Among the books I enjoyed in my youth were Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes mysteries. I devoured them all and found the character of Holmes fascinating, with his almost superhuman logical reasoning, forensic skill and gift for disguising his voice and appearance, often fooling even his friend and the chronicler of his adventures, Dr. John Watson.
Other acquaintances who come and go in the Holmes catalog are also well drawn: his arch-nemesis Professor Moriarty, his landlady Mrs. Hudson, Inspector Lastrade, the Baker Street Irregulars, his brother Mycroft and, in just one story, Irene Adler.
There are four novels and 56 short stories in the original Doyle canon, and there are many more in the post-Doyle canon. Aside from various adaptations and extrapolations of Doyle’s original tales, there have been uncountable offshoots that kept the characters but went off in their own directions, novels and short stories written by others — one was Doyle’s son, Adrian Conan Doyle — as well as stage plays (including a musical), TV movies and series, and, of course, many, many theatrical films.
To my mind, however, few of the non-Doyle spinoffs have been as successful and entertaining as Nicholas Meyer’s 1974 novel “The Seven-Per-Cent Solution.” Cleverly described on the jacket as a lost manuscript of Dr. Watson, the story is a rich imagining that Holmes’ addiction to cocaine has caused him to become delusional, prompting Watson, fearing for his friend’s life, to spirit the detective off to Vienna to be treated by no less than Sigmund Freud. It’s a clever conceit, and the book became a best-seller.
It was only a matter of time before Hollywood came beckoning, and two years later the movie was also a hit. But its home-video life has been less fruitful. After the 1996 VHS went out of production the film remained in home-video limbo until just 18 months ago when Universal produced it under its “Vault Series” label, for manufacture-on-demand releases that are usually very watchable but nonetheless created on inferior DVD-R discs.
This week, however, “The Seven-Per-Cent Solution” has been given new life with a vivid Blu-ray combo edition (Shout! Factory, $26.99) that includes a DVD of the film and a nice bonus feature, an 18-minute interview with Meyer.
A TV-movie writer in the early 1970s, Meyer penned the book during a period when the screenwriters guild was on strike. This was his second novel and he wrote it more or less as a lark, never dreaming it would climb to the top of the best-seller charts and stay there for 40 weeks.
When Meyer was approached about making “The Seven-Per-Cent Solution” into a film, he had just one caveat: that he write the screenplay himself. It was a smart move. He received an Oscar nomination and suddenly found himself in the Hollywood big leagues. (He later also tackled directing, most famously with two of the best original-cast “Star Trek” movies and the 1979 time-traveling fantasy “Time After Time,” which pits H.G. Wells against Jack the Ripper in a chase that takes them from Victorian England to 20th century San Francisco.)
Directed by Herbert Ross, “The Seven-Per-Cent Solution” stars Nicol Williamson as Holmes and features the unexpected but brilliant casting of Robert Duvall as Watson, Alan Arkin as Freud and Laurence Olivier as Professor Moriarty. The result stays true to the Holmes tradition and yet is very different from every other version, laced with humor, filled with rich characters, and alternately exciting and cerebral. (By the way, the Book of Mormon gets a passing mention as one of the tomes on Freud’s bookshelf.)
Obviously I love the film, and this recommendation comes from someone who grew up with the 1930s and ’40s Sherlock Holmes pictures, thanks to the regular rotation of old movies on every TV station in the 1950s and ’60s. After our 13-inch black-and-white Philco brought the Basil Rathbone franchise into my world, it was — and still is — hard to think of the character without seeing Rathbone in my mind. (Although it’s also hard not to agree with the critical consensus that Nigel Bruce’s portrayal of Watson as a bumbling comic-relief character was so untrue to the novels as to be occasionally off-putting.)
Over the years I’ve also enjoyed the wide array of Holmes films that followed, especially Peter Cushing in “The Hound of the Baskervilles” (1959), Billy Wilder’s “The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes” (1970) and “Murder By Decree” (1979), with Christopher Plummer as Holmes and James Mason as Watson in pursuit of Jack the Ripper.
And I found pleasure in the offbeat comic riffs “They Might Be Giants” (1971), with George C. Scott as a reclusive millionaire who thinks he’s Holmes and Joanne Woodward as his psychiatrist, Dr. Watson, and “Without a Clue” (1988), with Ben Kingsley’s Watson hiring an out-of-work actor, played by Michael Caine, to impersonate his literary creation, Holmes.
There are many more, of course. In fact, according to the Guinness Book of World Records, Holmes has been the subject of 255 movie and television interpretations, holding the record as the literary human character most often portrayed onscreen. (Although a non-human character eclipses him for the overall record: Dracula, with 272 depictions.)
That’s a lot of Sherlock Holmes movies and TV shows, ranging from a 1900 silent short to the most recent movies starring Robert Downey Jr. and two first-rate but very different TV updates, BBC’s “Sherlock” and the CBS series “Elementary.”
And it is no doubt, thanks to the popularity of these recent shows, that “The Seven-Per-Cent Solution” has finally made its way to Blu-ray and DVD, and hopefully to a new audience that will discover it as a delightful addition to their Holmes experience.