Solving ‘A Study in Scarlet’ for children

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s “Sherlock Holmes” has gone through many modern adaptations, saturating our media.  He’s revived in the animated 1999 to 2001 TV series “Sherlock Holmes in the 22nd Century“; David Shore’s 2004 FOX drama “House, M.D.” (starring Hugh Laurie as the antisocial know-it-all doctor); Guy Ritchie’s action movies (starring Robert Downey Jr.); Mark Gatiss and Steven Moffat’s 2010 BBC TV series “Sherlock” (starring Benedict Cumberbatch); and the 2012 CBS series “Elementary” (starring Johnny Lee Miller).

The latest of the Sherlock Holmes reboots is a reprinting of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s 1887 detective novel, “A Study in Scarlet” — this time illustrated by Gris Grimly and reprinted by Balzer and Bray, a children’s book division of Harper Collins Publishers. 

"A Study in Scarlet"  By Arthur Conan Doyle Illustrated by Gris Grimly  228 pp. Balzer & Bray. $17.99 U.S. Feb. 17, 2015.

“A Study in Scarlet”
By Arthur Conan Doyle
Illustrated by Gris Grimly
228 pp. Balzer & Bray.
$17.99 U.S.
Feb. 17, 2015.

This 288-page hardcover novel, which will be released on February 17 this month, attempts to make the great British detective accessible to children.

The pages are filled with Grimly’s gothic cartoons. Dr. John H. Watson is a short and stout fellow with a square face and portly body (he looks like a chubbier version of Nick Offerman, sporting Count Olaf’s pinstripe pants) while Grimly’s Holmes is all pointy angles, sporting wispy hair and a tattered brown frock. Holmes isn’t wearing that infamous deerstalker cap Sidney Paget invented in early Sherlock Holmes illustrations, but a pipe is close to his hand.

The two make quite a pair when lounging in their shared 221B Baker Street apartment.

Sherlock’s elongated shadow fills the page, making him seem larger than life. And he is in Dr. Watson’s eyes.

“The reader may set me down as a hopeless busybody, when I confess how much this man stimulated my curiosity, and how often I endeavored to break through the reticence which he showed on all that concerned himself,” Doyle writes.

Watson’s charmed by Sherlock’s incredible power of deductions that his “journal” becomes a public record of Sherlock’s adventures. This tale takes the pair all over London as they solve a case that’s baffled Scotland Yard’s finest, Inspector Lestrade and Tobias Gregson.

The case in question is dubbed “A Study in Scarlet” after something Sherlock said after he examines an American murder victim in a suburban London apartment.

“There’s the scarlet thread of murder running through the colorless skein of life, and our duty is to unravel it, to isolate it, and expose every inch of it,” Sherlock says.

On a wall near the body, the word “rache” (German for “revenge”) is scrawled in blood red letters.

Told in two parts, first half is told in first person through Watson’s perspective; the second half of the novel delves into the backstory behind the mystery.

Watson’s fascination with the world’s only consulting detective is evident from both the text and images. Grimly even illustrates a list of Sherlock’s attributes which includes a profound skill in chemistry; immense knowledge in sensational literature; expertise in boxing, sword fighting, violin and singlestick; and no knowledge of politics, literature, philosophy and astronomy.

“You remind me of Edgar Allan Poe’s Dupin,” Watson says. “I had no idea that such individuals did exist outside of stories.”

Perhaps they don’t. The adventures of Sherlock Holmes are just stories. But Doyle’s stories have evoked the curiosity and imagination of many — from Shore to Moffat. Nowadays, we see remnants of Holmes in every forensics  drama as crime scene investigators make modern deductions.

While our popular culture is saturated with modern Sherlock Holmeses, Doyle’s “A Study in Scarlet” is where the mysteries began. Grimly — who’s known for illustrating a graphic novel based on Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein” — reanimates Doyle’s centuries-old text by adding caricatures of bulbous young Arab children and rat-nosed detectives. One scene looks like it could have emerged from a “Scooby Doo” cartoon. 

This empowers young readers. Grimly knows that classics aren’t as accessible to children as television and films.

