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The 10 best ‘Sherlock Holmes’ adaptations of all time, ranked

Who played the world’s greatest detective best?

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Sherlock Holmes (Benedict Cumberbatch) and Dr. Watson (Martin Freeman) are back in “Sherlock: Season Two.”

Sherlock Holmes (Benedict Cumberbatch) and Dr. Watson (Martin Freeman) in “Sherlock: Season Two.”

Colin Hutton

I grew up in a household run by nerds. Both my parents were fans of “Star Trek,” “The Lord of the Rings” and “Sherlock Holmes” — the nerdy trifecta — meaning that our family TV time was spent watching multiple seasons, movies, iterations and more of all three.

“Sherlock Holmes” is a beast of its own compared to the other two franchises. While “Star Trek” and “The Lord of the Rings” have expanded on their original works, most “Sherlock Holmes” adaptations are different takes and interpretations of the famous detective (with a few exceptions).

As someone who has seen at least 10 “Sherlock Holmes” adaptations, I have taken it upon myself to rank the top 10 “Sherlock Holmes” adaptations of all time. Let’s get into it.

What was Sherlock Holmes famous for?

Sherlock Holmes first came to page in 1887’s “A Study in Scarlet.” Created by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, it is commonly believed that the author shaped Holmes after Dr. Joseph Bell, a teacher at Edinburg University’s medical school, according to the Sir Arthur Conan Doyle literary estate’s official website. Doyle met Bell when he was 17.

Per Doyle’s literary estate, Holmes has an “obsessive personality” — making him an excellent detective, sure, but a dangerous personality when he wasn’t on a case. It was common for Holmes to fall into a deep depression in between cases, causing him to turn to cocaine when he grew too bored.

Holmes had other hobbies beyond solving cases, namely playing his violin and conducting chemistry experiments.

Doyle last wrote Holmes in “His Last Bow” in 1914, where he was “described as being 60,” according to Doyle’s literary estate. Holmes had retired from detective work before 1904, after 23 years, and moved to Sussex Downs. Per Baker Street Wiki, after solving the case in “His Last Bow,” Holmes returned to Sussex to spend his time beekeeping and eventually publishing a manuscript on beekeeping.

How many ‘Sherlock Holmes’ adaptations are there?

As of 2012, Sherlock Holmes was the most-portrayed literary character in both TV and film, according to Guinness. At the time, Holmes was portrayed 254 times — a number that has certainly grown in the past 10 years.

According to Guinness, “Through a combination of films, television series, dramas and documentaries, Sherlock’s appearances beat the character of Shakespeare’s Hamlet by 48 portrayals to claim the record.”

The 10 best ‘Sherlock Holmes’ adaptations of all time

10. ‘Enola Holmes’ (2020) and ‘Enola Holmes 2’ (2022)

Played by: Henry Cavill.

While not a faithful adaptation, and with a more feeling and barely seen Holmes, “Enola Holmes” and “Enola Holmes 2” is still an excellent addition to the “Sherlock Holmes” extended universe.

Millie Bobby Brown plays Enola, Sherlock and Mycroft’s (Sam Claflin) precocious and brilliant teenaged sister. In the first movie, Enola has spent her time being trained and taught by her brilliant mother, Eudoria (Helena Bonham Carter). But on her 16th birthday, Enola wakes to find her mother gone — with only a few birthday presents left in her wake.

Thus begins Enola’s sweeping adventure to find her mother. As mentioned before, Holmes makes brief appearances in both “Enola Holmes” and “Enola Holmes 2,” but his little sister takes up most of the spotlight.

Cavill plays Holmes as more affectionate than other portrayals — he is very fond of his sister and makes a few blunders during his investigations (something that the original Holmes practically never did). In fact, Cavill’s warmer Holmes was so different than the original that Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s estate sued Netflix over the portrayal, arguing that Holmes was “aloof and unemotional,” according to The Guardian.

Additionally, the lawsuit claimed that Nancy Springer’s novels, which “Enola Holmes” was based on, “constitutes willful, deliberate, and ongoing infringement of the Conan Doyle Estate’s copyrights.” The lawsuit was dismissed in 2020, per The Guardian.

