Sunday, April 17, 2005

Elementary, my dear Potter

Was a cinematic Sherlock Holmes adventure for kids, scripted by the man behind the Harry Potter films, the original inspiration for J.K. Rowling’s books?

In the six-degree game, who connects J.K. Rowling with Sir Arthur Conan Doyle? It is not her second husband, Dr. Neil Murray, though both men were medics in Edinburgh, city home to Dr. Joseph Bell, real-life model for Sherlock Holmes. The answer is Christopher Columbus. Not he of the ocean blue, but Chris Columbus, director of the first two Harry Potter films, executive producer for the whole franchise, and sometime screenwriter.

In 1985 the film Young Sherlock Holmes was released (or Young Sherlock Holmes and the Pyramid of Fear, to give its original, Potter-esque, script title). Written by Columbus, it purports to tell the story of the first meeting of the teenaged Holmes and Watson at boarding school, and their exploits there (tagline: “before a lifetime of adventure, they had the adventure of a lifetime”). Taking considerable liberties with the Holmes legend, the screenplay attempted to combine rudiments of the original stories with effects-laden, Spielbergian action-adventure of the Indiana Jones ilk – and largely succeeded.

Young Watson transfers to Brompton School in wintertime, due to straitened finances. Impressed by Holmes’ deductive reasoning, Watson befriends him and his girlfriend of sorts, Elizabeth Hardy, niece of eccentric professor Waxflatter. Waxflatter, though retired, lives on school grounds, and performs flight-tests on a recumbent bicycle-like aircraft he has designed. Watson also meets Dudley, Holmes’ snooty nemesis, and Rathe, the enigmatic fencing teacher, who regards Holmes as a favourite. Meanwhile, two local notables kill themselves after suffering hallucinations induced by poisoned darts, shot from a blowpipe by a hooded and cloaked apparition. Young Lestrade, starting his career in the police force, dismisses the possibility of foul play.

Holmes is expelled when Dudley frames him for cheating in an examination. Waxflatter stabs himself after being shot with a dart. Holmes discovers that the Rametep, an Egyptian death cult, may be responsible. Together with Watson and Elizabeth, he tracks the cult to a London warehouse, where all three suffer hallucinations while escaping the cultist horde. Lestrade is convinced to investigate. Holmes realises that the dead men were members of a group, one of whom survives – Cragwitch. The boys visit Cragwitch, who reveals that the cult is revenging itself upon the men for their youthful desecration of an Egyptian tomb. Holmes belatedly identifies the cult leader as Rathe, and the hooded assassin as a woman named Mrs Dribb.

Rathe and Dribb carry Elizabeth off to the warehouse-temple for sacrifice. Holmes and Watson give chase in Waxflatter’s machine. Elizabeth is rescued, and Dribb dispatched by fire, in a swashbuckling climax. Elizabeth receives her death wound, interposing herself between Holmes and Rathe’s bullet. Holmes and Rathe duel with swords until the latter falls through the ice on a frozen Thames. The bereaved Holmes leaves the school, and Watson, the two promising to meet again. In a neat, post-credit epilogue, it is revealed that Rathe has survived and assumed the name Moriarty.

The film attempts to foreshadow the life of Conan Doyle’s adult Holmes. The death of Elizabeth is intended to explain Holmes’ bachelor status, and the accoutrements of the detective – his pipe and deerstalker – are shown as trophies collected during the adventure. However, the highlights of the piece are undoubtedly the hallucination sequences, which involve some at-the-time cutting edge CGI. It still looks good, twenty years on. Tellingly, it also looks like Harry Potter.

But why shouldn’t it? After all, Columbus might have drawn upon his experiences as a writer on Holmes when directing Potter. Only a conspiracy nut would point out that he gave the part of Hermione to a girl called Watson. Any similarity is purely coincidental and retrospective in application, right?

The resemblance is more than superficial, and is not limited to the look of the movies. Holmes was released in Britain when Rowling was a student at the University of Exeter, and in due time it graduated to terrestrial television. Five years later, as the legend goes, the idea for Harry Potter came to her, on a train journey between Manchester and London. The first Potter book was written during the following five years, famously in Edinburgh cafés, and it is widely recognised that Rowling’s creation borrowed from various literary and mythological sources in its inspiration. It seems, however, that one important source has been overlooked – until now.

Most probably on an unconscious level, Rowling appears to have used a number of elements from the Holmes film in the Potter books – not least the three heroes, albeit with their individual characteristics mixed and matched to suit the mindset of a bookish young authoress. Hermione, Harry and Weasley (Ron) find their roots in Holmes, Hardy (Elizabeth) and Watson.