I wanted to change that for the young generations to come — to give them a way to read the words and interpret the words and get all the way from page one to page 200 … and not have to rely on the movies,” Grimly tells NPR’s Arun Rath. 

One thing’s for sure: Doyle and Grimly are an elementary combination.

“A Study in Scarlet” was originally written by Arthur Conan Doyle in 1886 and published in 1887. The reprinting, illustrated by Gris Grimly, will be released February 17, 2015. 

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Cracking the code to ‘The Imitation Game’

He comes across as a prickly sort of fellow — arrogant and self-assured. “You need me more than I need you,” he says at a job interview with British Commander Denniston (Charles Dance).

The “he” I’m referring to is Alan Turing, the man accredited for cracking the secret Nazi decoder machine, Enigma. Or rather, Benedict Cumberbatch’s version of him in Norwegian director Morten Tyldum’s BAFTA-nominated biopic, “The Imitation Game.”

The screenplay — written by Graham Moore based on Andrew Hodges’ biography — plays out like a fragmented puzzle, cutting back and forth between a 23-year time span (1928 – 1951). It’s reminiscent to other spy films like “J. Edgar” (2011), “The Good Shepherd” (2006) and “A Beautiful Mind” (2001).

When we first meet Professor Turing, he’s sitting in a Manchester police station. The year is 1951. But while it might seem like Cumberbatch’s Turing is a reprise of his role in the popular BBC television series “Sherlock,” Scotland Yard is nowhere in sight.

The man questioning Turing is Detective Robert Nock (Rory Kinnear from “Broken” and “Skyfall”), our vehicle into this story. He’s questioning Turing because he had reported a break-in where nothing was stolen.

What begins like an episode of “Sherlock” evolves into a spy mystery. Cumberbatch’s hypnotic voice is like a magician’s, begging you to pay attention as he asks the most puzzling question of all: the reason for humanity.

Along for the ride include Britain’s finest cryptographers: Hugh Alexander (Matthew Goode), Peter Hilton (Matthew Beard), John Cairncross (Allen Leech) and Joan Clarke (Kiera Knightley). They’re tasked with nearly impossible odds — to decrypt Nazi radio messages and win World War II.

Despite his prickly personality, Cumberbatch is oddly endearing as Turing. He’s appears autistic with a mild stutter, funny walk and OCD. He’s oblivious to social cues, better at insults than jokes, loves solving puzzles — and in a couple of occasions, he’s been compared to the machine in which he builds and loves. Yet his robotic movements and character flaws are what make him human. He bleeds, he cries, he feels — whether he’s genius inventor Victor Frankenstein or the isolated monster who just wants a friend.

At its core, “The Imitation Game” deals with morality and philosophy — like Yann Martel’s “Life of Pi.” Cumberbatch and Tyldum flesh out an imitation of this man’s life, letting us define whether he’s a hero or criminal; man or machine; or perhaps, something entirely out of the box.

“The Imitation Game” was directed by Morten Tyldum and written by Graham Moore based on Andrew Hodges’ book, “The Imitation Game: Alan Turing, the Enigma.” The film is nominated in the 87th Academy Award for Best Picture, Best Actor, Best Supporting Actress, Best Director, Best Film Editing, Best Original Score, Best Production Design and Best Adapted Screenplay. 

The hollow women living in ‘August: Osage County’

“Life is very long,” begins the elderly poet Beverly Weston (Sam Shepard), quoting T.S. Eliot’s poem “The Hollow Men.” That’s the epigraph to Tracy Letts’ 3-hour-and-10-minute Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award-winning play, “August: Osage County.”

It’s a fitting epigraph — although Beverly’s screen time is short. In director John Well’s 121-minute film adaptation of Letts’ play, you see glimpses of his very long life — stuffed by alcohol and hollowed from years tiptoeing around his volatile “prickly pear” of a wife, Violet (played by the wonderful Meryl Streep).

Based on Letts’ own grandmother, Violet doesn’t cushion the truth with little white lies. There’s a bite to her bark and it stings. “You look like a lesbian,” she tells her middle daughter, Ivy (Julianne Nicholson) — the only one who hasn’t moved away.

“I’m just truth-telling,” she says at the dinner table.

