It’s fascinating to look at Sherlock Holmes’ distinguishing characteristics in the context of numerous adaptations because they may be interpreted in so many ways. Age, race, geography, and time period all play a role in the character’s past and present arcs in the show. Others want to know more about Sherlock’s sexuality (or lack thereof), while others want to know more about how drugs are abused. Numerous interpretations of Holmes’ self-perceptions of his own mythology have been proposed, at least one of which suggests that this self-perception is a satire. When it comes to a person’s legacy, though, what is the real story? Any of the Holmeses down here could be stumped by this one.
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17. Will Ferrell (Holmes and Watson, 2018)
Over 150 titles were initially considered for this project, several of which had repeat performers like Georges Tréville, Arthur Wontner and Matt Frewer – thus this list could have been much greater. However, I also believed that Will Ferrell’s fumbling and often disrespectful portrayal of the icon was the proper pick for the lowest entry on my list, which is why I included him. It’s clear that writer/director Etan Cohen is to fault here, but Ferrell still turned up to do Sherlock injustice, and that’s all I’d like to say about it… except to point out that Hector Bateman-Harden was actually rather terrific as the young Sherlock in the prologue of the film. Other than that, he had little to do with the movie’s events.
16. Boris Karloff (The Elgin Hour – “Sting of Death”, 1955)
Boris Karloff is best known for his role as the Frankenstein monster, but he also had the opportunity to play one of cinema’s most renowned detectives in this episode of the anthology series The Elgin Hour from the 1950s. Although it’s not a horrible mystery story for the time period and TV budget available, this one ranks so low because of Karloff’s mustache—perhaps Sherlock’s tribute to his absent bestie Watson? We’ve never seen anything like this before on Sherlock, therefore it doesn’t matter what the cause is.
15. Roger Moore (Sherlock Holmes in New York, 1976)
For some reason, I had no idea that Roger Moore had previously played Sherlock Holmes in an NBC made for television movie, so I watched it on YouTube just for the novelty. In spite of its depth, Moore’s approach on the subject seems a little strange given how much emphasis is placed on the solving of mysteries rather than on the man himself. But it’s still fun to observe Moore’s efforts to separate the character from his other, more well-known personalities.
14. James D’Arcy (Sherlock: A Case of Evil, 2002)
My notes refer to James D’Arcy’s Sherlock as “the horny Sherlock,” and while that isn’t necessarily his fault, it is a decision that feels out of character with prior and future incarnations. Still, D’Arcy manages to find compelling moments even while he is practically swashbuckling his way through the film’s climax, and as a fan of his across various projects, including Secret Diary of a Call Girl, Agent Carter, and Broadchurch, I feel like he could do more if given the chance.
13. Henry Cavill (Enola Holmes, 2020)
He may be one of the most sought after actors in the business, but Henry Cavill’s controlled intensity in this Netflix adaptation of Nancy Springer’s book works well since Enola Holmes isn’t really Sherlock’s journey, but rather his little sister’s (Millie Bobbie Brown). Cavill, on the other hand, doesn’t seem to have a distinct point of view in this film, and at times appears to be a cipher. It would be wonderful if the first film’s amazing potential for a franchise could be continued in a sequel that would allow him to stretch out his performance even further.
12. Rupert Everett (Sherlock Holmes and the Case of the Silk Stocking, 2004)
Because of Rupert’s coolness, this is his only Sherlock appearance to date, and he does a great job of conveying the character’s demeanor. To be honest, the case at hand in this BBC production isn’t all that exciting, but it does an excellent job of fleshing out the persona of Sherlock Holmes and conveying his angst at a world that can’t keep up with his mind.
11. Ian McKellen (Mr. Holmes, 2015)
To paraphrase Gregory Lawrence of Collider, Bill Condon and Ian McKellen’s second (of four) collaboration should be considered as an adaptation of Batman Beyond rather than their usual directorial effort. It’s a compelling argument for why McKellen’s portrayal of Holmes never quite feels like McKellen’s. As a result of this focus on dispelling the myths surrounding Holmes, who is so much more than a hat and pipe, there’s no doubt that this calm investigation of Holmes’ later years gets at his humanity in a manner few other adaptations have accomplished.
