Sherlock Holmes has appeared on screen so many times over the past 100+ years. Because of the sheer amount of Sherlock Holmes adaptations, it can be hard to figure out what to watch and where to start.
Because of this I’ve narrowed down some of the best of the film and TV adaptations over the years. I’ve included the name, year, main actors, a brief summary, why it’s so good/important, and a trailer, if applicable. Please enjoy.
1. The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes(TV 1984-85) [Jeremy Brett as Holmes and David Burke]
The Granada Holmes series remains today one of the most faithful adaptations to ever exist, and Jeremy Brett holds the title of The Definitive Holmes for good reason. This first season holds faithful to some of the best and most well-known stories that Conan Doyle wrote, beginning with Irene Adler and ending with the Falls of Reichenbach.
Definitely the best Holmes adaptation to date-Granada came the closest to adapting every canon story, and did so with minimal changes for the most part. Brett remains today one of the best loved Holmes’ of all time. It also casts Watson as the faithful friend and wonderful, smart man of the canon, something other adaptations would sometimes struggle with. It’s beautifully filmed and has an amazing soundtrack that fits Sherlock Holmes perfectly. A definite staple of film and tv for the Holmesian.
2. The Hound of The Baskervilles(1939) [Basil Rathbone as Holmes and Nigel Bruce as Watson]
The first and arguably the best of Universal’s Sherlock Holmes films. An adaptation straight from the HOUN book, with minor changes and alterations. Unlike the majority of Universal’s Holmes films, Hound of the Baskervilles is set in Victorian times instead of modern day.
This film marked the beginning of an era for Sherlock Holmes movies (and also for a bumbling Watson). Rathbone is sharp and truly amazing as Sherlock Holmes, playing him as cutting and cunning as ever, but still with the kindnesses of Holmes that people enjoy. Although perhaps not some of the most faithful Holmes films, these still remain classics and some of the best in many people’s eyes. (my pick was Hound simply because I couldn’t decide on my true favorite–if you like this one, definitely see the rest of the films)
3. Sherlock(2010-present) [Benedict Cumberbatch as Holmes and Martin Freeman as Watson]
Sherlock is a modern updating of Conan Doyle’s original series, and has gotten VERY popular, VERY quickly all over the globe. Although all the cases have modern twists to them and changes, Many of the plotlines, characters, dialogue bits, and other things come straight from the canon.
This series is truly proof of how far Sherlock Holmes has come since the Victorian age and the date of his creation. And definitely proof of a character living way beyond his years. Sherlock is a definite masterpiece, no other word to describe it. Brilliant and clever writing, beautiful cinematography, an incredible soundtrack, utterly fantastic casting, and in the hands of two very devoted and loving Sherlock Holmes fans. The entire series is brilliant and has an amazing storyline that proves why Holmes is so popular as a detective story, but also why the title transcends the genre and becomes more about the detective himself. (My pick is definitely series one, and A Study in Pink for the best episode, but definitely watch the entire series).
4. The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes(1970) [Robert Stephens as Holmes and Colin Blakely as Watson]
An amazing and affectionate take on Sherlock Holmes, the man behind the legend and the public image. The film’s plot starts as Holmes is being asked to have a child with a Russian ballerina (Johnlock shippers will enjoy his reply), shifts to a case of a woman washed up in the Thames and brought to Baker Street, to sightings of the Loch Ness monster, to pre-WWI spies.
There’s alot of information and plot strands in this film which makes it very interesting for films scholars and Holmesians alike. However, its loving, if somewhat nearly parody-like, portrayal of Holmes is very amazing to watch. It’s a long but beautiful movie and definitely an influence for many of the Holmes films that follow it.
5. The Great Mouse Detective(animated, 1986) [Basil of Baker Street and Dr David Q Dawson]
Based on the books of Eve Titus, The Great Mouse detective is a very loving and family friendly film and does an excellent job of keeping the spirit of Sherlock Holmes while translating the characters to the world of animated mice. Olivia Flaversham’s toymaker father is taken by Rattigan (the mouse world’s Moriarty). She meets Dr Dawson and together they go along with Sherlock Holmes in an attempt to find out what Rattigan is planning with the toymaker for his nefarious schemes.
For many people, this was their first Sherlock Holmes movie, and they don’t remember it being so until they revisit it later in life. It is as much a perfect film for kids as it is for Sherlock Holmes fan’s. The characters are based heavily on Rathbone’s Universal films of the 30’s but also do their canon counterparts very great justice.
6. Sherlock Holmes(TV 1954) [Ronald Howard as Holmes and H Marion Crawford as Watson]
A VERY often underrated Sherlock Holmes TV series, but an adaptation faithful to the spirit of the original canon. There are 39 short episodes in the series, each with slightly simple and often comedic plots.
