Backstage (another set of thoughts about adaptations)

This isn’t a post about The Muppets. It also isn’t a post about Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows. It does, however, contain spoilers for both, so proceed at your own risk.

I absolutely love stories that play with backstage/onstage differences. This is no small part of the reason I liked The Muppet Show as a kid and West Wing as an adult (and it also has something to do with why I like adaptations in general, particularly ones that dig in and deconstruct an older and/or established story). It’s why I like Fables, it’s why I liked Watchmen, it’s why I like Thomas the Rhymer, it’s why the last thirty seconds of In The Beginning stopped my heart, and it’s why my favorite part in any of the Next Gen movies, no question, is the very beginning of Insurrection, when Our Heroes are trying to get their act together before a banquet. Troi and Picard are rehearsing a speech, and Beverly is trying to help Picard fasten his collar, and Riker comes in to announce the guests have been seated and are eating the flower arrangements, and Picard can’t get the pronunciation right, and they’re walking down the hall fumbling along—until they turn the corner into the banquet, when everyone assumes their personas and everything becomes polished and squeaky-clean and Star Trek.

So my hands-down favorite part of The Muppets? The moment before Kermit opens the “O” door to start the show. Because in a hundred and twenty episodes of the original Muppet Show, we never got that moment—not from that perspective—and the perspective shift changes it completely.

There was something so unexpectedly poignant (even bizarrely poignant, when one remembers that the topic under discussion is the emotion expressed by a sock puppet) about the hesitation and the slumped shoulders, the “oh God there is no way we can pull this off” body language—and then the straightening, the practicing of a big bright smile, and the pulling open of the “O” door. “It’s the Muppet Telethon, with very special guest star Jack Black!” I like adaptations best when they shine a different light on a story I thought I knew.

This was also something I thought the 2009 Sherlock Holmes did unexpectedly well: the difference in Holmes’ speech patterns in public and private. Robert Downey Jr. talked in Arthur-Conan-Doyle-speak in front of Scotland Yarders, and in a more natural rhythm when it was him and Watson or him and Irene alone. And that was neat; that suggested a different take on the character, not so much a man with natural arrogance and dramatic flair as a man with a carefully-constructed persona. Subtle, but telling.

I saw many fewer subtle-little-nifty-touches in Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows. I have no quarrel with Game of Shadows—it kept me happily entertained for two hours with its beautiful costumes and gorgeous set pieces and things exploding in inexplicable but very satisfying ways. It wasn’t trying to be anything except outrageous and entertaining, and it was in fact outrageously entertaining.

But the first half of the 2009 movie was more than that. Holmes’ speech patterns were only one sign of many that someone had actually read Conan Doyle and was giving thought as to what to use and how—Watson’s gambling, the bull pup, Irene the career criminal, Holmes’ boxing, etc. The only part of Game of Shadows that made me think, “oh, hey, that’s a neat way to use that story element” was the Holmes-Moriarty fight sequence at the very end. Both of them played it out mentally move for move before it happened, in the manner that Robert Downey Jr’s Holmes has become known for, and that was neat, because, of course, their brains work the same way. But even that wasn’t using an canon element in a neat way as much as it was using a movie element in a neat way. I’m not certain it counts.

So, sure, I enjoyed it—but I enjoyed it a lot less than its predecessor, because everything was happening at the big huge bright explosion level, and nothing at the little interesting intellectual level. It was a fun couple of hours, but it has about as much in common with Sherlock Holmes as First Knight had with King Arthur—i.e., the names. Is that really an adaptation? Not really. Not a good one, anyway. Much more of a marketing ploy, instead.

(I was about to hit post when I realized that the shoot-out between the sidekick marksmen might also count as an interesting use of an existing story element. Sorta-kinda. For sure that fight’s been a long time in coming—correct me if I’m wrong, but I don’t think any other adaptation has ever pit Watson and Moran against each other, right?—and it’s an obvious thing to do in many ways. It’s also really obvious why no one’s done it yet, why one would choose not to: Moran is a world-class sniper, Watson is a doctor who’s pretty good with a revolver, and Watson would lose. No question, no contest, unrealistic to expect anything else. Fortunately Game of Shadows was not concerned with realism, and I quite enjoyed the Jude-Law-Dr. Watson solution of bringing a cannon to a rifle-fight. That doesn’t mean I thought it was, you know, good. I thought it was fun. Fun is different than good.

But that’s okay—I went to Game of Shadows for fun rather than for good. Somebody else has “good” covered. Somebody else could teach a graduate-level seminar on how to do adaptations well, in fact. And there isn’t anything Robert Downey Jr. can do that I wouldn’t rather watch Benedict Cumberbatch do, anyway.)

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