10. Jeremy Irons (Saturday Night Live – “Sherlock Holmes’ Birthday Party”, 1991)
Unpacking the above may take a while, so please be patient. SNL was originally hosted by Jeremy Irons, right? Yes, Sherlock Holmes was included in the sketch. Has Jeremy Irons played Sherlock Holmes only once before? Yes, yes, and yes, as far as I know. However, despite its unassuming nature, Irons makes an impressive cameo in the sketch, playing it entirely straight and ultimately fitting in well with the skit’s concept (it’s impossible to hold a surprise birthday party for Sherlock Holmes because he’s too brilliant a detective). In spite of the fact that the sketch is only six minutes long, it’s evident that if Irons ever had the opportunity to reprise his role, it would be a treat to watch.
9. Michael Caine (Without a Clue, 1988)
Most unfaithful to Sherlock Holmes, yet necessary for Thom Eberhardt’s comedy to reveal that the great investigator is just a stupid actor being propped up by Dr. Watson, the partnership’s genuine genius. Probably the least accurate to Sherlock on this list (Ben Kingsley). It’s disloyal, but it’s also one of the most inventive and, dare I say, entertaining.. Due in part to Michael Caine’s gung-ho commitment to portraying both the concept of Sherlock Holmes as legend, and Holmes as the imposter, as well as the message that idols should never be trusted, or at the very least never tried to understand too much about them.
8. Nicholas Rowe (Young Sherlock Holmes, 1985)
When I think of Young Sherlock Holmes, I immediately think of Nicholas Rowe’s placid blank visage, coupled with the casual confidence that comes with believing you’re the smartest guy in any room. It takes something genuinely exceptional to make a character come to life with just one glance. To say that this film has a strange plot would be an understatement. It was directed by Barry Levinson, and written by Chris Columbus, and it takes some strange twists (it’s not the only Sherlock Holmes story to deal with mysticism). In spite of the groundbreaking-at-the-time CGI, Rowe’s ability to find the core of the guy in the form of a fiery teenager has aged significantly better.
7. Nicol Williamson (The Seven-Per-Cent Solution, 1976)
Nicholas Meyer authored a novel and screenplay that posed the question, “What if the great detective received some therapy — and went to the world’s most famous therapist for the job?” before filming Time After Time, which raised the question, “What if Jack the Ripper stole H.G. Wells’ time machine?” Through the use of a very direct method of character analysis, Nicol Williamson accomplishes the tough challenge of presenting a Holmes who is finally able to reflect on his own actions while being treated by Sigmund Freud in psychoanalysis (Alan Arkin). Furthermore, The Seven Per Cent Solution is an example of a Sherlock adaptation that put the attention on his addiction troubles from a modern perspective, a significant aspect of his identity that succeeding versions have mined in depth.
6. Yūko Takeuchi (Miss Sherlock, 2018)
In this HBO Asia series, Sherlock is depicted in a way that is radically different from earlier depictions of the character. When it comes to playing the violin, this Sherlock Holmes prefers to use his cello. Sara “Sherlock” Shelly Futaba, a Japanese woman who resides in Tokyo and has a passion for high heels, is also a character in the Sherlock Holmes series. While this may be true, the persona of Yoko Takeuchi is well embodied by the actress, right down to the joy she displays when confronted with a potentially dangerous puzzle. As an adaptation, Miss Sherlock goes above and beyond the gimmick to offer a fresh take on the classic stories of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. The new best buddy of Sherlock’s, Dr. Wato, is referred to as Wato-san, which is absolutely amazing.
5. Robert Downey Jr. (Sherlock Holmes, 2009; Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows, 2011)
These movies became blockbusters because of Robert Downey Jr.’s post-Iron Man celebrity power and the character’s legendary nature, but the actor’s sudden change is due to more than just star power. It explores the idea of Sherlock as a more physical hero than previous iterations of the character did (in case you doubt that this was released in 2009 and directed by Guy Richie, Sherlock does parkour at the very beginning of the film). A Study in Scarlet, the first tale written by Arthur Conan Doyle, mentions Watson’s new roommate as “an outstanding singlestick player, boxer and swordsman.” Furthermore, this version stands out from the typical picture of the flawlessly pressed gentleman, pushing into the character’s rougher characteristics that honestly brings with it an aura of genuineness. Even though Downey Jr.’s Sherlock is a far cry from the more traditional portrayal, his rough-hewn brashness works well with the films’ grand and challenging puzzles.
