The character of Sherlock Holmes is one of the most iconic in literature, so easily recognizable that his hat alone conjures up the image of a stuffy Victorian sitting room, a faithful doctor, and a seemingly-impossible conclusion that, of course, makes sense once the clues are explained. Fans of the stories know that Holmes was a little more cutting-edge than cozy, with a great interest in forensics, a pugilist pastime, and a cocaine habit.
When bringing him to the screen, the struggle usually lies in reconciling Holmes the preternaturally-capable investigator and Holmes the unpredictable private man. And, of course, there’s no Holmes without his Watson; the way the good Doctor is handled can make or break an adaptation.
Below, I list some of the best, some honorable mentions, and one or two portrayals that, uh, build character.
In no particular order, The Best:
Basil Rathbone. After two Victorian takes, Basil Rathbone’s Holmes was transported to the modern day, where he still managed to do justice to Sherlock Holmes by way of Bogart. Rathbone’s Holmes was an unflappable man of action who never minded an armed standoff with the bad guys (which was almost always necessary, since his bumbling Watson was regularly tardy with police backup). The dialogue is more hard-boiled and the character development shallower than in other adaptations, but when Holmes’s case load includes keeping a bomb-sight out of Nazi hands, it’s hard to get away with anything flowery.
Jeremy Brett. Iconic. During the long-running series, Brett built Holmes from the ground up. From the cold, analytical investigator to the manic and often cruel private man, Brett will remain for many the ultimate and most deeply-felt Holmes. His Watsons (there were two) didn’t fare so well, often taking the part of the bumbling fool who needs rescuing and/or excessive explanation. (It’s not really a wonder that this Holmes sometimes lost his temper; with friends like Watson, who needs enemies?)
Vasiliy Livanov. Livanov faced a serious challenge in bringing one of England’s most-beloved characters to life in the age of Jeremy Brett—and he knocked it out of the park. This Holmes is repressed rather than reserved, calculating but not cold, with flashes of sly humor that outstrip any other portrayal of the character. In a canon that can make the detective seem less man than superman, his Holmes is relentlessly grounded, a master of the facts. It helps that his Watson is a solid but intelligent sidekick, who helps more than he hinders and actually converses, rather than exposits, with Holmes.
Rupert Everett . It was a bit of a scandal when Rupert Everett was cast for the BBC’s original-case take on Holmes. The case (a lustful serial killer right out of an episode of Ye Olde SVU) was a little prurient for Holmes’s usual, but Everett’s performance left nothing to be desired. He was haughty, withdrawn, easily bored and turning to drugs for recreation, intelligent but not infallible. In fact, his Watson (the excellent Ian Hart) makes several deductive leaps and is instrumental in helping Holmes solve the case. (It’s interesting to note that this adaptation has a much more equal Holmes/Watson partnership and a subplot about Holmes’s unhappiness with Watson’s impending marriage, both of which would pop up a few years later in Ritchie’s take.)
Robert Downey, Jr. The characterization is unorthodox, the plot a downright mess, but Robert Downey, Jr. doesn’t turn in lackluster performances, and this is no exception. His gritty Holmes teeters on the brink, driven half-mad by his own abilities and frantic whenever anything (boredom, loneliness, attraction) threatens his analysis. With a streak of humor that could be delightful given any quality dialogue to work with, his Holmes promises to be an interesting take on a classic.
Richard Roxburgh. While not as polished a take as Everett would turn in as his replacement, Roxburgh’s one-off Holmes still managed a quiet magnetism that explains why Watson would stay friends with him despite (well-founded) frustrations. Roxburgh’s Holmes feels genuinely unpredictable; even the well-trodden Hound of the Baskervilles takes on a dangerous edge. (Ian Hart’s Watson is again outstanding, positioning himself as Holmes’s missing conscience.) Unfortunately, there’s a casting snag when Roxburgh meets up with Richard E. Grant as Stapleton, Holmes’s tactical equal—and who, the audience realizes, might make a better Holmes. (Such are the dangers of excellent casting.)
John Barrymore. Back when the movies were silent, it was even harder to get Holmes’s verbosity down to manageable levels without actually projecting the entire story. The movie itself is less than captivating, but Barrymore brings us a university-age Holmes who’s a gentler, self-aware young detective with hints of the jaded investigator he’ll become. (This Holmes makes a list of his own limitations, and smiles about them.) His Watson, sadly, is too busy introducing incredulous title cards to have much of a personality.
The Great Mouse Detective: this animated musical follows the adventures of Basil of Baker Street, the sharpest mouse in London, and his sidekick Dr. Dawson. Ironically, it contains more of Arthur Conan Doyle’s original social and class commentary than most straight-up Holmes adaptations, as working-class and upper-class rodents face off. (Also, there’s a bat. I…don’t know.)
Christopher Lee. Lee’s tireless quest to portray every important character ever written for the screen made a brief pit stop at Baker Street, as Lee played a semi-retired Holmes for two TV miniseries. His Holmes, awesomely, is exactly like his Saruman (and his Dracula), so when he sits down to dinner with Morgan Fairchild as Irene Adler (!) there’s the delightful sensation that he could banish her to the top of the tower at any moment. (Sadly, he never does.)
How about it, Baker Street aficionados? Is there a particular Holmes that goes straight to your heart (or any that make you just want to stab someone)?
Genevieve still thinks Michael Fassbender was one of the creepiest Holmes villains ever. She babbles more about movies over on her blog.