Watching The Baskerville Curse (1983 animation)
by Mark Wallace
Yet more Sherlock Holmes-watching in recent days. This time it’s the Australian-produced animated series from 1983, with the legendary Peter O’Toole providing the voice of the Great Detective. This series by Burbank Studios comprised adaptations of the four novels by Doyle: A Study in Scarlet, The Sign of Four, The Hound of the Baskervilles and The Valley of Fear, to put them in order of original publication (IMDb reverses Four and Hound in the chronology of the adaptations). The series has not garnered much attention, and has been called “tame and somewhat insipid” by well-known Sherlockian scholar David Stuart Davies. A few reviews on IMDb have called the Hound adaptation the best of the four, however, and that is the one I will focus on here.
Firstly, it’s actually called The Baskerville Curse, the only one of the novels to have its name changed for the series, perhaps because the word hound might be unknown to a young audience.
On the whole, the series stays very faithful to the novel. At 67 minutes, it’s longer than the other instalments (47-ish minutes each), and really that’s plenty long enough for adapting a short novel (under 200 pages in most editions) whose central mystery is not very mysterious and whose list of suspects is fairly limited. Not to mention that Holmes is absent for much of the action.
Just as all of the Jeremy Brett Holmes adaptations do, the Burbank series changes the introductions to the tales. Doyle’s typical tale opening is a dialogue scene between Holmes and Watson, at Baker Street, usually preceding any mystery – Holmes might complain about the boredom of life; do some clever reading of Watson or somebody else around, etc. Into this cosy milieu the mystery is afterwards introduced. In other words, Doyle starts with the characters, and the plot comes afterward. Many of my favourite moments and pieces of dialogue come from these introductory scenes, but adaptations have tended to eschew them, perhaps because they are not seen as being very dramatic, and they are by nature not essential to the plot.
Typical Doyle opening, from “The Copper Beeches“. Nice dialogue!:
“To the man who loves art for its own sake,” remarked Sherlock Holmes, tossing aside the advertisement sheet of the Daily Telegraph, “it is frequently in its least important and lowliest manifestations that the keenest pleasure is to be derived. It is pleasant to me to observe, Watson, that you have so far grasped this truth that in these little records of our cases which you have been good enough to draw up, and, I am bound to say, occasionally to embellish, you have given prominence not so much to the many causes celebres and sensational trials in which I have figured but rather to those incidents which may have been trivial in themselves, but which have given room for those faculties of deduction and of logical synthesis which I have made my special province.”
“And yet,” said I, smiling, “I cannot quite hold myself absolved from the charge of sensationalism which has been urged against my records.”
“You have erred, perhaps,” he observed, taking up a glowing cinder with the tongs and lighting with it the long cherry-wood pipe which was wont to replace his clay when he was in a disputatious rather than a meditative mood –“you have erred perhaps in attempting to put color and life into each of your statements instead of confining yourself to the task of placing upon record that severe reasoning from cause to effect which is really the only notable feature about the thing.”
“It seems to me that I have done you full justice in the matter,” I remarked with some coldness, for I was repelled by the egotism which I had more than once observed to be a strong factor in my friend’s singular character.
“No, it is not selfishness or conceit,” said he, answering, as was his wont, my thoughts rather than my words. “If I claim full justice for my art, it is because it is an impersonal thing — a thing beyond myself. Crime is common. Logic is rare. Therefore it is upon the logic rather than upon the crime that you should dwell. You have degraded what should have been a course of lectures into a series of tales.”
This adaptation, then, starts not with the Holmes and Watson, but with the initiating incident of the plot: the death of Sir Charles Baskerville. This takes place on Dartmoor, an episode only seen in flashback in Doyle. This adaptation adds some dialogue not found in Doyle, and introduces Dr Mortimer, the shady servant Barrymore, and the Hound himself. This opening is similar to and may derive from the famous Basil Rathbone Hound of 1939. The scenery evokes Dartmoor. I’ve never been to Dartmoor, but have a concept of it through the various Hound adaptations, particularly the unmistakeable rock formations.
The adapting-the-adaptation feel of Curse gets stronger when the next scene is an inquest scene – again similar to 1939, but just mentioned in flashback in Doyle.
Just over five minutes in, we get to London and Baker Street. Our first view of Holmes is almost a facial close-up. He’s a young Holmes with a full head of brown hair and a rather bland face. Watson on the other hand is a clearly older man, short, stout and moustached: once again, physically echoing Rathbone and Bruce in the earlier film.
The Rathbone film goes out of its way to throw suspicion on Dr Mortimer in the early scenes. This film, however, focalizes on Mortimer at the time of Sir Charles’ death, making it fairly clear that he didn’t do it and removing him from the list of suspicious characters.
When Stapleton enters at around 21 minutes, he is immediately signalled as the culprit (spoiler: Stapleton did it) by his surly demeanour, perpetually sour expression and the eerie music that accompanies his presence. He responds with shifty eye movements when questioned by Watson. There is certainly no mystery here, then.
Maybe the real hero of the story is the Great Grimpen Mire, introduced in this adaptation concurrently with Stapleton. As in the book, the otherwise uninteresting character Stapleton gains in power and menace by his association with this otherworldly terrain. Some nice long shots bring atmosphere to the setting, and the spiral motif to suggest the treacherous terrain is effective. Even the relative roughness of the animation rather adds to the atmosphere in the moor scenes.
After disappearing before the 20 minute mark, Holmes finally re-appears after around 49 minutes, and then the endgame can begin. Lestrade enters as well, and has an unusually big role. He also escapes being mocked by Holmes as he often is in Doyle and in adaptations, such as the Ronald Howard one. A certain amount of deductive interest is retained in the climax by transferring the mystery of the single stolen boot which in Doyle takes place near the beginning of the story.
Finally, Holmes bows out by telling his sidekick “As always, it was elementary, my dear Watson, elementary.” Holmes’ famous line, never used in Doyle, but included as a nod to the culture-text of Sherlock Holmes and to the myriad of sources invoked by an adaptation of the character. This is a serviceable adaptation, though uninspiring. Of course, it is clearly aimed at children, so my reactions to it are not necessarily of great relevance. Reading through comments on the YouTube upload of the episode, some users remembered in from their childhoods and had found it, and the Hound in particular, scary. The most effective part of this adaptation, for me, comes in the moor scenes, where visuals, music, and a fairly miminalist script are used in conjunction to create a good atmosphere. At 67 minutes, it doesn’t overstay its welcome, either, and provides a decent primer or refresher for the sprawling culture-text of The Hound of the Baskervilles.