ultimately leads to the work standing as a statement about …writing a novel. Tristram, our nominal protagonist, does not even get to the point of being born until several volumes into the novel. Instead the varied stories about his parents, neighbors, other relatives – memorably Uncle Toby – clergy, townsfolk, et al illustrate how each human’s story is inseparable from the stories of the others whose lives they touch.
  2. Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story is an inventive, hilarious, discursive film directed by Michael Winterbottom. The film stands as a monument to some of humanity’s greater follies, such as filmmaking itself. As a film about making a film (a literary adaptation of Sterne’s novel), it stands both as a strike against overgrown human ego, and as praise of the depth and richness of humanity despite the follies of ego. Steve, the actor set to play Tristram, juggles work, petty differences with his co-star, his romantic relationship with the mother of his child, his flirtation with a production assistant on the film, interviews with tabloid journalists, film funders, writers, and producers. Most of all, though, Steve is a portrait of the fight inside every human – between his better self,  his nobler instincts, and his baser, self-serving ego.
  3. Many critical responses to, and reviews of, A Cock and Bull Story make large of the fact that Sterne’s novel is said to be “unfilmable.” It’s true that simply setting down each set-piece within Tristram Shandy would make for an overwhelming seasons-long series, not a mere film, but Winterbottom makes the decisive move of simply taking on the spirit of the novel. With the inclusion of a few of the novel’s high point set-pieces, the source material is gracefully acknowledged and set as the backdrop for the unique perspectives that film affords. The decision to pull back out of the “story” of filming the novel and show the audience the workings of the crew, sound and lighting equipment, etc. is thoughtfully made during Tristram’s birth-scene. What is delayed to comic effect in the novel is also delayed in the movie, but the difference shows the sort of play Winterbottom is affecting. Pulling the audience into the framing-story of the movie set during the birth sequence piles up the folly of trying to separate human lives with the folly of trying to film a novel about the folly of trying to separate human lives. When the overlapping frames in the movie begin piling up, Winterbottom creates a true sense of enthusiasm and delight even in the most folly-filled of human activities.
  4. This scholarly paper hangs most of A Cock and Bull Story on the Steve Coogan character as the focal point for the “progressive and digressive story line.”
    Interview magazine spoke to Michael Winterbottom about his follow-up movie with Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon, The Trip, and touched on ideas about A Cock and Bull Story and literary adaptations in general.
    The Guardian’s book section did an in-depth piece on The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman upon the release of A Cock and Bull Story. While noting the limitations of the film in portraying the “delicious, facetious erudition of the novel” it ultimately found much to celebrate in the film and the long-lasting appeal of Tristram Shandy.
  5.  The comedy within Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story lays within individual human egos, but the warm flip-side of humanity is shown in smaller moments of human interaction. The character writ most largely in the film is Steve Coogan (played by Steve Coogan as almost-himself), an often boorish and self-centered man. In his constant battles for more screen-time (height, importance…) than Rob Brydon as Uncle Toby, Steve illustrates strong egotistical urges. He seeks a larger and larger role, and in the memorable and hilarious dream sequence, his character encased in the giant “womb” is literally reduced to the size of a child. The laughter of his co-stars in the dream sequence echoes the laughter of the audience to see this man-child held up so. There is a warm light of humanity in Winterbottom’s film, however, that raises up hope even for the egotistical Steve Coogan. Significantly, the two characters in the film who most clearly demonstrate familiarity with the source novel for Tristram Shandy are Jennie and Jenny, the film-savvy production assistant and Steve’s girlfriend, respectively. Jennie is able to insert her knowledge not only of Sterne’s novel but of critical responses to same, to ground the production (and sometimes Steve himself) from flying off into ridiculous “Hollywoodized” flights of fancy. And Jenny, right before the aforementioned dream sequence, calmly explains the Widow Wadman sequence to Steve as she lies in bed. Without the grounding – in reality, in humanity – provided by these two characters, the ones making the movie-within-the-movie might appear as little more than walking ego-gratification.

