The Wayward Hound of the Baskervilles

Continuing with the theme of dramatic licence, it is a fact that the most dramatised Sherlock Holmes story is The Hound of the Baskervilles. There are many reasons for this which we won't go into here. However its popularity is also its curse as each time a screenwriter pens a film or television version they seem to feel compelled to put their own stamp on it. They presumably do this in an attempt to make their version stand out from the crowd but, in many cases, this ends up being damaging rather than beneficial to the finished product.

The most famous of the early dramatisations is, of course, Basil Rathbone's. It is, in most respects, an excellent adaptation and its drawbacks are little more than niggles. Firstly, we have the poor casting of some of the characters. The most notable example of this miscasting is that of Doctor Mortimer. In fact Mortimer is the most consistently miscast character in screen versions of this story. In the original novel he is described thus:

"a young fellow under thirty, amiable, unambitious, absent-minded, and the possessor of a favourite dog"

However in almost all film versions that I have seen, with the exception of Granada's, the man cast has been over forty (sometimes close to fifty). The versions starring Rathbone, Cushing (the Hammer film), Richardson, Frewer and Roxburgh all miscast the role in this way.

The Rathbone and Roxburgh versions also featured the absurd idea of Mortimer's wife being a medium and consequently both featured a séance in which an attempt was made at contact with the spirit of Sir Charles Baskerville. I still remain unsure whether the scene was introduced in these films to acknowledge Conan Doyle's belief in spiritualism or to mock it (or perhaps one of each). Either way, such a scene was nonsense and added nothing to the story.

We also have the vanishing and multiplying Lyons family. Laura Lyons is not a significant character in terms of activity within the story but she is significant in that she is the reason for Sir Charles Baskerville being out on the night that he died. In the Roxburgh film she (and her father) do not feature at all and aspects of her motives and actions are transferred to Beryl Stapleton. I have since heard that this was due to these roles being cut from the final edit.

In Ian Richardson's version we gained a Lyons in the form of the lady's estranged husband (played in a typically understated way by Brian Blessed). The presence of the character only made sense because it allowed him to become a suspect in the murder of his wife (who does, of course, not die in the original story).

Turning our attention to the young Baronet Sir Henry we quickly find that he is another frequently miscast character. The choice of Richard Greene for the Rathbone version seemed to work despite the fact that he was British and noticeably devoid of a Canadian accent. The best examples I have seen of the casting for this role were those by Granada (Kristoffer Tabori) and the BBC's Roxburgh version (Matt Day). The significant aspect to both these versions was that the character was correctly described as Canadian. It is surely no coincidence that two of the worst castings of this role portrayed the character as an American. These versions being the Frewer version (with Jason London) and the Ian Richardson version (with Martin Shaw). Shaw of course is as British as they come and his American accent was a wonder to behold (and not in a good way). Also his Sir Henry followed an American pro-republican anti-aristocratic agenda by being highly dismissive of his title and making clear his intention of selling everything before going back to America (a large departure from the book and closer in many respects to what Stapleton hoped to do when he came into the estate after the planned death of Sir Henry). Given that Richardson's two films were American-driven this line was hardly surprising.

As a final note, after Mortimer and Sir Henry, the other most frequently miscast character was of course the hound itself. The absolute nadir for this had to be the Frewer version where we were presented with an angry mongrel which was about as far removed from a mastiff/bloodhound cross as it was possible to get.

1 comment:

  1. I've often wondered about this apparent trend of recasting Dr. Mortimer as an older man, rather than as "a young fellow under thirty." I wonder if it has to do with the character of Sir Henry, and not wanting two young male actors competing for screen time. Sir Henry needs to be young and attractive (more so than Mortimer, at any rate) and casting directors see Mortimer as expendable?