Elementary A Sherlock Holmes Adventure by Brian Helgeland By Mike White. The fusion of fact and literary fiction has resulted in a wide array of amalgamations that range from the successful to dismal failures...

The fusion of fact and literary fiction has resulted in a wide array of amalgamations that range from the successful to dismal failures. One of the most alluring historical figures to be cast in a fictional arena, Jack the Ripper, has been dissected, caught, captured, and killed hundreds of times over in novels, comics, and on screen. The Ripper’s turn-of-the-century contemporaries are his usual foes with Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes proving the most troublesome.

Holmes has "solved" the Ripper case on countless occasions. At the movies, Holmes has squared off against the Ripper in films such as James Hill’s A Study in Terror (1965) and Bob Clark’s Murder By Decree (1979). Screenwriter Brian Helgeland tread similar waters in his unproduced screenplay Elementary. Instead of taking the traditional route, however, Helgeland casts Holmes’s faithful assistant, John Watson, as the main protagonist. Rather than being a revisionist or comedic take on the Holmes/Watson relationship (as done in Thom Eberhardt’s Without a Clue (1988)), Helgeland concentrates on Watson as Holmes is now incapacitated.

Elementary begins in the United States where preeminent crime scene investigator Dr. Watson receives word of his father’s death. With more hesitation than remorse, Watson books passage back to England for his father’s funeral. Upon arrival he visits 221B Baker Street to find his old friend Sherlock Holmes playing Russian roulette, haunted by personal demons and devastated by the cold-blooded murder he committed in order to solve the Ripper case years prior. It doesn’t take long to compound Holmes’s remorse when he learns of another recent death that could only be the Ripper’s handiwork.

Yet, Holmes is peripheral to the tale. His scenes usually entail tiresome turns of agonized brooding and self pity ("It’s too late for me, Watson. There is no redemptive case. What if I make a mistake? What if I kill another innocent? What will my mind do to me then?!"). Watson tries his best to allay his ally’s ailments to no avail. Realizing that Holmes is rather hopeless, Watson doggedly investigates the new Ripper murders with the help of Nancy Wilkes, a photographer and social activist.

The Wilkes-Watson relationship feels forced. It’s apparent from the moment Wilkes enters into the plot that she is fated to be a "damsel in distress" role despite however strong she may appear. Helgeland doesn’t pack any surprises there or in many other aspects of the screenplay. Rather than keeping the audience guessing over the identity of Jack the Ripper, Helgeland casts usual suspect Prince Albert Victor Christian Edward (grandson of Queen Victoria) in that role. The real mystery appears to surround the identity of Professor Moriarty, the Ripper’s apparent master. Helgeland provides a singular red herring only to produce the true Moriarty when the "big reveal" is required on page 101.

Despite the lack of any real surprises, Helgeland’s script still succeeds on several levels. Watson is not the bumbling assistant as he has been portrayed in the past. Helgeland’s Watson is a man torn between countries and cultures. He’s often comparing the differences between his American and British identities and trying to find his footing on British soil. Echoing this are his conflicts with his dead father and Holmes as a father figure. Watson feels abandoned by both. And, moreover, Watson struggles with his determination to uncover the truth of whatever situation he’s in versus a sense of social propriety.

On top of this depth of character, Helgeland manages to make Elementary completely engrossing with his detailed literary descriptions. For example: "We turn north past the Tower of London, cauldron of British history, silent witness to 900 years of the noble and the vile. To the west is the darkened silhouette of the dome of St. Paul’s. But tonight is not a night for God. Tonight God is looking the other way."

As big budget Jack the Ripper tales are a rare breed in Hollywood at the moment with the sales cycle last producing From Hell, it’s unlikely that Elementary will ever make it to the screen. With the parallels between the Ripper case and Caleb Carr’s lauded novel The Alienist, I would love to see Helgeland take over the adaptation of Carr’s work from Philip Kaufman and get that project off the ground.

Back to Issue 14