Elizabeth’s surname is never mentioned in dialogue, but features prominently on her tombstone in one hallucination sequence. The name Hermione could be a phonetic conflation of Holmes and Hardy. Certainly Hermione shares Holmes’ brilliance in academic pursuits. When Holmes is accused of cheating in an examination, Rathe comments on his excellent record, though only to point out that it counts against the hero. It is natural to assume that Rowling would want her Elizabeth-character to be more than the pretty face of the Holmes movie. On a physical level Sophie Ward (the actress who plays Elizabeth) sports a seriously bushy brown hairstyle that is frequently reminiscent of Rowling’s descriptions of Hermione. Elizabeth also provides the love interest for Holmes, and from the hints in the Potter books it seems that Hermione and Ron are destined for each other.

Rowling describes Ron thus in Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone: “tall, thin and gangling, with freckles, big hands and feet and a long nose”. A more succinct description of Nicholas Rowe, playing Holmes, would be difficult to imagine. Personality-wise, Ron has more in common with the bumbling Watson of Alan Cox (son of Brian, the original Hannibal Lecter in Manhunter) but shares an important trait with Holmes – he is never the hub of the tale. The character of Watson, through whose eyes we witness the events of the film (with Michael Hordern providing occasional voiceover narration as the grown man), fills that role.

Strip away his ineptitude and a few pounds in weight, put a lightning bolt-shaped scar on his forehead, turn him into a conventional hero, and Cox’s Watson could be the spit of Harry Potter. Again, it seems fitting that Rowling would want to provide her naïve, bespectacled Watson-protagonist with more dynamism. Admittedly, all three of her champions commence their adventures at a younger age than the Holmes leads, but we know that from the very beginning she envisaged those adventures as continuing throughout their teenage years. It is also worth noting that members of her target audience usually identify with heroes of a slightly older age group.

The Holmes principals behave remarkably like the Potter trio, and in a comparable setting. They investigate an ostensibly supernatural mystery in the vicinity of a full-board public school rich in Gothic atmosphere. It is difficult to think of any other stories, in films or books, where two British boys and a girl undertake such activities. The plot thickens and twists to reveal trusted teachers turning traitor. The villains belong to a death cult evocative of Voldemort’s Death Eaters, adherents of which conceal their identities behind masks and hoods, as do many Holmes cultists. Word-games are played: Rathe is Eh Tar, the Egyptian high priest, in a reversal that reflects Rowling’s Mirror of Erised. The textures of the names Voldemort and Moriarty call to mind comparable sensations, though the Egyptian cult’s symbol is two golden serpents, rather than the single silver snake of Slytherin.

Remarked upon by Holmes, Watson arrives at Brompton clutching textbooks, including “Hunter’s Encyclopaedia of Medicine”, much as Harry is told to bring manuals of magic to Hogwarts. They share a dormitory in ancient school buildings, where historic paintings decorate the walls. Attending a chemistry class, they are bored rigid by a droning teacher who might have been Rowling’s Professor Binns (when he was alive). Elizabeth’s small white dog, Uncus (Latin for "hook"), would make a serviceable wizard’s familiar, and matches the colour of Harry’s owl, Hedwig. Amusingly, Uncus later worries a wig from Mrs Dribb’s secretly shaven head. Elizabeth's uncle Waxflatter (contrast with Rowling’s short, white-haired Professor Flitwick) is a retired schoolmaster. Holmes describes Waxflatter to Watson as being versed in philosophy, in addition to mathematics and physics. Elizabeth then informs Watson that most people think her relative a lunatic. As Percy Weasley tells Harry of Dumbledore, in The Philosopher’s Stone: “Mad? He’s a genius! Best wizard in the world. But he is a bit mad, yes.”

Waxflatter’s aerial bicycle might be related to Sirius Black’s flying motorbike, but definitely owes something to Spielberg’s E.T., which is also referenced at the beginning and end of the movie, in the Amblin Entertainment logo. However, Waxflatter’s test flight results in a crash into the branches of a large tree on school grounds: a model for Harry and Ron’s collision with the Whomping Willow in a flying Ford Anglia, in Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets? Watson and Holmes pilot the machine more successfully later in the film. Waxflatter’s study, like Dumbledore’s office in Chamber of Secrets, is to be found atop a flight of stairs, full of noisy, curious instruments.

After encountering Waxflatter, the boys proceed to a fencing class reminiscent of the Chamber of Secrets duelling club chapter, in which Snape knocks down Lockhart before turning his attention to Harry. Rathe knocks down a student called Penthurst, then calls out Holmes. Rathe, subsequently victorious, warns Holmes for the first time: “never replace discipline with emotion”, in an echo of Harry’s “occlumency” lessons in Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. Rathe returns to this theme twice more before the movie ends. The boys then eat with their schoolfellows in a great hall, Oxbridge-style, teachers looking on from high table.

