When archetypes change

I was watching the second episode in the new Sherlock Holmes TV series this week and I began thinking about archetypes.
As I mentioned in this post, the groundbreaker for a particular genre is frequently not the archetype, the character who sums up the genre: Robert E. Howard arguably started the sword-and-sorcery genre with King Kull, but it’s his Conan whom everyone recognizes, for instance. Sherlock Holmes is the private detective archetype, overshadowing predecessors such as Poe’s Dupin.
But there’s no way to know the archetype until it appears. And if a better archetype appears later, the character or film that defines a genre can change. For example, space adventure, referred to for years as “Buck Rogers stuff,” is now more likely “Star Wars stuff”; the archetype has changed.
Or consider gangster movies. For years, Jimmy Cagney, snarling “You dirty rat!” was the archetype of the genre, even though he never actually said the phrase in his gangster films (he did say it in One Two Three, when he’s doing a Cagney impersonation). Today, it seems people are more likely to refer to Pacino’s Scarface and “Say hello to my little friend!” In the Batman cartoon preceding the current Brave and the Bold, for instance, Scarface—a ventriloquist doll modeled in the comics after a 1930s gangster type—is reimagined visually in the Latino drug-dealer mold.
The same applies, I suspect to “definitive” interpretations of fictional characters on screen. When I was a kid, Sherlock Holmes was Basil Rathbone (and vice versa); when I did Holmes on stage for a skit once, Rathbone was my model. Now, though, even I’d pick Jeremy Brett as the “definitive” Holmes, and I wonder if a Holmes fan under thirty would even consider Rathbone in the running. It’s not just that there have been better or comparable Holmes since, it’s that between Turner Classic Movies and Netflix, they’re almost all available; it’s much easier to see Peter Cushing in Hound of the Baskervilles or Arthur Wontner (the “definitive” Holmes before Rathbone came along) in Triumph of Sherlock Holmes than it was for me in ye olden days.
Robin Hood? He was Errol Flynn, of course—even to me, a Brit who grew up with Richard Greene’s Robin Hood TV show. Does Errol Flynn still hold the definitive slot for Generation X, Y and whoever comes after them (millenials?)? Or is it Kevin Costner in Prince of Thieves? Jason Connery in Robin of Sherwood? Or whoever’s in the current BBC series?
Sic transit gloria mundi, I guess.

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