4. Jonny Lee Miller (Elementary, 2012–2019)
To say Jonny Lee Miller deserves more credit than he gets is an understatement; he not only found his own way to play Sherlock but also persevered through the physically and mentally taxing process of filming a CBS procedural program. While Elementary ran for a total of seven seasons, there were 154 episodes aired. There have been 13 feature length editions of Sherlock made thus far.
Aside from the fact that it has lasted so long, this version of the story is interesting for how it focuses on Sherlock’s addiction troubles, starting with him just out of rehab and having Dr. Watson move in with him as a sober friend. (For the record, if I were to compile a Watson-like list, Lucy Liu would be a strong contender for the top spot.) This is a more vulnerable Holmes than others, but he is also one that is simpler to emphasize, and he yet retains his innately brilliant spark.
3. Basil Rathbone (The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes and more, 1939-1946)
For at least one generation, if not more, Basil Rathbone was the definitive Sherlock Holmes, quiet and inscrutable and always able to solve the problem.. With 14 films over seven years (first for 20th Century Fox, then for Universal Pictures), he was one of the more prolific actors to play the role. What stands out about his portrayal is that the character always seems to take a back seat to the mystery being solved — perhaps because Rathbone didn’t seem to like him very much. I came to the conclusion that Holmes was nothing more than a one-of-a-kind, tough personality,” Rathbone is quoted as saying by the Guardian. Even while he clearly admits in that comment how his perspective could be altered by proximity, it nevertheless explains why Rathbone’s solid and steady work does not have the spark of other depictions. It’s worth noting, however, that he’s a household name for a reason.
2. Jeremy Brett (Sherlock Holmes, 1984–1994)
From the offbeat to the more conventional, this collection has a wide variety of Sherlocks to choose from. Simply put, Jeremy Brett is one of the best. In his 41 Granada Television mysteries, Brett provides the intellectual swagger and caustic humor inherent in the best adaptations. In contrast to the other characters, he lends a constant sense of humanity to the role. Despite the fact that Sherlock Holmes has been around for more than 100 years, Brett was able to retain the idea of the character as a man with a human heart alive through his time on screen. And he did it all while portraying Sherlock in some of the most authentic Conan Doyle adaptations to date, cementing his legacy as one of the greatest and most beloved Sherlocks of all time.
1. Benedict Cumberbatch (Sherlock, 2010–2017)
The exciting part of compiling a list like this is knowing that you’ve been counting down this whole time to see what comes up on top. ) (Maybe you even jumped straight to this section from when you started reading the article? In the end, who can say? The BBC’s most recent iteration of our crime-solving hero, produced by Mark Gatiss and Steven Moffat, was a pop culture force that you were well aware I had yet to mention, but you may have already anticipated that I would keep him for last.
Sherlock Holmes’ essence is perfectly captured in Benedict Cumberbatch’s interpretation of the character, which is why it’s a standout performance. It doesn’t appear to matter what time zone Sherlock is in, as evidenced by the New Year’s Day 2016 episode “The Abominable Bride.”
On this list, it’s too soon to tell if Sherlock will be as enduring as some of the earlier, more well-known titles. There is still a long road ahead of us: As long as Marvel allows it, Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman are both willing to reprise their roles in the series.
Although Cumberbatch’s performance is a credit to the show’s writers and Cumberbatch’s grasp of the character, this version of Sherlock feels so close to the spirit of Conan Doyle’s original conception – a legendary person with some genuine humanity hidden beneath the façade. All these years, all these many Sherlocks, this fascinating study of the external and internal has been what has kept Sherlock alive to the world’s imagination. For centuries to come, it will be the same quality that keeps Sherlock alive.