“Never, in the delirious dream of a disordered brain could anything more savage, more appalling, more hellish be conceived than that dark form and savage face which broke upon us out of the wall of fog.”
That passage illustrates one of the two challenges that account for the fact that (and not for want of trying) there has never been a satisfactory film or television version of The Hound of the Baskervilles; that is, the difficulty in staging the appearance of the hound and its attack on Sir Henry Baskerville. Too often the scene is an unconvincing tussle between the actor playing Sir Henry and a non-threatening and/or animated creature that calls up the scene in Ed Wood where Bela Lugosi is thrown in a pond with a rubber octopus and told to “Shake his legs around, look like he’s killin’ ya.”
The second challenge, of course, is dealing with the absence of Sherlock Holmes for most of the tale; do you manipulate the screenplay to pull Holmes into the narrative, or do you pattern the screenplay after Doyle’s text?
Another issue – which applies to any adaptation of a celebrated tale – is how far one can alter and abridge the text without misrepresenting the author’s work to the audience. And lastly, there is the matter of casting: there is probably no other fictional character whose physical appearance is more specific than that of Sherlock Holmes, and fidelity to the Canon demands that the actor is the appropriate physical type.
In considering a few of the two dozen or so attempts at The Hound, I’ll start with one that did a creditable job of recreating the attack: the 1939 film starring Basil Rathbone. This film was the first of the series, and the only one that was set in the Victorian era. Rathbone really was an excellent choice for Holmes; the same cannot be said for the casting of Nigel Bruce that touched off a veritable Nigel Brucification of the role in too many subsequent Sherlock Holmes films.
Otherwise, there were some decent casting choices here, and some unfavorable lapses: Mortimer is an aged man with a wife, who is a medium (this plot line is used in the 2002/Richard Roxborough Hound as well). There is no Mrs. Lyons, Holmes is pulled into Dartmoor disguised as a peddler, the Stapletons are step-siblings and the Barrymores were re-named the Barrymans, in deference to the Barrymore clan who were still prominent in the theatrical community. The finale is staged as one of those Golden Age murder mystery reveals with everyone piled into the drawing room; Stapleton makes a clean getaway, without the actor having to roll about in the Mire (“… like it’s killin ya.”) In the ‘70s, the print and the censored closing line (“Oh, Watson, the needle!”), were restored.
In 1982, after playing Doctor Who for several years, Tom Baker was cast as Holmes in a BBC miniseries of The Hound. He is a fine actor. He was also the wrong choice – distractingly wrong; nothing in face or figure called up the orthodox representation of Holmes.
In other respects, the casting choices did an excellent job of matching Doyle’s description, particularly Henry Baskerville (Nicholas Woodeson), Mortimer (Will Knightley), Laura Lyons (Caroline John), and Stapleton (Christopher Ravenscroft). Of all the Hounds, Alexander Baron’s screenplay is the most faithful adaptation in the pack. Baron, whose list of dramatizations includes the Scandal in Bohemia episode in the Jeremy Brett/Granada series and the 1981 Sense and Sensibility supports the conviction that Doyle’s narrative can hold up without the addition of mediums and séances, that his plot sequence was sound, and his dialogue was crisp and natural.
The 1988 Hound of the Baskervilles was part of the Jeremy Brett series. The series had the advantage of an excellent Holmes, though this particular episode, and many of the later ones, Brett’s failing health was obvious. Brett admitted to David Stuart Davies, author of Bending the Willow, that he was “terribly unwell” during the filming; he looks it, and to the detriment of the film. It is almost a relief, for viewers who had become so attached to Brett’s more dynamic turns, that Holmes is absent for much of the case. Brett, however, is not solely responsible for the weakness of the episode; the screenplay, as he succinctly expresses it in an interview with Davies was “underconceived”. There are few tales that offer so much screen potential as The Hound of the Baskervilles, but realizing its iconic moments must come at a price, and one wonders whether Brett’s diplomatic “underconceived” was code for “cheap”.
A final problem with these versions – and with most of them – is the age disparity between Watson and Henry Baskerville. In the book, it can be inferred that they are roughly of the same generation (Sir Henry, as well as Mortimer, are around 30) and parity and confidence between the London general practitioner and the wealthy heir seems more credible if there is no disparity in age – as gentlemen of roughly the same generation, they would be more likely, in my opinion, to form the sort of companionable bond that is forged at Baskerville hall.
A tale that captures the imagination, whether The Hound of the Baskervilles, Pride and Prejudice, Hamlet or The Three Musketeerswill always invite one more remake, one more throwdown to film the version that will have viewers hunting up the book, and readers applauding its fidelity. And then there’s….
Which Austen character would have enjoyed The Hound of the Baskervilles? Catherine Morland and Isabella Thorpe, of course, and Sir John Middleton may have delighted in the lively Christmas ball in the 2002/Richard Roxborough version.
And three degrees of Austen?
1939 Hound: Nigel Bruce appeared in Rebecca with Laurence Olivier, who was Darcy in the 1940 Pride and Prejudice.
1982 Hound: Tom Baker appeared in Luther with Judi Dench who was Lady Catherine in the 2005 Pride and Prejudice.
1988 Hound: Edward Hardwicke appeared in Love, Actually with Emma Thompson, Alan Rickman, Hugh Grant from the 1995 Sense and Sensibility; Colin Firth, from the 1995 Pride and Prejudice and Keira Knightley from the 2005 Pride and Prejudice.