Streaming on: Netflix.

9. ‘Young Sherlock Holmes’ (1985)

Played by: Nicholas Rowe.

“Young Sherlock Holmes” gives the detective a rich background story. The movie follows a teenaged Holmes and Watson, the latter of whom just transferred to Holmes’ school in London. This changes Holmes’ and Watson’s origin story, as written by Doyle — Watson was introduced to Holmes by a friend, who was looking for a roommate.

Unsurprisingly, Holmes and Watson work to solve a mystery: They investigate a series of deaths at the school and in London. They are joined, however, by Elizabeth, Holmes’ love interest in the film.

The gang manages to solve the mystery, but not without a casualty (spoilers ahead!): Elizabeth dies protecting Holmes.

The movie is an interesting attempt to explain why Holmes is the way that he is. Perhaps his coldness and unfeelingness comes from losing his childhood sweetheart? But trying to explain, and even justify, Holmes’ behavior almost cheapens his character. It’s Holmes’ lack of emotions and attachment that makes him a great detective.

Regardless of its inaccuracies, “Young Sherlock Holmes” is a fun family movie. And it’s a great way to introduce your kids to the sweeping franchise that is “Sherlock Holmes.”

Streaming on: Paramount+, Prime Video.

8. ‘Mr. Holmes’ (2015)

Played by: Ian McKellen.

While “Mr. Holmes” provides a mystery to be solved, at its best it’s a character study of an aging, once-great detective.

The film is set in 1947. Holmes, once the world’s greatest detective, is now 93 and retired in Sussex, spending his time beekeeping (which is accurate to Doyle’s own portrayal of Holmes at the end of his career). He lives with his housekeeper, Mrs. Munro, and her son, Roger.

Holmes has, surprisingly or unsurprisingly, depending on who you ask, suffered from acute memory loss in his old age. This has caused him to ruminate over — and question — his last case, “The Adventure of the Dove Grey Glove.”

This leads Holmes on a journey of remembrance, soul-searching and mystery-solving. The film’s ending is surprisingly tender for a detective famous for his lack of emotions. But, considering that Doyle never portrayed Holmes past his 60s, perhaps it’s not unrealistic that Holmes would find a little humanity in his old age.

Streaming on: Apple TV, Prime Video, YouTube — all starting at $3.99.

7. ‘Sherlock Holmes’ (2009) and ‘Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows’ (2011)

Played by: Robert Downey Jr.

Both “Sherlock Holmes” films give our hero-detective a swashbuckling edge, leaning on Holmes’ fighting abilities as much as his powers of deduction.

This isn’t a huge stretch for the character — Doyle described Holmes as a trained boxer in “The Adventure of Gloria Scott” and Holmes even engages in a fight in “The Adventure of the Solitary Cyclist.” And in “A Study in Scarlet,” Watson observes Holmes to be “an expert singlestick player, boxer, and swordsman.”

The leads to, while not exactly accurate adaptations, two movies full of good fun. Robert Downey Jr.’s Holmes is, while a bit more rough around the edges and more prone to a fight, just as full of swaggering confidence as the original.

Beyond a new, action-hero Holmes, both films feature engaging mysteries and well-choreographed fight scenes. And, for fans of both films, rumors of “Sherlock Holmes 3” are going strong — the film is allegedly a “priority” for Downey Jr., per Collider.

Streaming on: Apple TV, Prime Video, YouTube — all starting at $3.99.

6. ‘House’ (2004-2012)

Played by: Hugh Laurie.

“House” is often missing on lists of “Sherlock Holmes” adaptations, but the hit medical drama is, in fact, based on the great detective.

If you look closely, you’ll see similarities: Sherlock Holmes is Gregory House, a brilliant and seemingly unfeeling doctor hooked on Vicodin; Dr. Watson is Dr. Wilson, House’s only friend who attempts to insert humanity into his friend; Holmes enjoyed playing the violin, while House favors the piano. There are many more similarities — House lives in 221B Baker Street, for example.

