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Book-To-Movie: ‘The Hound of the Baskervilles’

A huge dog stands over the corpses of its two victims that it attacked.
Credit: Wikimedia Commons

I apologise for posting outside our regular post-day which is late Saturday night/early Sunday morning. However, I got behind on several things last week and so had to postpone the post to today. 

I’ve been a reader of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes books ever since I was 11. What I’ve always liked so much about the series is that, like a good horror story, the stories often take place in dark settings and involve bizarre cases. Conan Doyle’s novel, “The Hound of the Baskervilles”, definitely contains these elements. It’s a detective story that crosses over into the gothic horror genre. Several movie adaptations of the novel have been made that go as far back as a 1915 German silent film. In 1959 Hammer Studios released a version starring Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee. As much as I’m a fan of the Hammer horror films, I have not seen that one yet. The only one that I’ve seen so far is the 1939 adaptation starring that other big name in classic British horror, Basil Rathbone.  That one was filmed really good and stayed mostly faithful to the original story, but there were some changes that took away some of the irony and tension found in the novel. 

The Book

Published first in serialized form in 1901 then in book form in 1902, Conan Doyle’s “The Hound of the Baskervilles” is a dark, detective mystery about murder for inheritance. It also involves a believed-to-be family curse. Sherlock Holmes and his sidekick Dr. Watson, who narrates the story as he does in most of the Holmes mysteries, attempt to track a killer who threatens the life of a young heir, Sir Henry Baskerville. In order to solve the case, the two detectives must find out if the killer is even human. Mostly set on the Baskerville estate on the secluded moors, the locals believe that a demon dog haunts the area. They, like much of the Baskerville line, believe the family has been cursed by the dog due to the abusiveness of an ancestor, Hugo Baskerville, toward his wife. 

The character interaction in the book is done really good and the tension and conflict are portrayed convincingly. One of the suspects of the murders (who I will not name so as not to create any spoilers) who comes across as a gentleman at first, is brutal to a female relation making us hate him and bringing out the evil and menace of the murders. This character and the revelation of his true identity is an example of the strong irony that the novel is filled with. And the hound is portrayed as a beast from hell with its flaming mouth and glowing body. But is it really a supernatural creature? Holmes and Watson have their doubts being the rationalists that they are. But the locals believe it to be of the supernatural. It’s this question that’s part of the mystery that Holmes and Watson do everything they can to solve.

The Movie

The 1939 movie of “The Hound of the Baskervilles”, directed by Sidney Lanfield, omits several scenes from the book while adding a few of its own. Some of these omitted scenes enhanced the tension and suspense of the book and so keeping them out of the movie takes away from these two. One of the added scenes is a séance where a medium attempts to contact the spirit of Henry’s uncle, the deceased Sir Charles Baskerville, hoping to discover the true cause of his death. At the time, it is debated whether Sir Charles died of a heart attack or of the curse of the hound. This scene was added probably because of the popularity of spiritualism of the time the movie was made and, even though the movie could have told the story sufficiently without it, it enhances the mystery of the hound and family curse. 

Other changes to the film is an extramarital love affair scene that was left out which in the book enhanced the suspicions of one of the suspects. However, because of the changes brought to that and another character in the movie (again, I am not using these characters’ names so as to avoid spoilers), the scene was not called for and so not needed. These changes also may had been made to fit the story into the movie’s one-hour-and-twenty-minute time frame. 

While the film omitted scenes from the book that served as a good support to the suspense and irony, the filming style was done really good overall. The sets depicted the gothic and haunting atmosphere of Henry’s ancestral home and the moors it was located on. The Baskerville mansion and exterior surroundings were bleak and convincing for the movie’s time. The limitation of black-and-white film actually enhanced that bleakness. The problem was that the music track was limited to only the beginning scenes and so didn’t accompany the mood of the peak scenes. But limited music tracks were common in cinema of that time. Remember, 1939 was relatively not that much later than the silent film era. 

The acting was performed really good. The exception is that the acting in the flashback scene involving Hugo Baskerville could have been done better. It was not convincing of his and his rowdy friends who are amoral and hostile to women. 

Perhaps the biggest problem I had with the movie, however, was the hound. As vicious as it was portrayed it was not made up to appear demonic or supernatural like in the book and so it looked too much like an everyday, large dog. In the book, the hound didn’t only have a supernatural aura or flaming mouth, but it was described as the size of a huge calf. In the movie, the only indication that we get of the dog’s possible supernatural origins is from the talk that the locals give of it.

Although 1939’s “The Hound of the Baskervilles” did not contain the suspense and irony of the book, its filming style, acting and set design make up for that loss. Also, as far as plot goes, it stayed mostly true to the book. However, Conan Doyle’s novel conveys best the gothic atmosphere and the suspense and irony that comes with a good horror or mystery. 

The Newsletter

I’m still working on the logo to the newsletter, “Night Creatures’ Call”. I need to ink it in and paint it but discovered that it may be coloured best with water-colour markers. However, I don’t have water-colour markers and because I’m not able to drive at this time, my trips to the store have been limited. I want to get this first issue out to those of you who subscribed before the month ends.  So, what I may do is use a black and white version of the logo for this first issue and then use the coloured version for the next. Who knows, maybe that will enhance the horror of the subject matter which is a beastly hand grabbing the receiver of an old rotary phone.

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Have you read any of the Sherlock Holmes mysteries? Have you seen any of the movie adaptations?

Until next time . . .


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