After ‘Sherlock’, ‘The Musketeers’
‘Sherlock’ has set the benchmark for reimagining the classics. Next should be ‘The Musketeers’. Are Indian TV channels listening?
Playing around with the classics is a tricky business. The very fact that the source material is a “classic” means that hordes of people are familiar with the stuff, and many of them are zealous conservatives who would consider the tiniest bit of tinkering to be sacrilegious; in fact, they would be waiting to pounce on any liberties taken with the text that they feel is unseemly.
But when done with intelligence and flair, they can be marvellous entertainment.
Peter Jackson achieved what seemed to be an impossible task with his Lord of The Rings trilogy, enthralling the masses ignorant of Tolkien’s novels, and also satisfying fanatical Tolkien cultists. His strategy was to have a big action sequence after every three minutes of glorious computer-aided landscapes and fortresses. Once aboard this runaway train, no one figured (or cared) that Jackson had actually filmed only about 10% of the novels—just the blood-and-gore parts, which are the worst-written sections of the books (Tolkien seems to have been either uncomfortable with or not very adept at describing action).
But Jackson was not fooling around with the hallowed text. In that sort of creativity, it’s BBC TV which has been constantly pushing the envelope. Its Jekyll, set in modern-day England, was absolutely brilliant, taking the basic idea from Robert Louis Stevenson’s Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, and then flying with it, making it far more complex and exciting. In thrills and suspense, it certainly equalled Dexter (the first few seasons) or Homeland; in sophistication, it was quite unmatched at its time.
And BBC’s Sherlock has certainly set a new benchmark for reimagining what in its original form anyway was close to perfection. In fact, has there ever been a better TV mini-series than Sherlock season 3? And surely, the final episode, His Last Vow, was the best of them all, with its stunning twists and turns, its thrilling upending of what we have known about the characters for a lifetime, an emotional depth not seen before, and its clever throwaway references to the Canon (as Conan Doyle’s 56 stories and four novels featuring Holmes are known to committed fans). And all this done with uber-cool cinematic technique (the sequence where Holmes is shot and his brain works at the speed of light, expanding his three-second fall to the floor to three minutes of a surreal blend of reasoning, memory and nightmare, is truly an extraordinary leap of the imagination and cinematic bravura. However, the creators of Sherlock, throughout the series, should not deny—especially in sequences like this—that they have been influenced by the zoned-out Holmes films directed by Guy Ritchie. The first one released in 2009, and Sherlock debuted on TV the following year.)
Now BBC has started airing The Musketeers, a 10-part series based on Alexander Dumas’ The Three Musketeers, from Sunday, 20 January, in the UK. I happened to be there and caught the first episode.
I hope some Indian TV channel shows the series soon. I say “soon” with adequate confidence. Sherlock season 3 premiered on Indian television just two days after it did in the UK.
Three Musketeers has been filmed many times, and I’ve seen several of the versions, from the uncomplicated let’s-entertain-them adaptation starring Gene Kelly from the 1940s, to the revisionist they-were-all-drunken-fools film series of the 1970s directed by Richard Lester, and at least two more recent ones that were totally pointless (“OK, guys, we’ve run out of ideas, so let’s remake Three Musketeers!”). BBC’s 2014 take is sexy, violent, dark. The musketeers are stubbly-cheeked hunks who show off their six-pack abs as often as they can—the rest of the time they are dressed in Harley Davidson leather, and the women’s breasts are barely contained in their blouses. Early 17th century Paris is foggy, dirty, stylishly noir, like New York in Se7en. And, here’s the twist—not in the tail, but right at the start: d’Artagnan believes that Athos has killed his father and wants revenge.
Dumas never thought of this angle, and no one else has either in the last 170 years. The first episode had all the main characters from Dumas—Louis XIII, Cardinal Richelieu, Milady, Constance—but the actual story was almost entirely original. The series is fundamentally aiming for high “total cool” quotient, and Athos, Porthos, Aramis and d’Artagnan have come in handy. It’s great fun. So what if it’s not very much like what Dumas wrote? In fact, the musketeers in the original novel were a combination of the tough guys of this TV series and the hedonist grunts in Lester’s films. They were certainly not the elegant and true warriors of the Gene Kelly Hollywood confection.
