Posted by David Kalat on December 8, 2012
I’m going to wind up my exploration of pulp mysteries with the ultimate pulp detective of them all—Sherlock Holmes. And for any of my regular readers, the fact that I’ve chosen Zero Effect with Bill Pullman and Ben Stiller instead of the more obvious selections like Hound of the Baskervilles shouldn’t be a surprise. And, just like when we looked at Warren Beatty as an ersatz James Bond back in the discussion of Kaleidoscope, the only way we get to such unlikely casting is by examining an unauthorized project from the margins.
As it happens, it is that aspect of Zero Effect—its status as an authorized adaptation—that is the focal point of our story this week. So—click to open the fold and let’s take a journey through the tangled jungle of Sherlock Holmes’ complicated rights issues.
To see what’s screwy about Sherlock Holmes, and how it gives rise to things like Zero Effect, let’s first look at a more representative approach to a long-running pop culture icon—James Bond. There are established media institutions that administer the ongoing intellectual property rights in the character—one entity manages the literary copyright, and another handles the movie versions. And between them they keep James Bond a viable presence in pop culture in multiple manifestations. There is the main avenue of expression, in which Skyfall counts as the most recent, but there are other versions like the video games or the “Young Bond” novels that cater to different, more niche, markets.
This is a common, and effective, business model. Take just about any long-running character and you’ll find the same paradigm.
Matt Smith plays the most current Doctor Who in a version pitched at the widest, most expansive mass audience, while alternate takes are also crafted in audio plays, comic books, novels and so on for a variety of other, more targeted, audience groups.
The Dark Knight Rises showed Batman in his most widely seen and appreciated manifestation, while different Batmen roam the pages of comic books, animated TV shows, or video games.
I’d go on, but you get the idea. The owners of a copyright in a beloved, long-running character have an incentive to make the primary official iteration of that character be the one that connects most effectively with mass tastes and contemporary relevance, and represented in whatever media is best suited to conveying that version. Meanwhile, the other facets of the character can be experimented with in other media where the stakes are lower. Properly marketed, these alternate versions of a character don’t compete with or undermine the primary version, and allow the copyright holders to craft multiple successful versions of the same property for a wide array of individual audiences.
But, this approach depends on a strong copyright holder exercising their legal controls with care and attention.
And that brings us to Sherlock Holmes. There is an enduring estate for Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, represented by lawyers who assert their copyright control over aspects of the Sherlock Holmes concept, and the bigger media companies with skittier risk management officers may sign license agreements with these lawyers just to avoid trouble, but the fact is that nearly all of the actual Holmes books are now in the public domain.
This has two consequences: the first is that the so-called copyright holders have almost no leverage to control their licensees and kind of have to take whatever they get. Toho can famously stipulate exactly how many toes Godzilla is allowed to have when depicted by licensees, but the Doyle estate must count themselves lucky anytime anyone agrees to pay for a license at all, and that desperation does not allow for much oversight. The second consequence is that any number of non-licensed variants can proliferate in the marketplace in competition, with limited recourse for the rights holders or their licensees to police.
Between these two facts, a single result has emerged: we now have three major versions of Sherlock Holmes all targeting essentially the same audience with essentially the same fundamental commercial agenda but with different creative aesthetics. Will the real Sherlock Holmes please stand up?
The noisiest of these Sherlocks, both figuratively and literally, are Guy Ritchie’s big budget popcorn movies starring Robert Downey Jr. and Jude Law. Although set in the Victorian period in which the original novels emerged, these films have the DNA of a 21st century adrenaline-addled action blockbuster—they are basically Die Hard in the Nineteenth Century.
Meanwhile the BBC have created a TV version written by Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss that resets the original Doyle stories in the modern day. Stars Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman use smart phones, blogs, and other information age technology to solve crimes—but while the veneer and pace of the series is decidedly contemporary, the makers are carefully writing the adaptations to be recognizable to fans of the books—and in fact, in England, the original novels have now seen a boost in sales and a new readership brought in thanks to the TV series. Reprints of the novels sport covers adorned with the faces of Cumberbatch and Freeman.
