Josh Rosenfield and Søren Hough often find themselves at odds with one another over topics in film and television. Below is a transcript of one such conversation wherein Josh and Søren debate the merits of the Guy Ritchie Sherlock Holmes movies versus Stephan Moffat’s BBC Sherlock television series. The scope of the back-and-forth then broadens to property adaptation as a whole, with Batman and Christopher Nolan taking center stage.
Yet another thing Robert Downey, Jr.’s Sherlock Holmes gets right that Cumberbatch’s Sherlock gets wrong:
Costumes. Disguises. It’s straight out of the book, people.
Yeah, but you know what Cumberbatch’s gets right that RDJ’s gets wrong? Cumberbatch’s is good.
I can’t even begin to get into this right now… But suffice it to say that no matter how good Cumberbatch and Freeman are as actors (and they are, no doubt – and I like both of them immensely), they can’t fix what was fundamentally broken at the outset of their interpretation of Sherlock. It’s the writers’ fault, I suppose.
I’d say the exact same thing about RDJ’s.
Have you read Sherlock Holmes?
Not all of it, but yeah.
Mmm… Well I find it hard to reconcile anything in that book with what we see in the BBC Sherlock.
But happy days, I found my explanation that I typed out in advance of this conversation way back when!
Here it is:
The biggest issue I had with the show is that they’ve gotten the character of Sherlock completely wrong. Instead of an aloof genius, he plays a snarky, condescending jerk who looks for opportunities to make other people feel stupid and insignificant. Conversely, the Sherlock of Doyle’s books is socially inept and does occasionally offend unintentionally, but it’s never with that distinct air of malice or vindictiveness.
Now, getting the title character wrong would be bad enough on its own (or maybe not, creative license and all that), but it’s even worse because it affects the entire premise of the series: namely, the relationship between Watson and Sherlock.
Watson is our “in” as an audience in the book – the stories are all written from his perspective. He gets sucked into Sherlock’s life due to the man’s fascinating, mysterious, and oftentimes brilliant persona. He’s almost endearing in how out-of-touch he is with the rest of the world. And therefore, we as an audience are drawn to Sherlock – just as Watson is. Watson loves Sherlock and their companionship drives every story.
It is actually this relationship that, ironically, the Sherlock movies do much better than the BBC show. In the show, Sherlock is just some jerk who likes to make people look stupid, and so it’s hard to believe that anyone would stick with him longer than a few hours. This isn’t the fault of the actors, of course – Freeman and Cumberbatch do well with the scripts and stories they’re given. It’s really the writers’ faults…
Meanwhile, Downey, Jr. has some redeeming features and never does anything to intentionally offend – he’s just out of touch with reality. That is, to me, a much truer take on the character.
Anyway, this is all to say that I stopped watching after the first season. Screwing up the Watson/Sherlock relationship really ruined it for me.
Well, I think we have a fundamentally different view on what an adaptation is allowed to be, especially with such a classic character. When you’re making such drastic stylistic changes, you have to be able to judge the movie/show on its own. And when looked at on their own, yeah, the RDJ movies are more faithful, but as movies, they just aren’t very good. They took Sherlock Holmes the detective and made him an action hero. The show stayed much closer to the roots of the character, but there’s nothing wrong with giving him a different personality. Because the RDJ Sherlock is barely a character beyond his quips. The Cumberbatch Sherlock is a lot more fleshed out and fun to watch. Anyway, my point is that it doesn’t matter how faithful the work is if it can’t stand up on its own. And the RDJ movies are pretty bad.
I should clarify, though:
The BBC Sherlock is generally of higher quality overall. Neither Sherlock movies were masterpieces. I am simply talking here about getting the character right.
As an analogy, I’d say The Dark Knight trilogy was a fine set of films, but terrible as Batman movies.
Your Dark Knight argument is exactly what I’m talking about when I say we disagree on what adaptations should be. I don’t think it matters if Nolan changes who Batman is. Who cares? That’s a comic book, this is a movie. They’re different.
I agree on quality – but on the subject of faithfulness, I think it is important when one adapts a property that fundamentals are kept intact. Most things can change, but there’s not much more to Sherlock other than that Watson/Sherlock dynamic and his ridiculously superior intellect. Sherlock the show only hits one of those points, while Sherlock Holmes the movie hits both.
Again, it’s in terms of faithfulness that I’m talking here. For example, Nolan’s Joker was a very different version than we see in the comics, but his fundamental nature was identical – and that is key, because Joker serves as a critical counterpoint to Batman’s code. In that, Nolan was very successful.
But not as successful as he would have been if Batman had been done right, as well.