Addled with a cocktail of pain pills, Violet drives away her husband; his disappearance reunites the dysfunctional Weston family of Oklahoma. There’s Violet’s sister, Mattie Fae Aiken (Margo Martindale); her husband Charles (Chris Cooper) and their spineless 30-something-year-old son, “Little” Charles (Benedict Cumberbatch). There’s her out-of-town oldest daughter, Barbara (Julia Roberts); her husband, Bill (Ewan McGregor); and their 14-year-old daughter, Jean (Abigail Breslin). There’s her youngest daughter, Karen (Juliette Lewis) and her sleazy fiancee, Steve (Dermot Mulroney). And there’s her middle daughter, Ivy.

All of them return under one roof in the suffocating August heat.

It’d be easy to hate Violet. She mean, overbearing and judgmental. And women are often demonized for being bossy. (Margaret Thatcher or Nurse Ratched, anyone?) But Letts’ screenplay and Streep’s acting humanizes the jaded old lady. She can be awful, but she’s also incredibly sharp, funny and self aware. Although she’s not cloaked in Prada, you still want Violet to like you. And even if you don’t like her, you empathize with her.

This is particularly clear when Violet tells her daughters about a memory of her mother and a pair of cowboy boots she wanted for Christmas. Long story short: “My momma was a nasty-mean old lady,” she says. “I suppose that’s where I get it from.”

Although Beverly can be compared to a “hollowed man,” he isn’t the only one haunted by “death’s kingdom.” In their own way, each of the characters are trapped by their own demons. Violet and Barbara can’t escape the shadows of their mothers. Ivy and Karen are running away from the truth in front of them.

Wells’ direction, Adriano Goldman cinematography and Stephen Mirrione’s editing capture these feelings of confinement. In several scenes, we watch a car drive along the hilly Oklahoma landscape. The journey is slow. Although the land is vast, we’re stuck in Barbara’s car as she’s driving her sisters and mother home from the doctor. The car slows and stops when Violet says she’s about to throw up. When she gets out of the car, though, she bolts — running through yellow fields. Barbara chases her mother and eventually, they both collapse from exhaustion.

“There’s no where to go,” Barbara tells Violet.

No where except death’s kingdom.

“August: Osage County” was written by Tracy Letts and directed by John Wells.

‘The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug’ foreshadows ‘The Lord of the Rings’

When we last left our heroes, they were riding the backs of eagles, longingly eying the Lonely Mountain within their grasp. Twelve months later since the release of Peter Jackson’s “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey” (and since dwarf king heir, Thorin Oakenshield, first met with wizard Gandalf in a pub on the border side of the Shire), the company’s hiking through caverns and forests with Gandalf (Ian McKellan) at the helm — chaperoning children-sized men on a field trip across Tolkein’s Middle Earth.

“You’ll be safe here tonight,” says the wizard, telling tale tales of big black bears that turn into men. But these stories — setting the stage for Jackson’s already profitable “Lord of the Rings” franchise — are as ominous as the spider-filled Mirkwood forests the party has to venture through.

“Lord of the Rings” fans will enjoy the obvious foreshadowing. Dark shadows fester as an unnamed Necromancer upturns graves. Orc parties grow, gearing for war. But these elements make the film much darker than J. R. R. Tolkein’s children’s book, “The Hobbit, or There and Back Again” — which the film was loosely based on.

Luckily though, the party has a couple guides — including elven heartthrob Legolas (Orlando Bloom) of Mirkwood and Bard the Bowman (Luke Evans) of Lake Town — ferrying 13 dwarves and a hobbit (Martin Freeman) through rocks, trees and rivers.

“The Iliad” to “The Lord of the Rings'” “Odyssey,” “The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug’s” an epic fantastical 3D adventure. But whereas you won’t find orcs, elves and dragons beyond the myths and legends, elements of reality are found within “The Hobbit.”

At it’s core, the story’s about a nomadic people looking to reclaim their homeland. It’s a noble cause — certainly one that Zionist Jews could sympathize with. But if the dwarves were the Jews, then the dragon Smaug (voiced by Benedict Cumberbatch) would be Palestinian Arabs, retaliating with suicide bombers and dragon fire. The result: “All shall fall in sadness and the lake will shine and burn.”