The friendship shown between Holmes and Watson (and often Lestrade) is the real reason to watch this series. The love and affection these men have for each other is outlined brilliantly in their bickering and teamwork and banter. However silly the plots are, the real gem of the series is the characters themselves. Definitely one to watch if you want to relax and just have deep feelings for a friendship that’s lasted since the Victorian age. All the episodes are currently available on youtube.
7. The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes and Doctor Watson(1979-86) [Visaly Livanov as Holmes and Vitaly Solomin as Watson]
Widely regarded as the best Sherlock Holmes and a definite fan-favorite, this Russian series is absolutely incredible. It’s very well done and very faithful to Sherlock Holmes and the spirit of the original series.
One of the few series to feature the meeting between Holmes and Watson. It’s a Russian series, so subtitles are a must unless you speak the language, but as always, it’s a series that the Holmesian will enjoy and should see as part of their background.
8. Young Sherlock Holmes(1985) [Nicholas Rowe as Holmes and Alan Cox as Watson]
Teenage Sherlock Holmes and John Watson meet at a boarding school and are thrust into a mystery when a teacher is murdered, his last words breathed to Holmes “Eh-tar”, leading them to a secret group right under their feet.
For fans of boarding school/college aus, this is the perfect movie. Watson’s slightly out of character, and Sherlock has a love interest, but the casting and the writing are both spectacular. The soundtrack rings of adventure and echoes that same feeling from the original stories. It’s an interesting look at what may have happened if Holmes and Watson had gone to school together. (to this day remains my favorite Sherlock Holmes movie)
9. The Seven Percent Solution(1976) [Nicol Williamson as Holmes and Robert Duvall as Watson]
The film takes on another explanation for Holmes’ three-year absence and the Moriarty problem, as well as delving deep into Holmes (here) drug addiction and offering a glimpse into what could have been the detective’s childhood. Based on the book by Nicholas Meyer.
Although not one of my favorite Sherlock Holmes films (not by a mile), it’s a very interesting take on the detective, and a very Freudian look at him (literally). The book and film are often very widely known among the Holmesian community and the film is definitely a classic worth seeing on anyone’s Sherlock Holmes journey.
10. Sherlock Holmes: Baker Street 221b (TV 2013) [Igor Petrenko as Holmes and Andrei Panin as Watson]
Another fun Holmes series from Russia, this time very modernly done. It’s a new and different take on Holmes and Watson and their friendship, but still very respectful to the spirit of the characters, the friendship and the original stories. The two meet by accident at the scene of a murder, and from there, the story begins.
As far as I’m aware, there were very mixed feelings about this series, but I think it’s an amazing piece of work and a worthy addition to the Holmes Legend. Unfortunately, the actor who played Watson died, so it’s unknown if we will be seeing any more of this series. Watson is very much a fighter and a tough guy whereas Sherlock is very much more brains then brawn. (seriously good series)
11. Sherlock Hound~Meitantei Holmes(1984-85) Japanese Animated cartoon; English dubbed.
Another series aimed more for children, but one that resonates well with Holmes fans. It shows deep affection for the original characters while making everyone animated dogs. Sherlock Hound is kind and smart; Dr Watson is loyal if somewhat clumsy. And Moriarty is nefariously evil for a children’s series, somehow behind every crime that Hound must solve. The beautiful Mrs Hudson often plays large parts in the episodes as well.
A definite high recommendation from me. The cartoons are very beautifully made–Hayao Miyazaki of Studio Ghibli fame apparently was in on the early production stages.
12. A Game of Shadows(2011) [Robert Downey Jr as Holmes and Jude Law as Watson]
Another film with mixed reviews from the Holmesian community, this is the second of (so far) two films directed by Guy Ritchie. It can be seen as a sequel to the first or on it’s own. Holmes is preparing to face his arch nemesis Moriarty, whose plans involve him having a very big stake in the first world war. It is up to Holmes to figure out Moriarty’s game and stop him. Much more action based then mystery based, which isn’t always the best for a Holmes film, but it works well here. Also of note is Holmes’ and Watson’s FANTASTICALLY played relationship/friendship, now challenged by Watson’s wife, Mary.
Very much in the same vein as the first film, but for me, this movie is much more in the spirit of the original stories, with much more action and violence, of course. Downey Jr may not be the perfect Holmes, but he’s a very funny and adept one, adding new quirks and mannerisms to the Holmes arsenal. Jude Law is a fantastic Watson, and for Moriarty and Moran fans, this is probably the perfect film. Very high up on my favorite Holmes adaptation list and definitely worth the watch–if not for the Holmes aspect, then simply for the pure fun and excitement of the movie.