But my point is that Nolan is totally successful in making his Batman movie. If he had done a more ‘faithful’ Batman, it would have been a totally different movie, and that’s not the movie he was trying to make. And the movies he made are great, so it doesn’t matter.
But that’s exactly what I’m saying. Why make it a Batman movie at all, then? Make your own stupid IP and do three movies in that universe. Why bother diluting what is already a solid character/world? Nolan seemed to absolutely hate everything about Batman and superheroes in his movies and it made me wonder why it is he ever bothered in the first place. Money, perhaps? I dunno.
Moreover, I’d like to further state that no director has gotten a live-action Batman right. It’s not just Nolan. The only good film version of Batman appears in the animated films – specifically, Under the Red Hood.
My point is there’s a threshold past which you have no longer made a Sherlock or Batman movie/show, but something else entirely. And at that point, why bother, you know? It doesn’t add anything to the mythos or offer any new insight on the property.
Because he had something to say by doing a superhero movie the way he did. He was making points about superheroes and what they mean to our culture. The whole theme of the series is that anyone can be Batman. Not just Bruce Wayne. Nolan is kind of saying that no matter how you interpret who Batman is, he still stands for justice and righteousness and crime-fighting.
Because Batman isn’t exactly a fantastic character to begin with. It’s a ridiculous concept that Nolan grounded in psychological and social themes. That’s why his Batman movies are the best. He’s using the character to say things about the human experience, which the best Batman comics did.
Also, if Nolan hated Batman, I doubt he would have spent years of his life making three movies about him.
That’s an extremely thin theme if that’s all they movies were about, and one that only seems to apply to the third movie… Why bother with all the pseudo-psychological nonsense about insanity in the second film, then?
And your point about grounding a ridiculous character is exactly the sort of thing you, Bale, and Nolan have said on record – and it indicates a certain (bizarre) distaste for the original character. Like, if you think it’s ridiculous and outlandish, don’t make the stupid movie. Do something else. People like Batman because he’s Batman.
He’s a rich dude in a bat-suit who runs around solving crimes, punching people in the face and never killing anyone no matter what.
That’s literally all there is to the character. His villains flesh him out more (each representing some twisted aspect of his personality), as I mentioned with the Joker, but Batman himself is what he is. And if you disagree with the above premise, why bother making a Batman movie? Why not make some other film with your own superhero? That’s my question.
And to answer yours, I’d say money. Why else? Small-time indie director offered reigns to major franchise with unlimited resources: who’d say no to that?
And ironically, I’d say he made perfect sense at first glance. He’d made two very compelling detective/mystery dramas prior to Batman Begins, and then bafflingly, created three Batman movies where Batman does almost no detective work, and there’s almost no mystery whatsoever to solve.
I wouldn’t say that theme is thinly applied. Batman being more of a symbol than a person is a thing throughout every movie. And movies can have multiple things, by the way.
I totally disagree that there’s something fundamentally wrong with changing a character, especially one that’s been around for basically ever and who’s been interpreted differently by plenty of different comic writers. I think that it’s great that he took a fundamentally ridiculous character and found depth in him, and that be brought that depth to the surface. You sound like you’re arguing that Batman should’ve been a shallower character.
He is a shallow character… Not that Nolan’s wasn’t shallow, just shallow in a different regard.
Batman’s ridiculous to you – not to the legions of people who have loved him for the past eighty-ish years. That’s the thing Nolan/Nolan fans (and Frank Miller fans, to some extent) just never seemed to get. The idea of an abstracted superhero with whom we can all identify is endemic to superheroes, no elaboration needed.
This is a whole other line of theory, but abstraction and superheroes are inextricably tied to one another. For example, Batman is a character on whom we only see the mouth and chin. That symbolism alone communicates the whole “he could be anyone” idea without any further commentary. So if that’s all the Nolan films were about (and I don’t think that’s true), then that was a whole lot of unnecessary fluff.
But anyway, here’s the problem with not getting a character “right.” Getting the character “right” means nailing the formula that has worked for ~80 years (or longer, in the case of Sherlock Holmes – who, weirdly, can be viewed as yet another interpretation of the Sherlock archetype in many ways). Going in a different direction means you have to rebuild something just as longstanding, momentous, historically important, and relatable as that original concept. And even then, you’ve done something entirely new, probably not resembling the original idea in any way, shape, or form. It tends to alienate.
Also, as a point of interest, I know Nolan created a series based on Miller’s Batman. He was somewhat successful in that, but Miller’s Batman is “Otherverse.” He is not accurate to the original, and therefore, while a somewhat interesting take on the character, hardly worth basing a bloody 9 hour trilogy on.
But sticking to the formula that’s been around for decades is completely boring. If you’re just going to exactly replicate what’s been around for ages, then there’s zero point to make the movies in the first place. So changing them up is basically the only thing you can do if you want to make something that’s artistically worthwhile. If you want to see your version of Batman, read the comics.
