Ray Bradbury once commented, “I have a theory about film: If you have a very good film with a bad ending, then you have a bad film. If you have a mediocre film or a good film with a brilliant ending, then you have an almost brilliant film.” That second part was in reference to François Truffaut’s 1966 film adaptation of his novel Fahrenheit 451.
But the point about a film filled with promise falling flat at the end applies to the 1983 version of The Hound of the Baskervilles. The acting is top-notch, and the cast allows for a bit of celebrity-spotting. Hey, there’s Connie Booth from Fawlty Towers! Hey, there’s Denholm Elliott from Raiders of the Lost Ark! Hey, there’s that creepy Nazi from, well, Raiders of the Lost Ark! The film is also well-produced, especially given its made-for-TV budget. The script takes a few minor liberties with Arthur Conan Doyle’s novel, but the choices are mostly clever ones.
Nonetheless, the film’s lackluster conclusion might make the whole thing feel worse that it really is.
Shining in Sherlock’s Shadow
This film is the follow-up to The Sign of the Four (1983, reviewed here). Producer Sy Weintraub had plans to make more Holmes films, but the project dissolved when the Granada Television series starring Jeremy Brett went into production. As a result, we only have two opportunities to enjoy Holmes portrayed by Ian Richardson, who in physical appearance and character interpretation is among the best actors to play the role. He smirks more than furrows his brow, and this gives the great detective an impish mischievousness at odds with Watson’s description of a man more machine than human. However, when the scene calls for a more meditative, acerbic, or gloomy mood, Richardson captures it well. It’s too bad that timing prevented the actor from continuing with the role. His turns as Holmes might be better remembered if there were more to watch.
On the other hand, it’s best that the Granada/Brett series won the Holmes-versus-Holmes fencing match because of its far better treatment of Dr. Watson. Both Weintraub films, adapted by Charles Edward Pogue, resurrect the chubby, bumbling Watson that Nigel Bruce played in the earlier Basil Rathbone series. Donald Churchill takes the role, replacing David Healy from The Sign of the Four, and a thankless role it is when Watson is written to be a doofus. Churchill is granted a moment or two that shows he’s able to handle a gun. Beyond that, he mostly sputters with confusion and exhibits absolutely no medical acumen at any point. The audience might well wonder if his title of “Doctor” is anything more than a nickname. This is particularly unfortunate, since Watson has such a central role in Hound.
Devotion to and Deviation from Doyle
This version stays true to the novel for the most part. If the viewer has read that book, this faithfulness begins to explain the disappointing ending. However, before we get there, the film departs from Doyle to explore how Laura Lyons’ cruel husband might be the culprit. This is a clever choice. Other Hound adaptations reveal that the Laura Lyons subplot is a tempting limb to amputate when reducing the novel to film length.
In addition, this film version does exceptionally well at handling Doyle’s history of Hugo Baskerville. It was Hugo’s acts of savagery that incurred the Baskerville curse: a supernatural hell hound doggedly plaguing the family. One of the great things in the novel is its playing with the tensions between savagery and civilization. Doyle seems to be saying that the Savage and the Civilized exist within humanity in far closer proximity than, say, the lights of London and the muck of the Grimpen Mire. The film’s depiction of Hugo’s attack on the neighboring yeoman’s daughter is much more explicit and disturbing than Doyle’s telling. (WARNING: A few animals were harmed in the making of this film!) Again, this early scene might help to explain the disappointing conclusion. It would be hard to top its energy.
Now, keep in mind that Doyle’s novel has a tricky climax. The showdown with the hound is pretty exciting! There are not one but two lives to be saved! But things get a bit bogged down when it comes to capturing the culprit and bringing him or her to justice. In fact, the novel leaves open a slim possibility that that culprit might have escaped any kind of punishment at all — and still lurks out there! Holmes, Watson, and Lestrade search for clues confirming the culprit’s ultimate fate, but “no slightest sign of them ever met our eyes.” The trio is forced to close the case on a lack of evidence.
Unfortunately, the film doesn’t take advantage of this unsettling ambiguity. The question mark after “The End” is a move more typical of a Gothic novel than a mystery, and this might explain why Hound stands out as probably the most popular case in Doyle’s canon. The film’s more certain ending, I think, actually truncates any feelings that would’ve lingered with the viewer after watching it. Though there is much to enjoy in it, this version of The Hound of the Baskervilles winds up lending support to Bradbury’s theory: “If you have a very good film with a bad ending, then you have a bad film.”