Julie Taymor’s Adaptation of The Tempest, 2010

  1. The Tempest, generally regarded to be William Shakespeare’s final play, involves a great deal of magic and a number of mystical interventions into the lives of its characters. Its classification as a “Romance” (as opposed to a Tragedy, Comedy, or History play) belies the fact that much more is going on outside the featured romantic connection between Ferdinand and Miranda. There is little conflict or plot energy driven by that relationship. The primary themes are of power and reconciliation, as powerful sorcerer Prospero exerts power over time and the elements to evince a reconciliation between himself, his daughter, and his estranged brother Antonio. To a certain degree Prospero also negotiates a reconciliation between himself and the native inhabitants of the island where the action takes place.
  2. In Julie Taymor’s 2010 film adaptation of The Tempest, the primary themes listed above are kept intact. With the use of digital effects, jump cuts, and the addition of a somewhat cacophonous soundtrack, Taymor’s film illustrates the magical and mystical elements brought to bear on the lives of the characters. Her choice of filming location, the volcanic island of Lanai in Hawaii, also supports the surreality of some of the film’s action sequences. Quick scene changes between storm and calm, a tropical shore, a desert plain, and an unearthly landscape of volcanic rock illustrate the changing forces brought to bear on the characters sometimes more than the digital effects.
  3. The most obvious – and most advertised – change made in this adaptation is Taymor’s decision to cast Helen Mirren as the sorceress Prospera, changing the principle actor and mover from male to female. Overall the adaptation outside this change hews very closely to the original text of the play and to its themes. Adapting The Tempest to film in the 21st century places a host of tools in the hands of the director that frees her choose highly literal illustrations of activities from the text that would not be possible on stage. Consider the titular storm, wrought stirringly (and loudly) in Taymor’s adaptation. The opening image of a castle besieged by storm, in tight view, pulls back to show it is a mere sand castle in the hand of a young woman – Miranda, daughter of Prospera – and then jump cuts to the ship in the storm. Two different views of the storm, on hugely differing scales, would be nearly impossible on the stage. The images conferred by the sense of scale, surreal setting on a volcanic island, and the use of digital effects are sometimes tasked with carrying too much of the weight of the changes being wrought, ultimately, by human actors.
  4. * Vahideh Malekpour’s scholarly paper “Prospero Becomes Prospera: The End of the Patriarchy in The Tempest offers some critical insight into feminist thought on the character of Miranda and themes of female power even before the gender-switch in Taymor’s film.
    * Monica Krysa’s paper “From Prospero to Prospera: Female Empowerment in Taymor’s The Tempest has a few useful notes on witchcraft and female power in Shakespeare’s era.
    This was useful as a brief snapshot of feminist film theory.
    This is a nice overview of themes focusing on the mother-daughter relationship created by the gender change to Prospera.
    * Ultimately this article presented some of the more compelling statements about feminist perspective in Taymor’s The Tempest, as perceived by both actor and audience. It touches on some of the changes in the Prospera-Ariel relationship that would have been fascinating to explore more deeply.
  5. In her treatment of The Tempest, Julie Taymor begins an intriguing conversation by casting Helen Mirren as Prospera, the prime mover of all the play’s action, but fails to conclude that conversation. By her own acknowledgement, she cast Mirren with a question in mind – does changing this character’s gender change the play? – and then does not appear to spend sufficient time addressing that. There are language changes, most notably the addition of a reference to women being burned as witches for similar offenses at the time when Prospera was deposed as the rightful Duke of Milan. Taymor also chooses to preserve much of the gendered language – Duke, Ariel’s use of the term “master” – which has a potent effect coming from Mirren’s commanding performance. However, for the changes that are made textually, others lines that sound puzzling after Prospera’s gender-switch are left in place. When Miranda is given to Ferdinand, the transactional language and language of ownership is retained: “Then, as my gift and thine own acquisition / Worthily purchased take my daughter” (IV, i). With such a fundamental decision as to change the gender of such a role of power, Taymor opens a conversation that does not conclude satisfactorily in the “purchase” of her daughter.

Kickoff

Super cute these things start you off with “hello world…” I totally see what they did there.

Hi!

I’m Jen, I’m returning to the University of Maryland to finish up an eighteen-years-abandoned bachelor’s degree at long last. This blog is for ENGL329B which should, lord willing and the creek don’t rise, be my final undergraduate class. My degree will be in English Language and Literature with a concentration in Mythology and Folklore. I haven’t taken an English class in a very very long time, but I’ve had a web presence of one sort or another since about …1995? I think? Definitely by 1996.

If you are curious about non-school things, my “real” blog is here.

Should all go according to plan, I’ll graduate this August, the same month as my 25-year high school reunion.

Cripes.