Best Sherlock Adaptations

Ellen Grant
• Tuesday, 15 December, 2020
• 9 min read

This Billy Wilder film stars Robert Stephens as a more complex Holmes beyond the suave observer depicted in Watson’s (Colin Blakely) tales. Multiple Shylockian admitted to having a soft spot for this “hilarious” reimagining that flips the personalities of its dynamic detective duo, featuring Ben Kingsley’s Watson as the brain and Michael Caine’s Holmes as the bumbling student.

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For one of the most recent big-screen adaptations, Linger paid particular kudos to Jude Law, who plays “one of the very best Watson sever” opposite Robert Downey Jr.'s Holmes. Shylockian and film historians agree BBC nailed this serialized, updated take on Conan Doyle’s mysteries, featuring Martin Freeman as Dr. Watson and Benedict Cumberbatch as a Holmes with “a kind of arrogance that ... is actually not very sympathetic but that made the role interesting,” according to UCLA Film & Television archive director Jan-Christopher Hora.

Jonny Lee Miller, left, as Sherlock Holmes and Lucy Liu as Dr. Joan Watson in CBS’s “Elementary.” That’s the premise for this buzz CBS series starring Jonny Lee Miller as Holmes and Lucy Liu as a rare female Watson.

The program’s success, Hora said, proves “great capacity” for change in the Holmes canon as long as “the essence of the characters remains.” Detective Sherlock Holmes and his stalwart partner Watson engages in a battle of wits and brawn with a nemesis whose plot is a threat to all of England.

Sherlock Holmes and Dr Watson solve the mysteries of copper beeches, a Greek interpreter, the Norwood builder, a resident patient, the red-headed league, and one final problem. To treat his friend's cocaine induced delusions, Watson lures Sherlock Holmes to Sigmund Freud.

Sherlock Holmes investigates the murders committed by Jack the Ripper and discovers a conspiracy to protect the killer. Sherlock Holmes comes to the aid of his friend Henry Baskerville, who is under a family curse and menaced by a demonic dog that prowls the bogs near his estate and murders people.

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Hired by a young lady, Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson investigate the strange recent deaths of her missing father's friends from the army, as well as the whereabouts of the Great Mogul, the second-largest diamond in the world. Certain events which had an impact on Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, while he was still a medical student under the supervision of Dr. Bell, his teacher and mentor, on whom the character of Sherlock Holmes is partly drawn from.

When a bored Holmes eagerly takes the case of Gabrielle Valley after an attempt on her life, the search for her missing husband leads to Loch Ness and the legendary monster. The adventures of master detective Sherlock Holmes as he and his assistant, Dr. Watson--and, somewhat reluctantly, the bumbling Inspector Lestrade--battle criminals in London.

When a nobleman is threatened by a family curse on his newly inherited estate, detective Sherlock Holmes is hired to investigate. Sherlock Holmes investigates the case of a string of mysterious deaths with no apparent causes and the case of a missing German Prince that could cause war between England and Germany.

A modern update finds the famous sleuth and his doctor partner solving crime in 21st century London. When a Nazi saboteur jeeringly predicts to the nation new depredations via the radio 'Voice of Terror', the Homeland Security Inner Council summons Sherlock Holmes (Basil Rathbone) to help ... See full summary ».

Sherlock Holmes sets out to discover why a trio of murderous villains, including a dangerously attractive female, are desperate to obtain three unassuming and inexpensive little music boxes. When the fabled Star of Rhodesia diamond is stolen on a London to Edinburgh train and the son of its owner is murdered, Sherlock Holmes must discover which of his suspicious fellow passengers is responsible.

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Holmes is recruited to escort the heir to a European throne safely back to his homeland after his father's assassination. Sherlock Holmes investigates when young women around London turn up murdered, each with a finger severed.

Scotland Yard suspects a madman, but Holmes believes the killings to be part of a diabolical plot. Sherlock Holmes investigates a series of deaths at a castle with each foretold by the delivery of orange pips to the victims.

Sherlock Holmes investigates a series of so-called “pajama suicides”. He knows the female villain behind them is as cunning as Moriarty and as venomous as a spider.