No, I see what you’re saying. But all I’m asking for is one good live-action Batman movie – or a few – that sticks to the formula. You can riff once those are out and established, but note that Miller took, what, 50 years before he made his alternate version? You need that background in the medium for the new version to have any meaning.
The way it stands, you have a public who thinks that Nolan’s Batman is somehow representative of what Batman is. All I’m asking for is a few live-action Batman movies that match the brilliance of something like Under The Red Hood. That’s all.
Yeah. That’s why the Nolan Batman movies sit perfectly in the Batman canon. They’re a different interpretation that builds on what came before but does something different.
But they don’t. That’s my point, man. You can’t riff until there’s an established status quo. And there isn’t in the cinematic universe. They parade around as if the definitive version of the hero. That’s what people call his films over and over.
But the comics are the status quo. Isn’t that the point you’ve been making?
They’re the status quo for people who like comics, but not for the movies.
Here, let’s backtrack.
Batman has a defined status quo, yes? From the comics. That status quo is known to people who read the comics. Alright.
Batman had something like half a century or more of complex commentary on that status quo in the 20th century. In the 80s/90s, a few people like Miller came in and made a new version of the character that acted as a direct commentary on the original. But its power came from the established canon.
And, might I add, people quickly got sick of that new take; by the time The Dark Knight Strikes Again came out, people were done with this psychopathic, gritty, murderous version of Batman.
But anyway, back to the point. People were reading the comics up through Miller. I doubt almost anyone jumped into Miller’s weird alternate universe version. Meanwhile Nolan, who is the equivalent in many ways of Miller (but for film), used Miller’s take to make a series of movies.
Except he did so without anyone first setting up a standard for Batman in the movies. And now people have set Nolan’s universe as some sort of gold standard for Batman, when in fact, it’s merely a riff – but this point is lost on people who never read the comics (or watched Batman: The Animated Series, for that matter).
Miller was more respectful of the original property, in other words. Also, I doubt he’d ever refer to the concept of Batman as “ridiculous.”
Everything that the general public needed to know about the comic version of Batman they knew from pop culture. Like you said, there’s not much to him. And that’s what Nolan is riffing on. Nolan made a version of Batman for a post-9/11 America. It tackles the way that the country is feeling at the moment. In 25 years we’ll get another version of Batman better suited for our times. And there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that.
Man, I don’t even know what to say at this point – post 9/11 America is a whole other can of worms. But this conversation was a lot of fun regardless. I still hold to my points! But I leave you with this very accurate description of my face right now.
One last thought:
My argument above is why I approve of Abrams’ Star Trek reboot films. They come in the wake of a long history of cinematic status quo. Just as TNG did in the wake of TOS. The Abrams Star Trek didn’t suddenly appear and try to pass itself off as original Trek…
But anyway, that doesn’t really change our standstill. I just felt I’d offer a positive example of how to do what Nolan thought he was doing.
(Side Note: You said “Everything that the general public needed to know about the comic version of Batman they knew from pop culture.” And yet, I talk to people about Batman and tell them he’s The World’s Greatest Detective, and they look at me like I have two heads. So I wouldn’t say people are as cognizant as you might think.)
On a related note:
I’d say Marvel understands the need to set up a base canon better than anyone. They came out the gate with very straightforward adaptations of their properties, with minor tweaks here and there, and they’ve met with unbelievable success. This sets them up well for future iterations:
If they came out with Marvel Zombies now, for example, everyone would instantly know it is a riff on the MCU as it stands. But had they come out with Marvel zombies from the outset, it would have confused what the baseline is.
The only DC property where they have some leeway in that department is Superman, because the Donner films were pretty faithful to the comics in a lot of ways. Because of that cinematic history that Superman has, but not Batman, DC can go many different directions with that particular hero. Alas, all we got was Man of Steel – but still, the point stands.
And of course, all of this is to say DC has boxed themselves into a corner as far as competing with the MCU. Because they made this weird “Otherverse” version of Batman via Nolan, they have no basis for a Justice League series. So they’re stuck with this weird Man of Steel franchise which seems beholden to the Nolan series in tone while still trying to build a cohesive universe. This is why Batman vs. Superman has me intrigued – not because it’ll be good per se, but because I have no idea how they plan to fix the situation they’re in.
Personally, my solution is and always has been: bring in Bruce Timm to manage all DC cinematic properties (as he’s the only guy with the resume to make such decisions/take creative control) and have Paul Dini help him out. Until that happens, I have very little hope for any attempts at a JLA.
So what do you think? Who made the better argument? Sound off in the comments!