Hen&inkblots: A Literary Blog

Magic vs. Science: Meta in Sherlock Holmes

June 6, 2012 by J.M. Lee

Originally posted FEBRUARY 2ND, 2010 on joeyverse.com

I’ll leave the debate about how good/bad/faithful the movie was to the critics and the devoted fans; I’m a casual Holmesian, so I won’t go there. This blog is about books, and cinema, and meta, and I’m going to tie all three together and then go back to watching the shiba-inu cam.

Also, fair game: Spoilers below.

Well enough! Sherlock Holmes the books (Sir Arthur Conan Doyle) and Sherlock Holmes the movie (Guy Ritchie, 2009) have a great deal to say about metafiction and cinema. The most obvious and blatant observation would be the analysis of the “show” vs. “reality” duality, which is usually my focus in meta (as in my blog entry about Christopher Nolan’s The Prestige). It’s a Holmesian trope, which was extrapolated and centered on in the recent remake film in the form of the antics of the antagonist Lord Blackwood (Mark Strong), who uses science to paint a portrait of himself as an all-powerful lord of black magic. Similarly, in the classic Hound of the Baskervilles, Holmes reveals that a monster previously thought to be a demon hound is actually a ravenous “normal” dog that has been chemically treated to look possessed.

The movie, as the stories do, follows Holmes (Robert Downey, Jr.) as he follows the trail of the case using practical logic, common sense, and a keen eye for detail. As the stories unravel, more and more the viewer/reader finds that, although initially presented as straight-up supernatural powers, magic, ghost stories, and wizardry, most of the mysteries are debunked by Holmes and Watson as the results of meticulously clever tricks and illusions created by predictable machinery, chemistry, and science.

The same could be said of the books themselves, in a meta-fiction way: The way the stories are told, from the varying degrees of 1st person narrative of Watson, gives the illusion of fiction, and fantasy, and the supernatural. We see what Watson does, and he himself is a storyteller (as Doyle is), leading the reader to make certain assumptions and thus be led through a fantasy mystery until finally allowing us to “see” the truth. Holmes himself warns Watson not to be enticed by coming to an early conclusion and thus seeing all evidence as supporting this theory, yet Doyle allows the reader to do so in order to create something entertaining, rather than predictable. The “magic” of the mystery story is in the telling method, essentially the tricks of literary convention — methods to make the reader believe what has not actually been asserted as fact through expression of mood, description, and most importantly, Watson’s subjective recount of the case as if it were happening in real time.

The perspective of the Holmes novels changes fluidly. Though usually a 1st person narrative acting as a 3rd person biographer, Watson often removes his own “insignificant personality” in order to enhance the intrigue by “objectively” narrating background information (Valley of Fear), a rather elementary idea.[1] Sometimes, Doyle lets Watson tells us his own feelings — but only when they support the mood or enigma that he wants us to be feeling vicariously. Other times, Doyle lets Watson know nothing, leaving the facts only to Holmes (though technically, as the stories are often told in retrospect, Watson turns out to be a rather skilled storyteller as well). And finally, some of Watson’s “scribbles” are letters he wrote to Holmes (or others), giving us a “real-time” interpretation of the events. All of these classic methods (“sciences” of writing, if you will) are perfectly used to make the reader believe what Doyle wants them to believe at the time they believe it.

Similarly, the film takes this to the screen arena: Guy Ritchie pulls some old movie tricks out of the bag, including lighting, sound and stage effects. I’m taking things like the ship/rig chase scene with the French giant out of the equation; I’m talking about the scene near the beginning where Holmes is brought to speak with Blackwood. As Holmes turns his back on Blackwood’s cell, Blackwood suddenly and creepily appears from the shadows, as if conjuring himself or teleporting. It’s a lighting trick, and they’ve been doing it for years. It brings to mind a version of Macbeth I saw on stage, where the audience is first blinded by a flash of bright lights while a deceased Banquo is catapulted through a trap door in the dining table. When the audience has blinked away the floaters, there he is in all his ghosty glory.

Ritchie used sound effects to establish Blackwood’s alleged sorcery: The meat-packing scene is the first scene where full bass surround-sound is used prominently during the film. Blackwood’s voice booms from behind, to the right, and to the left of the audience, making you acutely aware for the first time of the surround-sound technology — or, if you’re in the proper mind-set (watching a movie, as it were), you’re just acutely aware of Lord Blackwood’s supreme creepiness.

And isn’t that the job of the auteur? It’s all industrial light and magic smoke and mirrors (or prose and trope), but in the end, you believe it. You’ll ignore (unless you are a CG nerd) the special effects and prefer to be in space, or ignore the carefully crafted mystery even though you know you’re being led along by the master. And it’s cool, because that’s what it’s about — you believe. When that’s the case, all the success to the maker — he’s done his job. The only person who will detect any presence of convention or science only does so because he, like Detective Holmes, “was looking for it.”

[1] Ha, I said “elementary” in a post about Sherlock Holmes.