When a valuable pearl with a sinister reputation is stolen, Sherlock Holmes must investigate its link to a series of brutal murders. When a gentlewoman is found dead with her throat torn out, the villagers blame a supernatural monster.

But Sherlock Holmes, who gets drawn into the case from nearby Quebec, suspects a human murderer. During WWII several murders occur at a convalescent home where Dr. Watson has volunteered his services.

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He summons Holmes for help and the master detective proceeds to solve the crime from ... See full summary ». Sherlock Holmes and Doctor Watson travel to Washington D.C. in order to prevent a secret document from falling into enemy hands.

Sherlock Holmes and Doctor Watson must protect a Swiss inventor of an advanced bomb sight from falling into German hands. When a murder happens with a bloody inscription and a ring left behind, puzzled Scotland Yard detectives go to Sherlock Holmes for help.

Doctor Watson moves in with the eccentric Sherlock Holmes, and they get a case to solve. A young heiress seeks Holmes' help when she feels threatened by her brutish stepfather after her sister dies under mysterious circumstances.

Dr. Watson executes Sherlock Holmes' will, who faced death after exposing Moriarty and his gang in the previous episode. After upsetting the criminal underground in 'the Master Blackmailer' case, Sherlock Holmes has to face his archenemy: Prof. Moriarty.

Retired Sherlock Holmes and practicing Dr. Watson come back together to solve a puzzle in the beginning of the 20th century. Detective Sherlock Holmes is on the trail of criminal mastermind Professor Moriarty, who is carrying out a string of random crimes across Europe.

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A modern take on the cases of Sherlock Holmes, with the detective now living in New York City. An antisocial maverick doctor who specializes in diagnostic medicine does whatever it takes to solve puzzling cases that come his way using his crack team of doctors and his wits.

The reason why, to paraphrase the esteemed Sherlock, is mere “elementary.” Arthur Conan Doyle’s brainchild is the basis for all modern detection, from the analysis of fingerprints and ballistics (which eventually became forensic procedure) to the pipe and deerstalker cap that’s since become a symbol for stalking criminals. Of the 70 performers who’ve had the pleasure, many, including Christopher Lee, Roger Moore, and Charlton Heston have donned the deerstalker to less than stellar results.

With that in mind, we’ve picked what we believe to be the finest adaptations to date, so that one can binge detect while waiting for BBC’s Sherlock to return this winter. Set in New York City, Miller plays Sherlock as an eccentric who was forced to relocate in the wake of rampant drug use and wanting a fresh start.

Partnered with protege Joan Watson (Lucy Liu), the duo traverse a slew of mysteries both classical and original-- especially with the added twist of Moriarty being a vivacious female (Natalie Dormer). Response to Elementary was initially mixed, especially in comparison to BBC’s Sherlock, but it's proven a sleeper success due to Miller’s psychologically tainted performance.

The British actor brought a bundle of new Sherlock details to the table; namely, the detective’s father issues, his mother’s history with opium, and his field experience with MI6 (between seasons 2 and 3). Taking things in the complete opposite direction, Sherlock Holmes & The Case of the Silk Stocking (2004) shows the detective at his most dreary.

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Played with haunting authority by English actor Rupert Everett, this Holmes is not a man easily amused by life’s finer things. In fact, given the TV lineage before him, Everett decides to emphasize the character’s lesser qualities: patronizing arrogance, emotional indifference, and of course, fluctuating drug use.

Silk Stocking pulls this card instantly in the opener, which shows Holmes lounging in an opium den to pass the time. It also helps that the actor’s “hawk-like nose”, “sharp and piercing eyes”, and chin of “prominence and squareness” all check out with Conan Doyle’s literary description.

Based on the book by Nicholas Meyer, The Seven-Per-Cent Solution (1976) takes the drug angle a step further by forcing Holmes (Nicole Williamson) to undergo psychiatric treatment. Williamson gets to cut loose as the famous detective, bypassing the Stoic norm for a performance that’s riddled with jittery antics and rambling tirades.

Their presence, along with Akin and Vanessa Redgrave, helped The Seven-Per-Cent Solution convey it's risky premise and net two Academy Award nominations (including Best Adapted Screenplay). Unfortunately, Granada Studios was beginning work on their show around the same time, and the resulting legal disagreement was eventually settled out of court for the cost of the Mantra mysteries that did get made: The Hound of the Baskerville and The Sign of Four.

