Musings on “Sherlock – The Hounds of Baskerville”

Posted: 22 January 2012 in books, television
Tags: , , , , , , ,

After the mind-bending opener of A Scandal in Belgravia next up for series 2 of Sherlock was the modernisation of the most famous Sherlock Holmes of them all. First published in The Strand Magazine between August 1901 and April 1902, The Hound of the Baskervilles is the most adapted story from the canon with over 20 versions having been produced.

Sherlock - series 2

From Basil Rathbone in 1939, Peter Cushing in 1959, through to Jeremy Brett in 1988, all the most famous Sherlocks have faced Conan Doyle’s monstrous hound. It is said that the lead actor in Doctor Who is never truly accepted until he has battled the Daleks. In a similar vein any Holmes/Watson team must encounter The Hound to be cemented in the public imagination. So, it was only a matter of time before Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman found themselves on a fog-shrouded Dartmoor listening to the baying of an unearthly hound…

Sitting as it does within the genre of crime along with the rest of the Holmes canon, it is often forgotten that The Hound of the Baskervilles is also one of the earliest popular horror novels. In his television series, and tie-in book, Nightmare: The Birth of Horror, Sir Christopher Fraying cites The Hound of the Baskervilles as one of the four stories from Victorian or Edwardian times that gave birth to the modern horror novel. The other stories being Frankenstein, Dracula, and Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. August company indeed. Conan Doyle himself described the book as “…a real creeper” when he wrote to his mother ahead of starting the writing.

That Mr Mark Gatiss, with his mastery of the macabre and as a general purveyor of Kensington Gore. should be called upon to provide the script for this episode seems to have been a surprise to no one.

Mr Holmes, they were the footprints of a gigantic hound

Perhaps the greatest issue associated with adapting The Hound of the Baskervilles has lain in the realisation of the titular animal. Over the years camera trickery and special effects have been employed in often vain attempts to produce a convincing Black Shuck. Gatiss decided to avoid the problem to a certain extent by bearing in mind a maxim of Holmes‘ from A Study in Scarlet: “Where there is no imagination there is no horror”. Conan Doyle’s narrative was reshaped into a psychological horror thriller whilst retaining the aura of the supernatural that pervaded the original story. Much of the terrifying nature of the hound was down to the misinterpretation of reality by minds affected by chemicals.

Sherlock - The Hounds of Baskerville

This adaptation was aided enormously by filming on Dartmoor proper. Whilst other locations can be doubled up by utilising locations in Wales (such as the Bush Inn, St Hilary, Vale of Glamorgan doubling as The Cross Keys pub) nothing represents Dartmoor better than Dartmoor itself. The Devon moorland is as much a character of the story as Holmes and Watson – a primeval realm where the supernatural could, just possibly, enter into our world. Director Paul McGuigan used the magnificent vistas of natural beauty offered by Dartmoor to their full potential. The image of Benedict Cumberbatch standing atop a tor gazing across the seemingly enternal moor must surely enter the lexicon of memorable images from the last decade of television. McGuigan followed up his breathless interpretation of A Scandal in Belgravia with a whole different series of camera moves to capture the paranoia, spookiness and gathering horror of Mark Gatiss’ script. Nighttime shenanigans on the supernatural moor contrasted sharply with the clinical whiteness of the Baskerville military research centre.

Whilst the imagery of Frankland’s gas-mask clad, red-eyed visage morphing into true memory after Knight’s perception of the hound for twenty years was one of the most terrifying pieces of footage shown on television in years, I couldn’t help but have the phrase “Are you my mummy?” running through the mind. Between them Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss have assisted in creating some of the best “event television” since the 1970s. A Hinchcliffe and Holmes for the 21st century.

A masterstroke from Gatiss was to have Sherlock himself affected by the chemical weapon that had been used on Henry Knight. Benedict Cumberbatch’s performance as a Sherlock Holmes briefly doubting his own senses and the logical world that he had spent his entire existence inhabiting was a joy to watch. For a moment Sherlock was as paranoid as Henry – a lovely performance from the ever-reliable Russell Tovey, who also affected a beautiful air of disbelief when Sherlock deduced the events of his morning and journey to London. Full credit to the writers when they invent these oh-so believable deductions for Holmes to impress the world with.

Watson and Lestrade addressing each other by their first names demonstrates a camaraderie between the two characters unique to the Moffat/Gatiss vision of the canon. One can easily imagine John and Greg down the pub on a Friday night knocking back pints and bitching about Sherlock and his irritating way of always being right about everything. It’s a testament to the performance of Rupert Graves that Lestrade is a likable character and friend to Watson. In one of the audio commentaries for the Sherlock series 1 DVD it was pointed out that Lestrade could feature in a spin-off series of his own without much suspension of disbelief. It’s not that Lestrade is a moron, it’s simply that all other representatives of the law pale in comparison next to Sherlock.

As well as references to other Holmes stories, the hallucinogenic gas from The Devil’s Foot and Holmes’ wielding of the harpoon from Black Peter, Gatiss managed to throw in a couple of homages to the creation of The Hound of the Baskervilles. The suppliers of the meat to the pub being Undershaw is a reference to the house where Conan Doyle wrote the book. The tour guide being named Fletcher is in all likelihood a nod to Bertram Fletcher Robinson who imparted legends of ghostly hounds to Conan Doyle and acted as a guide around Dartmoor during research for the novel.

The Hounds of Baskerville was another palpable hit for the Sherlock team, with the final scene setting up the series finale of The Reichenbach Fall with Mycroft ordering the release of Moriarty from confinement….

Comes The Fall…

  1. bibliopirate says:

    I really wish I had cable so I could watch the new series, this show is so good.

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