Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Storyteller’s Rulebook #60: Catholicism is Better Than Protestantism

I’ve done previous pieces on the need for token objects and the importance of choosing locations that put objects in people’s hands. Here’s yet another thing that objects can do for you… 

“A Study in Scarlet”, the novel that introduced Sherlock Holmes in 1887, is one of the most popular books of all time, but surely it’s aged by now, right? No, just the opposite, the novel is so scientifically and psychologically acute that it’s hard for a modern reader to believe it wasn’t written recently. In one passage, Holmes perfectly describes DNA, despite the fact that it wouldn’t be discovered until the 1950s. Even more startling are the descriptions of the psychological problems that bring Holmes and Watson together...
Watson, our narrator, has come home from a massacre of British troops in Afghanistan. Though he was only superficially wounded in the battle, he finds himself psychologically unable to go back to work, which nobody understands. “You weren’t seriously hurt, so what’s wrong with you?” Well, it’s PTSD, of course, but that term wouldn’t be defined until 1978. As for Holmes, well, I think it’s clear that he has Asperger’s (but I also acknowledge that every generation has ascribed to Holmes the hot diagnosis of its age.)

The novel has been filmed many times, but the most recent adaptation, part of a new series of TV movies for BBC, is the most audacious. The great Steve Moffat totally updated the story to the modern day, using the words “smartphone”, “text” and “blog” as many times as possible, just to drive the new setting home. This all sounds like a terrible idea, I know, but somehow Moffat turns it into something that recaptures all the thrills, chills, smarts and soul of the original...

...Of course, the art of adaptation is about more than just updating the technology. Even if his version had been set in 1887, Moffat is smart enough to know that some things must be changed simply because of the transition from prose to moving pictures. In the novel, Watson lets us know through his narration about his condition and we hear through his tone how his relationship with Holmes gradually helps him break free of his malaise. This is what first-person prose does best: allow us to intimately commune with the thoughts and feelings of a person as they are changed by an experience.
But film is nowhere near as intimate as first-person prose. Sure, you can use lots of narration or therapy scenes, but film is a visual medium, so the best way to convey a character’s psychology is through their physical behavior. But the whole problem with a disease like PTSD is that nobody can see it. So how do you make a movie about it? You have to externalize it.
Moffat does this very simply: he turns Watson’s PTSD into a psychosomatic limp. Watson walks with a cane, but as soon as he meets Holmes, Holmes perceives that he doesn’t really need it, which both offends and intrigues Watson. Sure enough, after he’s gotten thoroughly wrapped up in Holmes’s adventures, they find themselves caught up in a sudden chase. Only after the chase is over does Watson realize that he’s left his crutch behind, literally and figuratively.
Whether I’m writing an adaptation, or trying to raise a second draft to a higher level, I too find myself searching for ways to externally manifest the interior changes that my characters go through. As a result, I’ve noticed a funny thing: they tend to suddenly become Catholic. When your average Protestant loses his faith in God, he might shrug slightly, but otherwise, you wouldn’t notice unless he says something. The great thing about Catholics is that they have so many more objects to interact with. They can turn the statue of their favorite saint away when they’re feeling guilty. They can angrily throw their rosaries away, then dig through the garbage to find them again after when they change their minds. Catholics like to invest objects with meaning, an idea that Protestants tend to poo-poo. That makes it so much easier for me to convert their interior turmoil into external behavior.


christinembird said...

Among the writers who have (somewhat improbably) converted to Catholicism in real life: Mary Karr and Anne Rice (although Rice says she has now changed her mind.)

Among the Catholics who converted to Scientology: John Travolta and Tom Cruise.

Jonas said...

Watson's psychosomatic limp despite being wounded elsewhere functions doubly as in-joke for Holmes fans. Doyle was famously inconsistent from one story to the next: in one story Watson claims he was wounded in the shoulder, in another his war wound is in his leg.