These 1983 films had their minor gripes; from the occasional happiness to the vocal dubbing, but the lead presence of Ian Richardson proved a saving grace. Long before he rose to fame for the original House of Cards (1990), Richardson brought a light, reaction nature to the role of Sherlock.

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Nevertheless, Wilmer’s performance was widely hailed for its sardonic bite and no-nonsense demeanor-- traits that his series replacement, Peter Cushing, would later absorb. The idea of depicting the detective’s early years had “80s gimmick” written all over it, but the efforts of screenwriter Chris Columbus and director Barry Levinson ensured the film would be a fun family adventure.

Young Sherlock Holmes follows the titular teen (Nicholas Rowe) as he enters the prestigious Brampton Academy and befriends John Watson (Alan Cox). Levinson has fun scrambling Sherlock lore to fit his new origin story, while the surprise inclusion of Lestrade (Roger Ashton-Griffiths) and, in a twist that will go unspoiled, Moriarty, add lightweight excitement.

Guy Henry previously played a juvenile Holmes for Granada’s Young Sherlock, but Rowe still remains the one and only sleuthing youth. Sherlock’s emotional journey dictates the 2015 dazzler, and the ghost of an unsolved case serves to drive this point home in the final act.

With Watson, Mycroft, and everyone else he knew deceased, there’s an innate sadness to these Holmes, and the actor conveys so much through his lined face it can be heartbreaking to witness. Arriving at the tail end of Billy Wilder’s career, the film takes a slightly satirical look at the detective, playing up the distinction between the “real” Holmes and the one that Watson documents in The Strand magazine.

In his lone deerstalker outing, the actor presents a man with ambiguous sexuality and a general melancholy that’s surprising given some of the film’s more comedic moments. First in the short film Silver Blaze (1977) and later in the feature length Murder by Decree (1979), the Academy Award winner presented a Holmes who was both warm and empathetic towards others.

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New York Times critic Vincent Candy commended Plummer for being both charming and cultivated, “a fellow who reveals himself to be a man of unexpected social and political conscience.” Unable to save the woman before she was killed by Jack the Ripper, it’s a display that lets the audience connect with Holmes in lieu of simply observing him.

He and close friend Vitaly Solomon were cast as the leads in the 1979 show The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson, and the overwhelming response led them to reprise their roles in subsequent TV movies. Famous for his deep, resonant voice and Ernest friendship with Watson, Ivanov is the only Sherlock actor to become an Honorary Member of the British Empire.

Instead, driven by the energy of director Guy Ritchie, this version much prefers a brawl and a few set pieces before donning a trench coat and fedora. In fact, the trio are reuniting for next year’s still untitled Sherlock Holmes 3, proving that action, comedy, and a winning star are more than enough to excuse a few major liberties.

Blessed with cavernous bone structure and an elderly grace, Cushing refused to stray from the source material by playing up two core components: arrogance and impulse. This rigid approach caught the attention of BBC in 1968, who then cast the actor in the third season of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes.

Before Rathbone, guys like John Barrymore and Raymond Massey were playing a generic type-- the genius with a pipe and a brooding attitude. In BBC’s Sherlock, the detective ditches the deerstalker for a long coat and scarf, while typically slicked hair takes a holiday for a mess of darkened curls.

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In episodes like “The Blind Banker” (2010) and “The Sign of Three” (2014), the duo creates a chemistry that's at once contemporary and cleverly in line with Conan Doyle’s original work. He plays pompousness and profound sadness with such ease it's impossible to deny, even when proving a thorn in Watson’s ongoing love life.

The show’s fourth season is set for a January release, and given the rabid anticipation, it's safe to say Cumberbatch will stay atop the Sherlock list for a great many more years. Upon being cast in Granada’s 1984 series, the actor did extensive research and invented an imaginary life the detective could fill between televised cases.

The wildly talented Brett was born to play Sherlock, and the parallels he experienced in his own life-- bipolar disorder and depression-- helped inform his sudden shifts from boredom to heightened interest.

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