The Final Problem by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle – a Multimedia Review

In one of my earliest posts, my Hercule Poirot Top Five, I mentioned that I didn’t count Sherlock Holmes among the classic detectives – a nonsense statement in hindsight, but I thought it was way past time I visited the works of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle so, just to be awkward, I thought I’d start at the (sort of) end, rather than the beginning.

I know this is supposed to be a spoiler free review but I can’t avoid discussing the ending of The Final Problem. It’s only a short story anyway, so if I don’t mention the important bit at the end, there’s not much to talk about. But on the off-chance you don’t know what happens at the Reichenbach Falls, look away now.

The reason that I thought I’d look at this story is that I’ve just received my copy of the Big Finish Productions version of the story – a two disc performance with The Empty House on the second disc. As this claims to be a faithful adaptation, I thought I’d do a comparison. So, in the blue corner – the short story itself. In the red corner – the audio. In the green corner (this is a triangle) the TV production starring Jeremy Brett.

The Short Story

The story appears as the final story in The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes. As you may well know, the Holmes short stories are narrated by Watson – as such you get insight into Watson’s thoughts. What is perhaps missing here is an insight into Watson’s feelings, but this is due to the nature of the piece he is writing. In the opening sequence, he writes that he is only detailing this case to correct falsehoods being put about by Moriarty’s brother in the national press – and as such, a primarily factual account is what would be produced. The story opens with Holmes appearing in Watson’s house (Watson is married at this point) after being pursued by some of Moriarty’s gang of villains. After relating a meeting with “The Napoleon of Crime”, Holmes drags Watson to Europe to hide out while the trial of Moriarty and his gang takes place. Needless to say, Moriarty escapes the law and pursues Holmes to Switzerland and, after Watson is lured away, they have their final confrontation at the Falls.

It’s well known that Doyle was fed up with Holmes, but it is notable that his death is ambiguous. One fact in this story is re-written years later in the sequel, The Empty House, but that concerns Baker Street being burnt, rather than the set-up of Holmes’ “death”. Doyle clearly leaves the door open for Holmes to return. You may incapacitate the golden goose, but you don’t kill it completely…

I have to say it though… as enjoyable as this story is, it’s not a detective story, it’s a story about a detective. This is the thing that I’ve found with my infrequent dips into the canon of Holmes. There isn’t a hint of mystery in the events herein – that’s its only failing in my eyes, but going into it knowing this, I did enjoy the story a lot.

The Audio

Nicholas Briggs stars as Holmes with Richard Earl as Watson. No, that’s the wrong way round. Earl stars as Watson, with Briggs as Holmes. The only other cast member (as befits the story) is Alan Cox (Watson in Young Sherlock Holmes) as Moriarty. In the interviews at the end of the CD, Briggs, who also adapted it, says that all he basically did was cross out the “he said” phrases from the story, so it’s basically narrated by Watson with the scenes featuring two characters being performed as dialogue.

So what is the point of such a version – not a dramatisation per se, but more than just a reading. Well, the thing that it added for me was Watson’s emotion. He is basically reading out what he is writing (note the scratching of the pen in the background at times) but this is someone who has lost his friend and, against his will, is being made to write about it. Earl is superb as Watson, carrying the bulk of the dialogue, but this is a real performance that I felt enhanced the story beyond simple narration. Briggs’ Holmes is one of the few performances that I’ve seen where I could actually believe that he and Watson are friends. He’s a much more human Holmes, without sacrificing any of Holmes’ arrogance. You can see why Watson would be so upset at losing this friend. This isn’t always the case as… well, we’ll come to that in minute. Cox as Moriarty is rather wonderful, very understated but dangerous all the same. It is a shame that he only appears in one scene, but as I said, this is a faithful adaptation. This is a superb audio which takes the original story and enhances it by the quality of the performances. I will admit it, the ending brought a tear to my eye.

The TV Series

I received the complete Holmes series starring Jeremy Brett for Christmas and I think this is the third episode that I’ve watched. Why only three?

