The Many Faces of Sherlock Holmes

Sherlock Holmes is the most filmed character in all of literature and the template for so many fictional detectives since. With the new series of Sherlock hitting our screens next year and the recent Noirwich Crime Festival a great success, we’re looking back at the many incarnations of Mr Holmes and his best friend Dr Watson.

The Sherlock Holmes stories, Arthur Conan Doyle (BOOK ZONE 823.91)

Since the first appearance, magnifying glass in hand in A Study in Scarlet in 1887, Sherlock Holmes has wowed audiences with his amazing powers of deduction and the thrilling mysteries he solves. While this wasn’t the first series to follow the pattern of the brilliant detective and loyal sidekick (that honour belongs to Edgar Allan Poe’s C. Auguste Dupin), Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s stories became incredibly popular – so popular, in fact, that Conan Doyle decided to kill the character off in The Final Problem in 1893. There was such a public outcry that Conan Doyle had to explain how Holmes had merely faked his death, and continued to produce stories about the detective until 1927, only three years before his death in 1930.

Sidney Paget’s illustrations in The Strand cemented the image of the Great Detective in the popular imagination

Now considered classics, the original stories of Sherlock Holmes are the best, full of quirky characters (not least of them Holmes himself), weird mysteries and thrilling action sequences. Holmes and Watson are a great double act, with a strong friendship under their personality quirks, and it is clear how much they need each other.

If you want to start at the beginning, A Study in Scarlet was the first appearance of Holmes and Watson, but for a taste of how good these stories can be, try The Hound of the Baskervilles, The Adventure of the Dancing Men, Silver Blaze and A Scandal in Bohemia. I’d also highly recommend The Adventure of the Red-Headed League and The Blue Carbuncle for two delightfully weird lesser-known mysteries.

Sherlock Holmes: The Definitive Collection (1939), Basil Rathbone (BOOK ZONE 823.91)

Probably the most famous Holmes on screen, Basil Rathbone’s portrayal is considered by many to be the definitive Holmes. He starred in 14 films, some of them based on Conan Doyle stories and some set during World War Two. Probably the only time you’ll see Sherlock Holmes fighting Nazis! Rathbone brought gravitas and that distinctive Roman nose to the part, a silhouette that has become instantly recognisable since.


Sherlock Holmes (Basil Rathbone, left) and Dr Watson (Nigel Bruce, right)

The only flaw in these films is that they portray Watson (played by Nigel Bruce) as much more of a bumbling fool than in the original stories. Rather than Holmes’ constant companion and an intelligent investigator and doctor in his own right (as well as a fighter thanks to his army days), this Watson exists to ask the obvious questions and be impressed by Holmes’ powers of deduction. However, these films are still fantastic adaptations with a really iconic Holmes.

The Hound of the Baskervilles (1959), Peter Cushing (BOOK ZONE 823.91)

Peter Cushing portrayed Holmes a number of times over the years. You may recognise him as Grand Moff Tarkin in Star Wars, or from some of the many horror films he made. His most memorable turn as the Great Detective came in Hammer Horror’s The Hound of the Baskervilles, alongside Christopher Lee. This adaptation takes some serious liberties with the original story, but it’s well worth watching as a glorious Gothic horror, with Cushing really making the role of Holmes his own. Moody and intense, The Hound of the Baskervilles is a quintessential British horror-mystery, and definitely evokes the spirit of Conan Doyle’s original story. Cushing manages to bring the same brilliance to the role of Sherlock Holmes as he did to his recurring portrayal of Abraham Van Helsing in Hammer Studios’ many Dracula films. This adaptation shows Holmes as someone with a keen insight, a dry sense of humour and a flawless knack for leaping into action at just the right moment. Conan Doyle’s story may have been about the power of superstition to make rational people delusional, but The Hound of the Baskervilles has been a favourite spooky story for a long time, and this adaptation is definitely the truest to that tone!

The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes (1984-1994), Jeremy Brett

The true Sherlock Holmes for many people (including me), Brett sometimes regretted the extent to which his career was defined by the Great Detective. A classically-trained actor with a distinctive way of speaking and natural gravitas, he struggled with dyslexia at school in an era when there was little recognition of learning differences. Brett portrayed Holmes when he was in his fifties and managed to convey Holmes’ social awkwardness as well as his brilliance and charm. He could go from being serious one moment to diving across the room with an impish grin the next.

