Sherlock Holmes

Novels and stories,
Movies (and TV series)
Sherlock Holmes (1922)

Director Albert Parker; writer Earle Browne, Marion Fairfax, William Gillette; featuring John Barrymore, Roland Young, Gustav von Seyffertitz, Carol Dempster

Early failed Sherlock Holmes (1929–1933)

Four films, variably featuring Clive Brook, Reginald Owen, Warburton Gamble, Raymnd Massey, Athole Stewart, Lyn Harding

The Wontner Sherlock Holmes (1931–1937)

Five films featuring Arthur Wontner, Ian Fleming (1931–32, 1935–1937), Ian Hunter (1932)

The Rathbone Sherlock Holmes (1939–1946)

Fourteen films featuring Basil Rathbone, Nigel Bruce

The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes (1954–1955)

Also called Sherlock Holmes
Television series featuring Ronald Howard, Howard Marion-Crawford, Archie Duncan

Sherlock Holmes (1959–1984)

Sherlock Holmes films and television series, variably featuring Peter Cushing, André Morell, Christopher Lee, Douglas Wilmer, Nigel Stock, John Mills

The Lee Sherlock Holmes (1962-1992)

Sherlock Holmes films, variably featuring Christopher Lee, Thorley Walters, Patrick Macnee, Morgan Fairchild

A Study in Terror (1965)

Director James Hill; writer Donald Ford, Derek Ford; featuring John Neville, Donald Houston, Anthony Quayle, Judi Dench

The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes (1970)

Director Billy Wilder; writer Billy Wilder, I.A.L. Diamond; featuring Robert Stephens, Colin Blakely, Christopher Lee, Genevieve Page

The Seven-Per-Cent Solution (1976)

Director Herbert Ross; writer Nicholas Meyer; featuring Nicol Williamson, Robert Duvall, Alan Arkin, Vanessa Redgrave, Laurence Olivier, Charles Gray

The Sherlock Holmes spoofs (1975–2002)

Two films and four television movies, variably featuring Gene Wilder, Madeleine Kahn, Marty Feldman, Michael Caine, Ben Kingsley, Matt Frewer, Kenneth Welsh

Murder by Decree (1979)

Director Bob Clark; writer John Hopkins; featuring Christopher Plummer, James Mason, Anthony Quayle, John Gielgud, Donald Sutherland, Genevieve Bujold

The Brett Sherlock Holmes (1984–1994)

Also called The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes
Television series featuring Jeremy Brett, David Burke (1984–1985), Edward Hardwicke (1986–1994)

The Downey Sherlock Holmes (2009–2011)

Film series, directed by Guy Ritchie, featuring Robert Downy Jr., Jude Law

Sherlock (2010–2017)

Television series, featuring Benedict Cumberbatch, Martin Freeman

Cumberbatch and Freeman

Mrtin Freeman's Watson, left, keeps Benedict Cumberbatch's admittedly sociopathic Holmes grounded.

Sherlock Holmes


Postmodern Sherlock

And the radical revisions of the Sherlock Holmes story continue in the twenty-first century. And this is maybe the most eccentric variation yet.

A new series, simply titled Sherlock, was launched for British TV and shown abroad in 2010. It quickly became a sensation and has continued to be produced sporadically, working around the busy schedules of its two rapidly rising stars.

Two major things are very different about this series. (Actually there are dozens of thigns different about it, but we'll focus on two.)

One, it takes place in contemporary London and involves a lot of current tech—mobile phones, social media, DNA testing—as crucial ingredients of the stories. This may seem to antiquate a lot of Holmes's special talents, but he still also sniffs out criminals with his old-school skills, analyzing the varieties of mud, tobacco and so on. And he still plays his party trick of detecting everything about people by noting tiny details of their appearance and behaviour. (Remember, Sherlock Holmes is the original CSI-style sleuth.)

cumberbatch as holmes

Cumberbatch's weird Holmes

The second different thing about Sherlock is that this detective isn't just eccentric, as eccentric actor Benedict Cumberbatch plays him. He's practically a sociopath. Even calls himself one. He's a sociopath with Asperger syndrome, which is to say, a highly functioning, brilliant misfit.

Yet somehow, after an episode or two to get used to this weirdo, we warm up to him. This may have something to do with his Watson, played by Martin Freeman as everyman. He's a doctor still, but a veteran of the most recent post-9/11 war in Afghanistan rather than of the Angolo-Afghan war of the latter 1800s as Doyle wrote the character.

In the first episode, cutely titled "A Study in Pink", Watson meets Holmes in a manner similar to that iofn the first Sherlock Holmes story "A Study in Scarlet" and he gradually comes to appreciate his strange new friend, as in that original story. The televised episode then veers off in some very different directions, but always finding modern parallels to Doyle's story. A Victorian hack driver, for example, is now a cabbie.

Subsequent episodes are each updated amalgams of several original stories. But that won't be any help to you in trying to figure out what comes next. The plots are only tangentially related to Doyle's tales. The episode, "The Hounds of the Baskervilles" (yes, the canine plural is intended), for example, features few scenes on dark and misty moors but takes place for the most crucial scenes inside a psychological weapons testing laboratory.

"The Reichenbach Fall" has nothing to do with Holmes and Moriarty tumbling over the falls as in Doyle's "the Final Problem". It does feature a painting of the watery geographical feature in a small way, but the "fall" of the title refers to Holmes falling victim to a plot to expose him as a fraud and his apparent suicide by jumping off the roof of a building.

The reimagined stories are told with a lot of jump cuts, montages, text crossing the screen, flashbacks, out-of-order sequences and scenes that may or may not have happened.

It sounds like a mess but it works brilliantly, keeping you transfixed in every scene.

Other familiar Holmesian characters are present, though in some rather unfamiliar characterizations. The landlady Mrs. Hudson is an old dear as always, but watch for some startling revelations as to her real purpose.

Sherlock's brother Mycroft is a powerful, somewhat ominous presence in the background. For a long time we're never quite sure if he's looking out for Sherlock or working on the other side, whatever side that is.

Holmes's "the" woman, Irene Adler, is introduced in "A Scandal in Belgravia" as a dominatrix with naughty pictures of the Royals on her phone. Both she and Sherlock get naked at different points in this cheeky and very clever episode. And you'll never guess its aftermath—involving Pakistani terrorists.

Only in the most recent season, as of this writing, does the show seem to stray too erratically from cerebral challenges into thriller territory.

But what's the point of trying to explain any of this. Sherlock is a postmodern phenomenon that you have to experience to get—whether or not you've ever read the stories or seen any previous adaptations.

— Eric