I don’t like Jeremy Brett’s performance – I know that’s sacrilege but never mind. He emphasises all of Holmes’ unpleasant traits and goodness only knows why Watson is his friend. David Burke’s Watson is a pretty traditional performance, although he’s not the idiot that Watson is sometimes portrayed as. He does what he can with the material but due to that fact that the majority of it is played out in the past – only the very beginning and end are in the present, the emotion isn’t there. Eric Porter has the role of Moriarty but… basically he plays him as the Hooded Claw from The Perils of Penelope Pitstop. Oh dear.

As for the adaptation, it’s less that faithful. After an introduction of several fairly badly filmed attempts on Holmes’ life, the first third is taken up with Holmes relating how he stopped Moriarty’s plan to steal the Mona Lisa. Then it becomes faithful to the story (although it adds an odd line saying that Moriarty was behind The Red-Headed League) before the conclusion at the Falls.

Putting aside Watson spotting someone who is clearly Moriarty (still wearing his top hat and cape!) climbing up towards where he left Holmes, but still leaving Holmes alone, we come to the confrontation, and as this is TV, you basically have to show it. I presume that the fight at the Falls is Watson assuming what happened – the fight is pretty poor, mostly wrestling and face pulling, but the fall (where we see BOTH protagonists go over the edge) is well shot, although points off for the bodies landing on the ground, rather than in the water. We then cut to Watson finishing off the story straight to camera, which is also odd.

So, opinions of this? Too much bad outweighing the good, I’m afraid.

Conclusions

Well, of the three, I’d have to go for the Big Finish Audio, closely followed by the story itself.

I was impressed with the quality of the writing of the story, so in the future, I will be dipping in and out, pretty much at random, for some quick reviews of the stories – primarily the later ones, as these are the ones that I haven’t read before. I’ve never read the stories thoroughly, due to the fact that they never seemed to be actual mysteries which are, obviously, what I’m looking for. But it does seem to be a little churlish to ignore the character who is seen as the archetypal detective. So, I’ll finish with a request – what are the very best Sherlock Holmes short stories?

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About Puzzle Doctor

I'm a mathematician by nature and as such have always been drawn to the logical side of things. Hence my two main hobbies being classic mysteries and logical puzzling. Oh, and cats. No logic there, I'm afraid.
This entry was posted in Audiobooks, Film and TV, Sherlock Holmes, Short Stories, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Bookmark the permalink.

17 Responses to The Final Problem by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle – a Multimedia Review

  1. Skywatcher says:

    Hmmmmm.

    The Sherlock Holmes stories aren’t mysteries? Well, I suppose that THE ILLUSTRIOUS CLIENT or HIS LAST BOW or THE GREEK INTERPRETER are technically not whodunnits, but the rest of them pretty much are. Things like THE RED HEADED LEAGUE, or THE NAVAL TREATY or SILVER BLAZE are archetypal detective stories. They may not follow exactly the format of the ‘fair play’ detective story, but that is really something that came later. THE FINAL PROBLEM is an interesting story in that, as you say, it’s a good story but not really a mystery story. Doyle was always more interested in telling a good yarn than in creating a technically perfect mystery story, although I believe that quite a number of the stories work well as mysteries.

    The Big Finish productions are excellent, with Briggs and Earl absolutely spot on as Holmes and Watson. I disagree 100% with you about the Granada series. Everyone’s entitled to their opinion, of course, but I do think that you should try more than three before coming to an decision. Some of the comments about the telly version of FINAL PROBLEM are really nit-picking (How does Watson KNOW that the figure is clearly Moriarty? He’s never actually seen him in person! We’ve seen him because of the grammar of TV, with flashbacks being shown on screen rather than being told to the reader. Watson only knows that he has seen a figure in cloak and top hat, which as a description fits a lot of Victorian men). As for it being a less than faithful adaption…well, it’s a main-stream 50 minute piece of drama. There really isn’t enough incident to fill the time, so the Mona Lisa stuff was added to bring it up to length. When Doyle adapted THE SPECKLED BAND for the stage, he altered things in order to make it work as a play. It’s no different here.

