“To me, the Sherlock Holmes stories are about a great friendship. Without Watson, Holmes might well have burnt out on cocaine long ago. I hope the series shows how important friendship is” (Jeremy Brett).
Have you been paying attention? I mean, specifically, to this blog? I hope so, for a lot of reasons, but more relevantly, if you have been paying attention, you’ve probably figured out who my favorite Sherlock Holmes is. A lot of talented, brilliant actors have taken on the mantle of the Great Detective over the years, so I try to remain unbiased when it comes to this blog. Having a favorite does not make me blind to all others, of course. However, as I looked back over my last few posts, I saw that my preference had managed to worm its way in anyway, subtly and stealthily, much to my chagrin. Whoops.
Anyway, since my secret is out, “The Adventure of the Devil’s Foot” is a wonderfully atmospheric story in its original form, and Granada Television is, of course, famous for their nearly compulsively faithful adaptations of the Sherlock Holmes canon. Cornwall is deliciously gothic and sinister as a setting, but it is one thing to read: “The glamour and mystery of the place, with its sinister atmosphere of forgotten nations, appealed to the imagination of my friend, and he spent much of his time in long walks and solitary meditations upon the moor,” and quite another to see Sherlock Holmes walking pensively and alone amongst the dismal landscape, sitting perched high atop ancient ruins, as his thoughts turn inward—looking pale, diminished, and one stiff breeze away from total collapse.
But if I wanted to speak solely on the subject of atmosphere and setting, I would be writing on DEVI, the original text, and not the television adaptation. I think that the 1988 version of DEVI is worth discussing on its own merits, based upon the inclusion of three new plot points into the story: Sherlock Holmes’s (literal) abandonment of his cocaine habit on the beaches of Cornwall, the inclusion of Holmes’s nightmarish vision under the influence of Radix pedis diaboli, and, finally, the subsequent aftermath of the vision in which Holmes calls out to Dr. Watson by his first name. These three additions change the whole tenor of the episode, and can be influential in interpreting the original tale, if you like.
Beginning, of course, at the beginning: after what only seems like a few minutes after their arrival in Cornwall (but who can say, really, in television time), Watson enters the cottage to find Holmes at a table injecting himself with cocaine. The Doctor says nothing, but his expression speaks volumes, and an exceedingly tense moment passes between the two men, before Watson leaves to tend to their luggage. Not long after, during a scene in which Watson narrates his companion’s activities during the early days of their holiday, we see Holmes standing alone the beach, taking a deep breath before removing a vial of cocaine for his coat pocket. He empties the vial onto the sand, and then buries the syringe (and modern medical professionals everywhere cringe…someone could step on that).
Interestingly, Holmes doesn’t appear to inform Watson of his decisions or his actions, as later in the episode, as Holmes sits recoiling from the pain of withdrawal, Watson seems concerned for his friend, but mostly confused—as if he does not know what to make of this new, odd behavior. Furthermore, after the spasm passes, Holmes smiles benignly: “Cheer up, Watson. Sea air, sunshine, patience!” and then, “All will be revealed!” On the surface, he’s speaking of the case, of course, but his attitude is reminiscent of one presenting a well-thought-out gift to a loved one, and Holmes will absolutely not let the surprise be spoiled until it’s ready. It’s typical of Sherlock Holmes to attempt something potentially life-threatening or dangerous on his own because he wants to, or because he can, but in this instance he seems to act because he must.
Moving on (and more on the subject of Holmes and his danger-for-danger’s-sake habit): in the original text of DEVI, because of the limited perspective of the narrator, the reader is only given access to Watson’s thoughts as the poison smoke of the devil’s foot root overtakes them. It is an ugly picture:
“A thick, black cloud swirled before my eyes, and my mind told me that in this cloud, unseen as yet, but about to spring out upon my appalled senses, lurked all that was vaguely horrible, all that was monstrous and inconceivably wicked in the universe. Vague shapes swirled and swam amid the dark cloud-bank, each a menace and a warning of something coming, the advent of some unspeakable dweller upon the threshold, whose very shadow would blast my soul.”
But in this televised version, we see Holmes’s vision, and it is nightmarish, gruesome. There is endless running, across endless fields, and the ghost of a child in a mirror. There is blood, and churning water, and ghastly, religious-themed images. And behind it all, is the specter of Professor Moriarty saying, “You must stand clear, Mr. Holmes, or be trodden under foot” (FINA). So, we walk away from this scene knowing that Holmes is a haunted man, not immune to fear, as we may have thought (or want to believe, your choice). The original text leaves the reader blind to what happens to Holmes during the ordeal (though Watson describes his friend as looking “drawn with horror”), and even though Holmes says, “It was an unjustifiable experiment even for one’s self, and doubly so for a friend,” there is no way to know for certain what he went through. Fear being a relative thing, of course. A televised version, and this particular one, lends depth to the ordeal, and the viewer sees another instance where, perhaps, Holmes acted because he must, and not because he wanted to—because Holmes’s personal sense of amusement might be twisted, but there are limits.
Finally, Holmes awakes from his vision, screaming, insensible, on the ground outside the cottage, with Watson shaking him and calling his name. After what seems like a full minute of hysterics, Holmes finally comes to his senses enough to call out to his friend…by his first name. “John!” he screams. It is a startling moment, one that Jeremy Brett commented on:
“Well, Holmes is semiconscious at the time, right? It really was the one time that he could call him John. I think in extremis he might have said ‘John.’ It gives another slant to it. I slipped in ‘John’ just to show that, underneath it all, there was just something more than what they say, that Holmes is all mind and no heart.”
It goes back, I think, to who Sherlock Holmes becomes when his layers are stripped away. There are many interpretations, and they’re all subjective, of course—since this is something we never really see in the canon (just as he never refers to Watson by his first name). But in a moment of semi-conscious horror, there are going to be very few layers, very little armor. And there again, we see the things that Holmes must do, and not what he can, or wants to do.
Sometimes readers get caught up in seeing Sherlock Holmes as a man that is driven by proving himself, and demonstrating what he can do to everyone around him; that his every action had a pointed, defensive edge to it, an almost passive-aggressive streak, in which he is determined to show himself capable, and worthy. Televised adaptations, and particularly clever ones like the 1988 version of “The Devil’s Foot,” serve as excellent reminders that despite what Holmes may have believed or thought of himself, he was still human, with compulsions that prevented him from being entirely separated from the human experience. He was still one of us, if he only walked amongst us briefly.
One more week to enter my blog contest! It’s so easy to enter, and the prizes are very cool—a little light reading, a little music. Sounds like my perfect Sunday afternoon.