Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Elementary, my dear Borges

Over the holidays, my dad and I went to see Sherlock Holmes--we have kind of a tradition of going to blockbuster movies together, generally because I am more persuadable/tractable than my mother is. Sometimes these movies are lots of fun (Iron Man); sometimes they're dreadful (Star Wars: Phantom Menace).

Sherlock Holmes falls somewhere in the middle. Robert Downey Jr. is always fun to watch, and none of it is on a Phantom Menace level of awfulness, but I still wouldn't really call it a good movie. For one thing, the plot is needlessly convoluted, and seems even more hokum-y than the typical Hollywood action film. The story has Holmes trying to prevent the evil Lord Blackwood and his mystical secret society from taking over the world--so basically, it's a Dan Brown ripoff.

But it also seems to have ripped off Jorge Luis Borges...

Spoilers ahead for Sherlock Holmes and Borges' story "Death and the Compass."

Sherlock Holmes has a Connect the Deaths plot: Holmes cracks the case when he realizes that three crimes committed by Blackwood follow a pattern, related to the occult symbols of the secret society. And because this society reveres the number 4, Holmes realizes that a fourth crime must take place and complete the pattern. He plots the locations of the three crimes on a map of London and sees that they form a nicely shaped triangle, which enables him to deduce the location of the fourth crime--English Parliament! Armed with this knowledge, Holmes races over to Parliament and save the day.

But as soon as I saw Holmes and his marked-up map, I couldn't help but think of Borges' short story "Death and the Compass," which revolves around the same kind of map. A famous detective named Lonnröt investigates a series of murders that seem to follow a mystical/occult pattern: in this case, they revolve around the four letters of the Jewish name of God, YHWH. When three murders have taken place, Lonnröt plots their locations on a map and deduces where the fourth murder is due to occur.

There's an extra twist to "Death and the Compass," though, which Sherlock Holmes lacks. At the end of the story, we learn that the villain had staged these murders specifically in order to trap Lonnröt, and that he will be the fourth victim. It's a cautionary tale, in other words: Lonnröt thinks he has it all figured out, but really he's been set up. His intelligence, his arrogance, will be what kills him.

Sherlock Holmes lacks this twist, and because of that, the story makes no sense when you stop to think about it. We learn at the end of the movie that Blackwood didn't even believe in the occult at all--he just knew that he could exploit people's fear of it in order to seem more powerful and terrifying. So, if he knew that his crimes had nothing to do with supernatural forces, why did he feel compelled to commit them according to an occult pattern? After all, because he followed a pattern, Holmes was able to figure him out and foil his plans! But if he had just committed crimes randomly, Holmes would have been stymied and Blackwood would have easily triumphed!

Furthermore, Holmes appears to be the only person in the entire movie who figures out that the crimes were based on occult symbols. So if Blackwood was trying to terrorize the citizens of London by making them think that supernatural forces were at work, he's failed at that, too... And, while Blackwood wants to get rid of Holmes, he doesn't seem to have figured out that he can use Borges' method and trap the detective in his own logic.

This made me realize that Borges' twist isn't a cheap trick: it's really the only logical way to resolve the plot. But as it stands, Blackwood is just a sorry excuse for a villain!


nausicaa3000 said...

Good thinking, I agree that the "connect the deaths" plot is taken from Death and the Compass, but you cannot kill Sherlock Holmes, that's why the short story is genius and the movie is just another likeable movie. When Borges wrote the story, he was proud that he had managed to write detective fiction in the anglo-saxon tradition, which he loved. He sent the story to Ellery Queen magazine and it was rejected. In fact, he had subverted the genre while paying homage to it, and the guys at the magazine did not like it. It is one of his best stories.

Marissa Skudlarek said...

I didn't know that background to "Death and the Compass." Thanks for visiting & commenting.