And just a couple of months ago, CBS joined the party with their own modern-day TV version, starring Jonny Lee Miller and Lucy Liu. I haven’t seen enough of Elementary to comment on it beyond noting that its similarity to BBC’s Sherlock is significant enough to have led to discussions of possible lawsuits. Regardless of whether a lawsuit is ever filed, and regardless of who would ultimately prevail in court, the mere fact that a lawsuit is even considered is mind-boggling.
If all of the various adaptations of Sherlock Holmes had been administered, managed, and controlled by a central authority, the possible clashes between competing visions would be kept at bay. In this instance, the crux of the conflict between CBS and BBC is not whether each party is free to do a Sherlock Holmes TV show—that is taken as a given. What’s in dispute is whether the specific details of the modern-day setting in CBS’ version encroach on the creative ideas of Moffat and Gatiss.
And meanwhile, another creator altogether made it to market with a modern day Sherlock Holmes before either of them.
Let’s look at the various ways in which Zero Effect overlaps with the current batch of high-profile Sherlock adaptations:
I suppose I should explain why I’ve been referring to the hero of Zero Effect as “the detective” instead of Sherlock Holmes—as I mentioned above, this is a “secret” adaptation, in which Bill Pullman plays Darryl Zero, a reclusive and troubled consulting detective who communicates with clients and the outside world only through his lawyer Steve Arlo (Ben Stiller). Arlo is approached by a rich man (Ryan O’Neal) who wants to enlist Zero’s expertise in rooting out a blackmail plot. Zero quickly finds the blackmailer (Kim Dickens) but finds his own attraction to her compromises his professional objectivity. There is a larger conspiracy afoot, and figuring out who are the real bad guys and who are the real victims will take Arlo’s full concentration.
In other words, it’s Scandal in Bohemia with the names changed, right? So the question is, why change the names?
To answer that question, let’s look again at the current crop of Sherlocks. Without the top-down control of a copyright holder enforcing a single vision of what the official presentation should be, and which should be relegated to the experimental fringes, we have an unruly cluster of competing visions that have all converged on the same basic idea: to modernize Sherlock Holmes. Each one takes a different path to that goal, but all three seem enervated by the idea that the concept of Sherlock Holmes is a viable commercial property worth pursuing, but that the traditional execution of that concept needs to be avoided.
Except, on closer examination, BBC’s Sherlock actually does believe in the original Sherlock Holmes, and has maintained a fannish respect and commitment to Doyle’s original stories.
And that’s where Zero Effect comes in. Its makers—principally writer-director Jake Kasdan—understood that the original Doyle stories became popular in the first place because they are exceptionally well-told, but that over the years the various adaptations into movies and other media layered a host of extraneous baggage onto the name Sherlock Holmes. Audiences respond to that name, but come in with burdensome expectations of deerstalker caps and curvy pipes, of “Elementary my dear Watson” catch phrases and the like. By skirting the name Sherlock, Zero Effect gets to enjoy the inherent value of Doyle’s excellent story construction without having to contend with the distracting audience expectations that would otherwise attend it.
Sherlock has found clever ways to bring the deerstalker hat and such clichés into play, but Zero Effect simply ignored the bits of Holmes lore it didn’t need.
There was a trade-off: Zero Effect was hard to market without its most obvious brand name. The title doesn’t easily signal what to expect from the film—and the casting may have misled some people into expecting a comedy. If the figures on the Internet Movie Database are to be believed, it lost money in the U.S., despite strong critical reviews. By contrast, Sherlock has been a massive hit in the UK and a decent hit in the US as well (by the standards of an import airing on PBS)—but the comparative advantage of exploiting the name recognition of Sherlock Holmes forced its makers to content with the extra baggage.
The fact that the popularity of Sherlock has triggered a resurgent interest in Doyle’s writing by a younger audience that was previously unfamiliar with them is a sign that whatever market draw the name Sherlock Holmes has, it is not the truth that audiences are tired of the original Holmes stories. Most people today don’t even know them. And so whatever limited audience Zero Effect had could sit and enjoy a not altogether unfaithful adaptation of Sherlock Holmes without ever even realizing it.
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