If any literary character has earned the right to boast, it's Sherlock Holmes. The iconic sleuth is the most portrayed hero in cinematic history, clocking in at over 250 appearances as of 2016. 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.
Doyle reportedly based the character on real life mentor Joseph Bell, but from his first screen appearance in 1900’s Sherlock Holmes Baffled, the Sherlock role has been open to interpretation. 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. Something about the role, whether it be the stiff exterior or paradoxical personality, has always proven tough for actors to pin down. 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.
Here are the 15 Most Iconic Adaptations of Sherlock Holmes, Ranked Worst To Best.
15 Jonny Lee Miller - Elementary (2012-)
While he may be overshadowed by that other modern series, Jonny Lee Miller’s recovering sleuth is a welcome addition to the Holmes canon. 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 protegé 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 daddy issues, his mother’s history with opium, and his field experience with MI6 (between seasons 2 and 3). CBS's procedural won’t make anyone forget Rathbone or Brett, but it's more than worthy of the Sherlock mantle.
14 Rupert Everett - The Case of the Silk Stocking (2004)
Taking things in the complete opposite direction, Sherlock Holmes & The Case of the Silk Stocking (2004) shows the detective at his most dreary. 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.
The script is mediocre at best, overrun with cliché and eye rolling dialogue. But given that the portrayals are what count on this list, Everett is a strong enough presence to overcome. 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. Those in the market for a brooding Sherlock, look no further.
13 Nicol Williamson - The Seven-Per-Cent Solution (1976)
Based on the book by Nicholas Meyer, The Seven-Per-Cent Solution (1976) takes the drug angle a step further by forcing Holmes (Nicol Williamson) to undergo psychiatric treatment. His therapist? None other than Dr. Sigmund Freud (Alan Arkin), who tries every trick in the book to rid Holmes of his cocaine habit a.k.a. “The Seven-Per-Cent Solution.” Needless to say, it's a wild ride. 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. His Holmes feels less in control than what fans are used to seeing, and it's this very concern that distinguishes Williamson in the detective's filmography.
There’s also excitement in the casting of Robert Duvall as Watson and Laurence Olivier as Holmes’ archnemesis Moriarty. Their presence, along with Arkin and Vanessa Redgrave, helped The Seven-Per-Cent Solution convey it's risky premise and net two Academy Award nominations (including Best Adapted Screenplay). Why the film isn’t more beloved today is a bit of a mystery, but Williamson’s wired take certainly deserves a second look.
12 Ian Richardson - The Sign of Four (1983)
In the early 1980s, American producer Sy Weintraub lobbied to make six Sherlock Holmes stories into TV movies. 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 Weintraub mysteries that did get made: The Hound of the Baskervilles and The Sign of Four. These 1983 films had their minor gripes; from the occasional campiness 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, reactional nature to the role of Sherlock. Neither an egotist nor a lucid addict, the lanky actor was an affable investigator that put his suspects through the ringer. Richardson also played Joseph Bell in the series Murder Rooms: The Dark Beginnings of Sherlock Holmes (2001-02), where he and Arthur Conan Doyle (Robin Laig) solved murders.
11 Douglas Wilmer - Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes (1964-65)
In one way or another, Douglas Wilmer’s career always came back to Sherlock Holmes. The actor received his first big break in 1964 when he was cast for a BBC production of The Speckled Band. Proving a hit with viewers, the network brought back Wilmer and Watson actor Nigel Stock for twelve more episodes in 1965, despite the annoyance Wilmer felt with rushed scripts and live recording. “Incompetence” was the word he used to describe the show’s lack of rehearsal time. 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.
In the decades that followed, the actor was never far from his detective calling. He played Professor Van Dusen in The Rivals of Sherlock Holmes (1973), an aged Sherlock in the Gene Wilder comedy The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes’ Smarter Brother (1975), and cameoed, shortly before his death, in the Sherlock episode “The Reichenbach Fall" (2012).
10 Nicholas Rowe - Young Sherlock Holmes (1985)
Young Sherlock Holmes (1985) could’ve been disastrous in the wrong hands. 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. And sure enough, it is. Young Sherlock Holmes follows the titular teen (Nicholas Rowe) as he enters the prestigious Brompton 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.
As a maturing Holmes, Rowe is every bit the cocksure kid fans would assume him to be. He walks a fine line between pompous and endearing, while ultimately winning the crowd over with his spirited sense of adventure. Guy Henry previously played a juvenile Holmes for Granada’s Young Sherlock, but Rowe still remains the one and only sleuthing youth. Plus, he's another repeat customer who makes a cameo in the next entry: Mr. Holmes (2015).
9 Ian McKellen - Mr. Holmes (2015)
From young to old, Mr. Holmes chronicles the retirement of a 93 year-old Sherlock (Ian McKellen). Stodgy, frail, and in need of constant supervision, the once great mind has begun to slip away with age. As a result, writer-director Bill Condon chooses to focus less on the mystery and, perhaps for the first time, more on the man himself. 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. Fortunately, 76 year-old Ian McKellen delivers a performance more than deserving of the spotlight.
Jumping between time periods, the esteemed Sir Ian excels as both a flickering mind and a rambunctious spirit. With Watson, Mycroft, and everyone else he knew deceased, there’s an innate sadness to this Holmes, and the actor conveys so much through his lined face it can heartbreaking to witness. We experience Sherlock’s every failure and triumph, while coming to the realization that every case can’t be solved through simple cleverness.