Prior to his expulsion (a sanction temporarily imposed on Harry in Order of the Phoenix) Holmes attempts, unsuccessfully, to convince Lestrade to investigate two deaths, using cuttings from The Times – shades of the Daily Prophet? The authorities in Harry’s world are similarly dismissive of evidence he uncovers regarding Voldemort’s return in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. After being expelled, Holmes duels Rathe one last time, sustaining a wound to his cheek, the scar from which remains visible throughout the film. It bleeds again in the prelude to the final act, prompting Holmes to the revelation that Rathe is the villain. The state of Harry’s scar often proves similarly prescient.

Waxflatter, in his final moments, wanders the Diagon Alley-like, Dickensian streets of London, entering a sinister antiques shop to the sound of a tinkling doorbell – the inspiration for Ollivanders Wands? Researching the Egyptian link to Waxflatter’s death, the heroes make a late, lamp-lit raid on the school library, an event common to the Potter books. In several scenes, they sit by the fire in the retired schoolmaster’s now-quiet attic, discussing the case. One of these sequences is a striking reminder of the Harry Potter series. Elizabeth and Watson play chess while Holmes considers the facts. Elizabeth, never more Hermione-like, does some deduction, announcing: “we can be certain of one thing… the murderer is still here, on school grounds”.

The other Holmes character with a counterpart in the Potter tales is Holmes’ student enemy, Dudley. Harry has two schoolboy foes, Dudley in the Muggle world, and Draco at Hogwarts. In a jumble of name and character similar to that involving the three protagonists, Dudley becomes the appellation of Harry’s hated cousin, and Rowling’s Dudley-character takes his title from the first word of the Hogwarts school motto (“Draco dormiens nunquam titillandus”).

Dudley shares Draco’s personality – arrogant, aristocratic and envious of the hero’s status. Flanked by minions (his near-constant on-screen companions), he challenges Holmes to solve a “crime” – his staged theft of a fencing prize – in the school trophy room. In The Philosopher’s Stone, Draco challenges Harry to a duel, to take place in the Hogwarts trophy chamber. Rathe wagers with another teacher that Holmes will defeat Dudley in the battle of wits, echoing Ludo Bagman’s bets on Harry to win the Triwizard Tournament in Goblet of Fire. Rathe duly collects when Holmes finds the trophy, hidden inside a vase, prompting Dudley to frame Holmes for cheating in examinations. In revenge, Holmes slips a potion into Dudley’s food, causing his naturally blond hair to turn white, making the acutely chinned Earl Rhodes (playing Dudley) into even more of a likeness for the “pale boy with a pointed face and white-blond hair” Rowling describes in Goblet of Fire.

Elements of the Holmes hallucinations have also crept into Harry Potter. The phantasm-inducing assassin remains concealed beneath a darkened cowl, à la one of Tolkien’s Ringwraiths. This being (eventually revealed to have been the school nurse) that drives its victims to suicide is clearly the model for the cloaked Dementors of Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, depression-spirits who leech happiness from their victims and deliver soul-destroying kisses: “Its face was completely hidden beneath its hood.” Furthermore, as a link between Holmes and Potter, the face rears its ugly head more than once. The standout hallucination, involving the first fully CGI character in film – progenitor to the Chamber of Secrets movie’s Dobby – is of a stained-glass knight, animated for Lucasfilm by John Lasseter (now executive vice-president at Pixar). This transparent, two-dimensional warrior leaps from a church window to menace the Reverend Duncan Nesbitt. As it passes the camera it is seen to have one face in front, and one behind – a forerunner to the Janus-like Quirrell / Voldemort double act of The Philosopher’s Stone.

There is one last clincher for amateur psychologists seeking to link the Holmes film with J.K. Rowling’s works. Rowling applied to study languages at Oxford University but failed to get in, despite excellent A-levels, crediting her rejection to institutional prejudice against state school pupils. She may have recognised the many scenes in Holmes shot amongst the dreaming spires. The struggling single mother who had prided herself on youthful intellect may have felt that her reverses in adult life stemmed from failure to gain admittance to the hallowed halls. Contrastingly, Harry Potter discovers that he is destined for Hogwarts by right of birth - an accusation that could perhaps have been levelled at the person who took the place Rowling applied for, back in the bad old days of Oxford admissions. Rowling's hero goes to the special school, where he establishes his opposition to the Purebloods’ ideas about admission policy.

Rowling was not even the first to appreciate the literary potential of the Holmes scenario. Young Sherlock Holmes the book was published as a tie-in, adapted from Columbus’ script by Alan Arnold, publicist on the film (second-hand copies can be found on Amazon). Certainly Rowling deserves every penny that she has earned from Harry Potter, but the link to Holmes raises questions about the nature of her working relationship with Columbus.