Of course, we don’t see the prophesy come to light yet. The fast-paced 161-minute film ends with a cliffhanger.

As with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, though, the story’s never-ending. Even after Jackson’s “Hobbit” trilogy concludes next December, the subsequent “Lord of the Rings” sagas seamlessly begin, bringing you on an endless journey there and back again.

“The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug” is directed by Peter Jackson and written by Jackson, Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens and Guillermo del Toro. The movie is based on J. R. R. Tolkien’s book, “The Hobbit, or There and Back Again.” 

‘Star Trek Into Darkness’ reflects the times

It’s been 242 years since two Muslim terrorists hacked a British soldier to death with a machete and a meat cleaver in busy London streets, but in the year 2255, terrorism still prevails. This time, a terrorist blew up a building in London, killing 42 men and women and waging war against the United Federation of Planets.

The culprit is John Harrison (Benedict Cumberbatch), a former top Starfleet agent who went rogue. After Harrison infiltrated an emergency Federation meeting and killed Enterprise’s Captain Jim Kirk’s (Chris Pines) mentor, Captain Christopher Pike (Bruce Greenwood), Kirk resolved to chase after Harrison to bring him to justice. Under Admiral Alexander Marcus’s (Peter Weller) orders, Kirk, Spock (Zachary Quinto) and the rest of the Enterprise crew are armed with 72 nuclear torpedoes and sent on a secret mission (unaffiliated with the Federation) to kill Harrison.

Aligned to his Vulcan moral code, Kirk’s first officer, Spock, believes in habeas corpus, or at least a futuristic version of it. He thinks Harrison should be transported to Earth, where he could be properly tried for his crimes, whereas Kirk and the admiral’s plan would employ torpedoes, which could have unfortunate consequences (perhaps like President Obama’s drone strikes, which killed 4 Americans).

In their sequel to their 2009 film reboot of Gene Roddenberry’s “Star Trek” television series, “Star Trek Into Darkness’s” writers Roberto Orci, Alex Kurtzman and Damon Lindelof and director J.J. Abrams neither planned the real-life terrorist attack in London nor the U.S. drone strikes, but with today’s arsenal of current events, “Star Trek Into Darkness” resonates on another level.

The photos from the aftermath of the fictional London bombing look eerily familiar. We’ve seen them on television sets or laptop screens, or in person, at the Boston marathon, World Trade Center, or Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building. With the media’s coverage of scandal — from the IRS targeting conservative groups; the U.S. justice department taking phone records from the Associated Press; and the government’s handling of Benghazi, where a U.S. ambassador was killed last September — it’s easy to see the corruption and conspiracies.

“Star Trek Into Darkness” is a trek after answers, asking the whys — the question that is often unfathomable after events of terror.

Let me put it this way: the why isn’t, “They hate our freedoms: our freedom of religion, our freedom of speech, our freedom to vote and assemble and disagree with each other,” — President George W. Bush’s words after the 9/11 attacks. The “why” explained in the film is much more sinister, suggesting that the Federation or government betrayed humanity and encouraged perpetual warfare between civilizations.

That’s a frightening thought — as alarming as George Orwell’s ideas of Big Brother surveillance and room 101 torture chambers. But even more frightening is how closely art resembles real-life. If our protectors are corrupt, who can we trust?

Thankfully,”Star Trek Into Darkness” isn’t all dark. It reminds us of the humanity throughout tragedy. We learn to trust in Kirk and our heroes, who selflessly throw themselves into danger again and again — the brave firefighters running back into burning buildings, the civilians volunteering their homes and food to strangers. We learn to believe that there is good out there, despite all this evil.

We see this good in the interactions between Kirk and Spock. As Spock preaches his code of utilitarianism (“The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the one”), Kirk counters, “We can’t let you die!”

“Star Trek Into Darkness” is about love and friendship, showing us that if this is the future, perhaps we, too, can “live long and prosper.”

“Star Trek Into Darkness” was directed by J.J. Abrams, and written by Roberto Orci, Alex Kurtzman and Damon Lidelof, based off of the television series by Gene Roddenberry.