As for Sherlock, Holmes fans worldwide are already at work, identifying the sly references in His Last Vow to the Canon. As a mere amateur, I spotted the following:
# Watson going to a drug den to rescue a neighbour’s son is clearly a nod to the story The Man With The Twisted Lip (in which, infamously, Conan Doyle got Watson’s first name wrong; his wife calls him James instead of John, leading to much theorising about James Moriarty having killed Watson and taken his place by changing his appearance, and so on.)
# Holmes refers to the villain Charles Augustus Magnussen (based on Doyle’s Charles Augustus Milverton) as “the Napoleon of blackmail”. In the Canon, Holmes calls him “the king of all blackmailers”, and Moriarty as “the Napoleon of crime”.
# A new character is introduced, Billy Wiggins, a drug addict who is as sharp in observation and deductive logic as Holmes. In the Canon, Holmes was often helped in his investigations by a band of street urchins called the Baker Street Irregulars, led by a boy called Wiggins (no first name). Billy was Holmes’ page boy in three of the stories. (Totally unrelated trivia: Charlie Chaplin’s first appearance on stage as a child was in the role of Billy in a play called Sherlock Holmes). Two references in one.
# The pen drive that contains all information about the past life of Mary, Watson’s wife, is labelled A.G.R.A. A looted treasure chest from Agra (yes, Taj Mahal, etc.) is at the centre of The Sign of Four, the novel in which Watson meets and falls in love with Mary.
# In the episode, Janine (a character not present in the Canon), who Holmes seduces (but, as made clear, does not have penetrative sex with), sells her story to the tabloids and says that she wants to now retire to Sussex and “remove some beehives”. In the Canon, Holmes retires from detection and spends his old age in Sussex, tending to bees in his farm.
# The episode title His Last Vow is derived from the original His Last Bow, where Holmes is a spy for the British government just before the outbreak of World War I. Here, Holmes is sent to Eastern Europe as a British spy. (Most of the episode titles are variations on original Doyle: A Study in Pink (A Study in Scarlet), The Empty Hearse (The Empty House), A Scandal in Belgravia (A Scandal in Bohemia), and so on.
# Holmes says that his full name is William Sherlock Scott Holmes. This is a meta-reference to a meta-world developed by American sci-fi author Philip Jose Farmer, who created what is known as the Wold Newton Universe, where a great many fictional characters are connected by bloodlines: among them, Holmes, the Scarlet Pimpernel, Captain Nemo (20,000 Leagues Under The Sea), Phileas Fogg (Around The World In 80 Days), Allan Quatermain (King Solomon’s Mines, etc.), Tarzan, Richard Hannay (The 39 Steps, etc.), Sam Spade (The Maltese Falcon), and James Bond. Phew! In this universe, William Sherlock Scott is what Holmes was baptized as.
# Nearly at the end of the episode, Holmes refers to the East Wind, which will destroy the unworthy and make the world safe for good people. This is a variation on the last words of Holmes to Watson in the Canon, in His Last Bow (B, not V). But season 4 seems to be on the cards.
I could go on a bit more, but let it be. I only wanted to marvel at the talent that has produced Sherlock—love for the Canon and cerebral playfulness.
What I am thinking about now is just one line spoken by Mycroft, Sherlock’s elder brother, in His Last Vow (V, not B), which indicates that there was another brother, and he came to an unpleasant end that was in some way engineered or approved by Mycroft. Could this be the man we know as Moriarty, who we saw killing himself at the end of season 2, but seems to be back, hale and hearty and as villainous as ever at the end of Season 3? In the Canonically authoritative biography of Holmes written by William S. Baring-Gould, the greatest Holmesian of all, it is revealed that the eldest of the Holmes siblings was Sherrinford. He is not mentioned in the Canon. All we have to go by is that Doyle almost called his hero Sherrinford Holmes before opting for the name we know.
Enough said. To repeat, an Indian TV channel should get The Musketeers here. I promise you, it promises to be good.
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