Choosing to set “Sherlock Holmes” in a modern-day hospital is an interesting, but fitting choice. Much like Holmes, House sees his medical cases as intriguing puzzles to be solved instead of people to be helped. And much like Holmes, House is willing to do anything to solve the mystery.

Laurie plays his Holmes-like character with a bit more snark, and less tact, than the original. Holmes was known to be witty, sure, but he was rarely rude. But Laurie’s House has the same cocky arrogance of Holmes; of a man who knows that he is by far smartest person in the room.

Streaming on: Prime Video, Apple TV, Peacock.

5. ‘Elementary’ (2012-2019)

Played by: Jonny Lee Miller.

Another modern adaptation, “Elementary” got a bit lost amid all the excited chatter for 2010’s “Sherlock.” While it was never quite as popular as its BBC counterpart, “Elementary” stood on its own as an interesting and refreshing take on Holmes and Watson.

The show takes place in modern-day Manhattan. After a stint in rehab, Sherlock has left London and finds himself assigned to a sober companion, thanks to his father. His sober companion? Joan Watson (Lucy Liu), an ex-surgeon whose medical license was revoked years earlier. Joan eventually moves in with Sherlock and the two soon work together to solve cases with the NYPD.

Reworking “Sherlock Holmes” into a seven-season crime procedural might seem like a tired, flimsy take on a rich classic. But it works surprisingly well — not only does “Elementary” tackle some fascinating cases, but seeing Sherlock in the throes of addiction makes for a fresh, interesting and even sympathetic character.

The show even incorporates other side characters from “Sherlock Holmes” canon: Mycroft and Lestrade make appearances, as well as Irene Adler and Moriarty (with an unpredictable, well-executed twist).

But beyond all this, the most notable element from “Elementary” (no pun intended) is the relationship between Sherlock and Joan. A gender-bent Joan could’ve easily morphed into an unnecessary romance between the two, but their relationship stays platonic. As the show progresses, Joan and Sherlock become more than friends — they become caring, platonic companions. It’s a tender relationship and it plays out beautifully in “Elementary.”

Streaming on: Hulu.

4. ‘The Hound of the Baskervilles’ (1959)

Played by: Peter Cushing.

Perhaps the most well-known “Sherlock Holmes” case, 1959’s “The Hound of the Baskervilles” tackles the famous case with eerie and gothic flair.

If you think about it, the 1950s was the perfect time to film this adaptation. “The Hound of the Baskervilles” uses classic horror and gothic film trademarks of the time: swelling, dramatic music; sudden, piercing screams; sharp and sprawling shadows; and gradual, dreadful close-ups.

It all comes together forebodingly. “The Hound of the Baskervilles” is instilled with menace, playing out like a classic, literary version of the many monster flicks that came before it. And at the heart of it all is a well-played Holmes and Watson doggedly pursuing the case. The film makes for a great night of TV-watching, perhaps best reserved for October.

This isn’t the last time Peter Cushing played the great detective. He played Holmes in a ”Sherlock Holmes” series from 1964 to 1968 and played him twice more in 1976 and 1985, according to The Arthur Conan Doyle Encyclopedia.

Streaming on: YouTube.

3. ‘The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes’ and more (1939-1946)

Played by: Basil Rathbone.

Many generations (before Jeremy Brett and Benedict Cumberbatch came along) might consider Basil Rathbone as the quintessential Holmes. According The Guardian, Rathbone portrayed Holmes in 14 films.

Throughout his many “Sherlock Holmes” movies, Rathbone played Holmes with a calmness, more so than others who have tackled the role. The mania that Holmes was privy to — some portrayals leaned more into this mania than others — was practically nonexistent.

However, Rathbone’s Holmes did discreetly use drugs — at one point, he asked Watson to hand him “the needle” — much more so than his predecessor’s, Eille Norwood, Holmes, per The Guardian.

Nevertheless, Rathbone’s portrayal was praised almost universally. According to The Guardian, the New York Post described Rathbone as “an actor who appears to have been born and trained for this particular role.”

But after playing Holmes for seven years, Rathbone grew tired of the role. “I came to the conclusion (as one may in living too closely and too long in seclusion with any one rather unique and difficult personality) that there was nothing lovable about Holmes,” Rathbone said, per The Guardian.