Holmes (Jeremy Brett) examines a clue

This series also showed the relationship between Holmes and Watson (first played by David Burke and then by Edward Hardwicke) as a partnership of equals. More than anything, it becomes clear through the series, which contains adaptations of 42 of Conan Doyle’s 60 stories, that the two of them needed each other. Watson doesn’t allow Holmes to get away with rudeness or cruelty, while always supporting him in his work. Some might see Brett’s performance as hammy, but to me, he is the best Sherlock Holmes ever.

Sherlock Holmes (2009), Robert Downey Jr. (DVD LOBBY 791.43)

Guy Ritchie’s high-action romp is a far cry from the genteel mysteries of other adaptations, but he set out to redefine Holmes as a cerebral action hero rather than a calculating investigator. While Downey Junior’s Holmes still demonstrates his deductive reasoning and encyclopaedic knowledge, he spends a lot more of his time running around and jumping off exploding things than other Sherlocks. With Jude Law as his trusty Watson, Holmes attempts to stop a creepy mystic (Mark Strong) influencing political events. This is unashamedly big-budget, and great fun for an evening’s viewing.

Sherlock (2009-present), Benedict Cumberbatch

While including it is cheating a bit, this modern adaptation of Sherlock Holmes got a lot of people talking. The writers certainly didn’t skimp on the subtextual tensions between Sherlock (Benedict Cumberbatch), John Watson (Martin Freeman) and their famous nemesis Moriarty (Andrew Scott). By playing with fan expectations, writers Steven Moffat, Mark Gatiss and Stephen Thompson transform the old, familiar stories into new mysteries concerned with modern issues like private research companies’ lack of accountability and the culture of the London banking industry.

Sherlock (Benedict Cumberbatch) has eschewed the deerstalker and pipe for a more modern look – except for the Victorian special, of course!

While some prefer Elementary (another modern adaptation starring Jonny Lee Miller as Holmes and Lucy Liu as Watson), Sherlock is becoming one of the BBC’s best internationally-known series on the scale of Doctor Who. Cumberbatch is genuinely good as a surprisingly vulnerable Holmes who is also more comfortable with modern attitudes to sexuality, but the writers took some liberties with classic characters that may or may not put you off (I’m particularly thinking Mary Watson in general and Irene Adler’s uncharacteristic damsel in distress moment). While you may have opinions on this update, you can’t call yourself a Holmes fan until you’ve seen it.

Young Sherlock series, Andrew Lane (QUICK READS 823.91)

Following in the steps of Charlie Higson’s highly successful Young James Bond books, this YA series tells the story of teenage Sherlock Holmes as he struggles with his first mysteries and begins an interest that will make him London’s first consulting detective. Years before he met John Watson, these books show his early friendships with a boy called Matty Arnett and his tutor, the mysterious American Amyus Crowe. Authorised by the Arthur Conan Doyle estate, if you’ve ever wondered what Sherlock Holmes did before Watson, and how he became the brilliant sleuth that we’re familiar with, this series is for you!

If you liked this…

Check out our Noirwich-related reviews of two top mystery films, The Lady Vanishes and Strangers On a Train and the first in the Young James Bond series, Silverfin by Charlie Higson.

If you’d like to know more about how Sherlock Holmes influenced crime fiction, learn more in our blog posts, A Short History of Crime Fiction in 9 Books and our review of the graphic novel of The Hound of the Baskervilles.


Paget, S. (1891) 1891 Sidney Paget Strand portrait of Holmes for “The Man with the Twisted Lip” [illustration] Accessed at: on 29/09/16

RanZag (2010) Chinatown, London. Benedict Cumberbatch during filming of Sherlock. [photograph] Accessed at: on 29/09/16

Universal Pictures (1943) Basil Rathbone & Nigel Bruce in Sherlock Holmes and the Secret Weapon [film still] Accessed at: on 29/09/16

No author (unknown date) Jeremy Brett portraying the character Sherlock Holmes. Accessed at: on 29/09/16


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