Michael Chabon's The Final Solution (2004) and Mitch Cullin's A Slight Trick of the Mind (2005) are strikingly similar novels, although it's not clear if the former influenced the latter: they're both about an ancient Sherlock Holmes, suffering from both physical and mental deterioration, who struggles with a case (or, in Cullin's novel, cases) against the background of WWII. Like Michael Dibdin's much earlier (and wryly mis-titled) The Last Sherlock Holmes Story, they're also about the making of "Holmes"--the cult figure of the great detective. In Chabon's tale, Holmes is never named, but the novel slyly foregrounds all the signifiers that say "Holmes" (for example, his magnifying glass). In Cullin's more complicated narrative, Holmes himself is forced to contemplate not only the tension between fact and fiction, but also the extent to which fiction, the only source of true closure, may become necessary--and the extent to which Holmesian logic may prove useless when faced with great trauma, including death (a point also made in Chabon's story).
Mr. Holmes, Bill Condon's adaptation of A Slight Trick of the Mind, maintains the novel's tripartite structure of cases, two in the past and one in the present, as well as the novel's key conceit, in which Holmes tries to assert himself against Watson's fictionalized version by writing up his last "adventure." The Umezaki case gets relatively short shrift, as does the subplot about post-WWII Japan, and there's no sign of Mr. Umezaki's boyfriend; the solution to this case remains the same, but its location in the plot undergoes a significant change (of which more below the fold). In general, Condon is more revisionist here than he was with Gods and Monsters. One of the most drastic alterations, in fact, is the backstory to Holmes' narrative. In the novel, Holmes is driven to write up the Ann Keller (Kelmot in the film) case before he dies as a generalized riposte to Watson's storytelling approach, although he has already conceded to Watson that he understands why Watson wrote the stories as he did. In Mr. Holmes, the Ann Kelmot case is part of Watson's published canon ("The Adventure of the Lady in Grey"), which has even been turned into a Basil Rathbone-style adaptation. As the film eventually reveals, Watson rewrote the case as a success in order to maintain the fiction of Holmes as a "hero," but also as an attempt to comfort Holmes for his failure--thereby inadvertently destroying their relationship. (In the novel, they grow apart naturally after Watson's final marriage, but it's made clear that Holmes still loves him deeply.) The difficulty for Film!Holmes, however, is that as his memory degrades, he can remember the case only in fits and starts, so that he spends much of the film attempting to grasp how the case failed. What, in other words, was his motive for retiring to his bees? And what does it mean for Holmes' understanding of his own identity if he cannot remember his own story?
I'm about to traipse into the world of major spoilers (both film and novel), so head below the fold for more.