Streaming on: Apple TV, Prime Video, YouTube — all starting at $3.99.

2. ‘Sherlock’ (2010-2017)

Played by: Benedict Cumberbatch.

Perhaps one of the best-known “Sherlock Holmes” adaptations, BBC’s “Sherlock” took the world by storm when it premiered in 2010. It is also what arguably catapulted its two stars — Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman — into super-stardom.

“Sherlock” is another modern adaptation of “Sherlock Holmes.” Set in modern-day London, Sherlock is a consultant to Scotland Yard, while Dr. John Watson has just returned home after serving in Afghanistan with the Royal Army Medical Corps. The two meet in the first episode, “A Study in Pink,” and become roommates.

All four seasons of “Sherlock” modernize some of the best “Sherlock Holmes” stories, including “The Hound of the Baskervilles,” “A Scandal in Bohemia” and more. Cumberbatch’s Sherlock is often manic, while Holmes was originally portrayed as cool and collected with bouts of mania. Sherlock is also identified as “high-functioning sociopath” in the series; while Holmes might display similar behavior in the original series, he was never identified with any personality disorder.

While die-hard “Sherlock Holmes” fans may argue about the accuracy of BBC’s “Sherlock,” Cumberbatch makes for a captivating Sherlock Holmes. Perhaps most notable is Freeman’s portrayal of John Watson — often as portrayed as Holmes’ devoted lackey in other adaptations, John is an active partner in Sherlock’s mystery-solving in “Sherlock.”

Streaming on: Prime Video ($2.99), Apple TV ($4.99).

1. ‘The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes,’ ‘The Return of Sherlock Holmes,’ ‘The Case-Book of Sherlock Holmes’ and ‘Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes’ (1984-1994)

Played by: Jeremy Brett.

For many, there is no other Holmes than the one portrayed in “The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes” (and more), played by Jeremy Brett. Brett tackled the character for 10 years — whom he called “a black-and-white figure moving through a world of color” and “man without a heart,” per The New York Times.

Brett’s striking and “unnerving” (as called by The New York Times) portrayal of Holmes was likely due to his obsessiveness, ironically mirroring the great detective himself. Brett was known to carry a well-worn and earmarked copy of “Sherlock Holmes” — the complete works — and refused to do any work that deviated from Doyle’s original, according to The Telegraph. He’d often go as far as mimicking the poses and scenes depicted by artist Sidney Paget, who illustrated Doyle’s stories in The Strand Magazine.

Tragically, portraying Holmes with such precision proved to be detrimental to Brett’s physical and mental health. Brett was a method actor — a “becomer,” as Brett called it — and worked to “fully understand the mind of this enigmatic character,” Gus Holwerda, host of the “Jeremy Brett Sherlock Holmes Podcast,” told The Telegraph.

“He spent over a decade of his life trying to fully realize Holmes,” Holwerda said. “By his own admission, it was an ongoing challenge that he never completely achieved.”

Brett was eventually plagued by tragedy. His wife died of cancer in 1985. Brett himself was diagnosed with bipolar disorder and experienced other health problems — noticeable in the final episodes of the show. “His relationship with the great detective seemed increasingly complex,” The Telegraph wrote.

“It became stressful to him towards the end,” David Stuart Davies, Sherlock Holmes expert, told The Telegraph. “In a way he saw Holmes as a very isolated, cold character. As a detective he had to reject emotion. But that was totally at odds with Jeremy Brett’s friendly, generous, bonhomie nature.”

“Suddenly, he had to put on the dark suit and become this cold, precise individual, which caused him stress — partly because of the bipolar and the fact he was a sensitive individual.”

Brett eventually died of heart failure at 59. In his 1995 obituary, The New York Times wrote, “More than any other actor since Basil Rathbone, Mr. Brett was regarded as the quintessential Holmes: breathtakingly analytical, given to outrageous disguises and the blackest moods and relentless in his enthusiasm for solving the most intricate crimes.”

Streaming on: Britbox, Philo.