8 Robert Stephens - The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes (1970)
The slogan for The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes said that what viewers didn’t know about the detective had “made a great motion picture.” And while great may be a bit self-congratulatory, this 1970 mystery certainly has an important place in Holmes movie history. 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. Wilder originally intended the film to be a sprawling 165-minutes with an intermission (!?), but the final cut landed somewhere closer to 125.
Regardless of the runtime, however, Private Life star Robert Stephens turns in an epic portrayal. 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. Sherlock writer Mark Gatiss has even credited Private Life for influencing the tone of the current Cumberbatch series.
7 Christopher Plummer - Murder by Decree (1979)
Where most iterations of Sherlock wade in the waters of closed-off emotion, Christopher Plummer decided to go another route. 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. Radical, given the portrayals that had come before him, but a welcome departure nonetheless. New York Times critic Vincent Canby commended Plummer for being both charming and cultivated, “a fellow who reveals himself to be a man of unexpected social and political conscience.”
In addition to the kind words, Plummer also set a Sherlock precedent in Decree by crying at the sight of a strangled victim. 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. Along with the astute James Mason as Watson, the duo made these brilliant crime-fighters into tangible, involved people.
6 Vasily Livanov - The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson (1979-1986)
The lone Russian actor to make the list, Vasily Livanov is hailed by many as a perfect Sherlock. He and close friend Vitaly Solomins 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. Tallying eight small screen adventures in total, Livanov developed a body language that perfectly reflected his literary counterpart-- so much so, in fact, that Conan Doyle’s daughter Jean once said her father would wholly approve of Livanov’s performance.
The rest of the world seems to agree. Famous for his deep, resonant voice and ernest friendship with Watson, Livanov is the only Sherlock actor to become an Honorary Member of the British Empire. In 2007, his native Moscow even erected a sculpture of Sherlock and Watson as portrayed by Livanov and Solomins. In terms of sheer adoration, there might be no higher Holmes.
5 Robert Downey, Jr. - Sherlock Holmes (2009)
Fans have a love-hate relationship with Robert Downey Jr.’s Sherlock. On one hand, the lovable actor dispenses a normal look and the decision to outthink physical altercations. Instead, driven by the energy of director Guy Ritchie, this version much prefers a brawl and a few set pieces before donning a trenchcoat and fedora. Lots to overlook, especially given the fact the stubbled Downey looks nothing like the lanky detective we’re accustomed to seeing. In both Sherlock Holmes (2009) and Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows (2011), however, the insanity he brings to the table is near impossible to ignore.
Playing opposite a refined Watson (Jude Law), Downey is the actor whose most infused his own persona into the Sherlock role, and Ritchie seems more than happy to play it up. 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.
4 Peter Cushing - Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes (1968)
Peter Cushing took the Sherlock role on multiple occasions, the first being a 1959 rendition of The Hound of the Baskervilles. 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. Inheriting the pipe from Douglas Wilmer, Cushing elevated the obsessive sleuth to thrilling heights. The horror veteran had already made his mark as Van Helsing in multiple Hammer productions, so it only seemed natural the ultimate vampire hunter moonlight as the world’s ultimate mind.
Cushing would reappear in the 1984 TV film The Masks of Death, where his credibility led writers Anthony Hinds and N.J. Crisp to refit the script for a much older Sherlock. And while the film failed to live up to the prestige of its predecessor series, there was no question Cushing fit the detective like a sequined glove. Plans were made for a sequel titled The Abbot’s Cry, but the actor’s poor health permanently sidelined the project.
3 Basil Rathbone - The Hound of the Baskervilles (1939)
Beyond the box office, Basil Rathbone is perhaps most vital for bringing panache to the Sherlock image. His debut in 1939’s The Hound of the Baskervilles was a game changer in many regards: it was the first to be set in Victorian London (follow-up films would be set in modern day), and the first appearance of the famed detective’s uniform. Rathbone, allowing his charm and humane tendencies to shine, was instantly etched in popular conscious as the onscreen Sherlock.
Between 1939 and 1946, Rathbone and the bumbling Dr. Watson (Nigel Bruce) appeared in fourteen films and over 200 radio shows. The actor’s silhouette is still instantly recognizable, while his inimitable style casts a long shadow over all who've succeeded him. Before Rathbone, guys like John Barrymore and Raymond Massey were playing a generic type-- the genius with a pipe and a brooding attitude. But during his tenure, the performer forged an inescapable icon. While he may have been usurped by the next two entries, there’s no debating who inspired the classic Sherlock look. Rathbone's nickname was, after all, “the doyen of the detective melodrama.”
2 Benedict Cumberbatch - Sherlock (2010-)
Benedict Cumberbatch is the postmodern Holmes. 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. Despite the makeover, however, the Academy Award nominee acts in the prototypical Sherlock mold; intolerant, antisocial, and devilishly astute. The actor’s knack for fast-talking and thoroughly annoying others is also on full display, while Martin Freeman’s frazzled Watson serves as the perfect foil. 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.
Given this winning formula, it's no surprise Cumberbatch has risen up the Sherlock ranks. 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.
1 Jeremy Brett - The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes (1984-94)
Jeremy Brett set out to be the definitive Sherlock from the start. 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. He felt the role demanded an attention to detail that Sherlock himself would appreciate, and did so over 10 years and 41 acclaimed stories. The result? A nuanced, eccentric portrayal that takes the top spot with ease. 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.
In fact, Brett became so obsessed with the character he would reportedly continue to play Sherlock off-screen. This dedication provided viewers with a performance more than worthy of the world’s greatest detective. Even now, two decades later, the realism and humanity of Brett’s work is unprecedented-- a suffering, brilliant artist playing a suffering, brilliant role. Sounds like the definitive Sherlock to us.