Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Why we need Watson

The last two weeks, I have been immersed in the 'ness' of Sherlock Holmes.

None of it has been canon.

The first experiences have been through the newly released film, Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows.

While I would dearly love to discuss the film, I'm appreciating that there are probably a lot of people who haven't seen it yet. So, I'll keep spoilers to a minimum and save that one for a later date.

Besides, Hollywood is not the purpose of the blogpost.

...where else to begin? Ah.

The last three days, we've been watching the BBC series titled Sherlock. It's a modern television adaption of the canon, with individual episodes lasting 90 minutes.

The Sherlock of each series is different. They show different sides to the personality/enigma/thing that we understand the detective to be.

First, the Holmes played by Robert Downey Jr.

For a short period of time in 2010, I worked at the local cinema in my hometown. This has relevance because I was working when the first Sherlock film was still screening. Something I noticed at work happening on more than one occasion was old ladies walking out of the film while it was still screening. Many of them either muttered on their way out or they complained to us about the film.

Their problem? This Sherlock did as much beating people up with his fists as he did with his mind. This incarnation of Sherlock seemed to break the rules of 'deerstalker cap' that had so long been set in place. So, Sherlock is brilliant. Sherlock is also master of whatever fighting art he possessed in the books (it's legit. Baritsu. Check it out.) Third, we see that Sherlock has some difficulties slotting in with society. His gifts of reading a person don't seem to extend to speaking to the person with compassion. As Mary and her glass of wine attest to.

The other Sherlock is played by a guy called Benedict Timothy Carlton Cumberbatch (which has got to be one of the best names I have ever encountered in terms of sheer awesome-sounding properties). He looks like this.

Cumberbatch's incarnation has done some action scenes. Not a whole lot. And most of those he spent trying not to get bashed. But he is a thinker. Crazily so. And there is a lot of emphasis in his character on his inability to work with society.

"What must it be like to live inside your little brains?"

I think that both men focus on different parts of the Holmes character. The BBC adaption is probably the slightly more accurate to the character, but sheer Hollywood attests to the why. You've only got two hours to impress a character of awesome. Explosions are always a good way to do that. Explosions and ramping. (you know, that cinematographic effect where they suddenly chuck the film into slow-motion and then speed it up again?). And nothing says 'cool' about a character like the way he giftwraps his opponent after wiping the floor with their sorry rear end.

Simply? Hollywood and America would rather see him beat someone with his fists than do the equivalent to his mind.

Just for the heck of it, I would one day love to see some kind of crazy mash-up between Gregory House and Calvin Lightman and Sherlock Holmes. I'm sure they'd get along great.

But. I didn't title the post 'Why we need Holmes'.

So, Watson has to have some part of the conversation.

The Edwardian (Hollywood) adaption has Jude Law.

The BBC production has Martin Freeman, who is the guy who played Arthur Dent in The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy (2005)

As the difference is between Sherlock and Sherlock, so there is between Watson and Watson. Jude Law spends more time beating people, and Martin Freeman spends a lot of time as the butt monkey. Both of them wear homely pieces of clothing. (Although this is only noticeable with Watson in the second film when he is wearing the scarf that Mary made for him). Both of them spend a lot of time entertaining Sherlock and trying to enable him to mesh properly with society.

This is where I started to notice something.

It's been established then that Sherlock is lacking in the human quality known as Compassion. The ability to Sympathise, Empathise and do anything but synthesise facts and data, because that is all Holmes knows. And in that area, he is brilliant.

But we can't appreciate him. Not properly, anyway. With just Holmes, we have an egocentric, overpowered character, whose purposes and plans are above us mortals. We could not understand or relate without Holmes' counterpart, Watson.

It is as though Watson has enough compassion to make up for Holmes' gross deficiency. He does the legwork. He is the butt of the jokes. He struggles.

Holmes' character is incredibly interesting. But it's not, strictly speaking, human. We relate better to Watson. Understand his struggles and his emotions because 1) the stories are always written from his perspective, and 2) he isn't the genius.

For a long time I've noticed this. We admire the genius. We are impressed by him. But we never want to be him. Maybe this is Tall Poppy Syndrome, endemic to the masses of Australians (and believe me. I've experienced the nasty end of it). Maybe it is because the genius, excellent as he is, has so few people to relate to in the upper echelon of brainpower.

So, Holmes has the superpowers. But Watson balances him out. Creates a duo we can see, read about and be amazed without being put off by how perfect they are. That bit is important. It is what stops them from turning into Marty-Stu's (the male equivalent of a Mary-Sue).

It's as important as the role of Sam in The Lord of the Rings.

Tolkein had purposed Hobbits with the task of carrying the Ring. Why? Because they are the weak. They are the peaceful. They are the pure of heart. We see Frodo try to give up the Ring within moments of inheriting it in the first book (or movie). The meek triumph.

And it is Frodo who has to bear the burden. We still get to see the stuggle, but the burden of bearing the Ring turns Frodo into something beyond the reach of the ordinary character. He must carry the plot; assimilated into the workings of the story. We cannot relate with Frodo. But that is why Sam is there.

Sam struggles. He worries and frets and remains faithful to his friend and his charge. Remember, Gandalf tells him to watch over Frodo. To look after him. And into Mordor they go. Walking simply, so to speak. Frodo turns into a plot piece. Sam stays human, though. Well, Hobbit. Something.
Anyway, his role as the chronicler continues as the story keeps on. He's the onlooker, but we identify with him because of his compassion and necessity to the hero. It's not Sam who sails off at the end, either.

Sam Gamgee. John Watson.

Neither are the main character. But they are so much more than sidekicks. We see and identify with them better than with the character they are seen interacting with because they are not above the noise and the hubris. They're in the thick of it.

Which goes to show.

People relate better to something that experiences what they experience. They falter at what makes us falter, and even though there's someone who is more than capable of one-upping them, they keep going. They don't fear their own humanity. Or Hobbitanity. Look, is it just easier if we think of the race of Man in Lord of the Rings as something else entirely? The Hobbits are the ones who we cheer on, anyway.

And honestly, without Watson, Sherlock is just a Sociopath with nothing to redeem him from being one ole nasty....


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