  2. I’ve been sitting on the fence about the Big Finich Watsons – I enjoyed the David Stuart Davies / Roger Llewellyn ‘Last Act’ and look forward to what you have to say about RIPPER but didn;t like the dramatised reading of SPECKLED BAND which Briggs and Earl did, finding it very hard to listen to. Glad to hear you liked it so much as I was tempted to skip this and maybe only go for the George Mann original. Sorry that the Brett series wasn’t more to your liking as I am a huge fan of it – obviously the fall at the end is subjective which is why we get Burke speaking directly to the camera, which struck me as really moving when last I saw it.

  3. Skywatcher says:

    Which are the best?

    THE RED-HEADED LEAGUE
    THE SPECKLED BAND
    THE MAN WITH THE TWISTED LIP
    THE BLUE CARBUNCLE
    SILVER BLAZE
    THE CARDBOARD BOX
    THE NAVAL TREATY
    THE NORWOOD BUILDER
    THE PRIORY SCHOOL
    THE SIX NAPOLEONS
    THE SECOND STAIN
    THE BRUCE PARTINGTON PLANS
    THE DEVIL’S FOOT
    THE ILLUSTRIOUS CLIENT
    THOR BRIDGE
    THE SUSSEX VAMPIRE

    The four novels are all enjoyable. THE HOUND OF THE BASKERVILLES is a superb thriller, whilst THE VALLEY OF FEAR works best as a straight detective story.

    • I think i would have to agree with most of your choices from the short stories, though THE SIGN OF FOUR is actually my favourite among the novels – I can still remember the intense excitement when as a youngster of 11 I was taken to see an adaptation of it, THE CRUCIFER OF BLOOD, with Kate O’Mara and Gerald Harper – it was one of my first theatre experiences of going to see an ‘adult’ play and got me hooked on Sherlock Holmes (both canonical and non) – given that this was 32 years ago, this probably tells you as much about me as it does about Doyle’s creations! The first two series of the the Granada version are by far the best (though they all have things of merit) – if they don’t do it for you, you probably won’t like the later entries which got broader in approach, to pad out some of the lesser stories (at the time they weren;t all out of copyright yet so couldn’t pick from all 60 stories).

  4. Gentlemen – many thanks for the recommendations.
    It would appear that I’ve been too hasty in dismissing both the TV show and some of the short stories, so I’m going to make a point of dipping in and out of the canon, concentrating on those stories that I haven’t read – such as The Naval Treaty for starters. I’ll make a point of watching some more of the TV series as well.
    It occurs to me that I was suggesting recently that if you only read the first four in the Hugh Corbett series by Paul Doherty then you might not continue with the series and miss out on some excellent later stories. Perhaps I should follow my own advice…

  5. Oh, and Watson does see Moriarty on the back of the train, glowering like a maniac. And even if he didn’t, surely his suspicions would have been aroused by a man in a top hat and long coat climbing a mountain? The book simply describes “a figure” which makes more sense not to panic about that.

  6. Bill says:

    Apparently I’m not the only one who hasn’t made their acquaintance with the Holmes stories yet, though I have been meaning to get to that. As for Jeremy Brett, I like what I’ve seen of the series overall but I do find his portrayal to be a bit on the cold side.

  7. Skywatcher says:

    Crimedoctor: I have a nasty feeling that this could turn into one of those endless ‘but what about…’ arguments, but I will say that I wouldn’t really be able to recognise someone from the couple of seconds view of his face stuck outside of a train window as he hurtles past me!

    By the way, I’m pleased to hear that you are giving both the original stories and the Granada show more of a chance. I look forward to reading about them here.

  8. The BF dramatisation is excellent, but my favourite version of The Final Problem comes courtesy of Radio 4 – with Clive Merrison as Holmes and the late Michael Williams as Watson. The sense of tension that the pair of them build up with their performances is huge, and the end is truly heartbreaking.

    • I really wanted to include this, but iTunes is rather selective as to which of the Merrison/Williams stories that they sell. I’ve heard great things about the collaboration and will look into it.

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