Warning in advance for spoilers. Although I can find some deerstalker-wearing reason to love every adaptation, when I’m putting together a list, I have to weigh all the pros and cons that earn each actor a spot on this list. If there is any adaptation you haven’t seen yet, be sure to skip that part. Thank you.
20) Johnny Depp: Sherlock Gnomes (2018)
I try to give this one a little slack, what with it being a kids movie about garden decorations, but this portrayal was highly stereotypical and broke the golden rule: Doctor Watson never betrays Holmes. That is a huge sin in my book. The only Watson that can betray Sherlock is Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. But John Watson is precious and pure and must be protected.
19) Ian McKellen: Mr. Holmes (2015)
This film is about shattering everything you "thought you knew" about the character of Sherlock Holmes. And it has all the charm of a Tumblr hate rant. (I'm calling the pot kettle black, aren't I?). I can live without Holmes's deerstalker or what he likes to smoke, but the whole movie left me feeling bitter and depressed. At the end of it, there wasn't even that big of a mystery, or enough "detective" in it that I tend to enjoy in a Sherlock adaptation. The best part was bringing back Nicholas Rowe for cinematic Holmes. For me, it's not about clinging to stereotypes, but respecting the heart of who Holmes is. Though fans took it and ran with it, that's the beauty of fiction in general, whether or not it goes a little outside what the author intended.
18) Jonny Lee Miller: Elementary (2012-2019)
This is another example of what happens when you change too much. Our Holmes is in America, already on drug rehab, has an addiction to prostitutes, and has a female Watson, as well as Moriarty. Now, I myself am a female; I have no problem with either being a woman, but I did not like Lucy Liu as Watson. She lacked a lot of charm for me, and her dynamic with Miller just wasn’t at all convincing to me. My parents loved this show when I was growing up, but I could never get into it. They changed so much, at the end of it all, they should've just made their own characters and changed the names. It had too much "CBS aftertaste" for me.
17) Henry Cavill: Enola Holmes (2020)
Funnily enough, this was what opened up my rabbit hole into watching Sherlock Holmes. But only because it was like an alcoholic's first taste of alcohol. I took a sip of Enola and it tasted funny, but wasn't outright disgusting. So it made me want to try something else (BBC Sherlock) and then I became an addict of Holmes.
Cavill's version was very boring. It was ironic to me that he was sued for being too emotional and sentimental, because I didn't get wind of any personality to him. I usually love Cavill's work, but this was a dull portrayal.
16) Theo Devaney/Makoto Furukawa: Moriarty the Patriot (2020)
Now, I cannot fully credit myself for this one. I have never sat down and actually watched the whole show. But I have binged enough clips and read enough Wikipedia articles to become an expert. This series, as the title suggests, is heavily focused on Moriarty rather than the great detective. Strike one: I only care about Holmes, so ha. Although the series is interesting as a concept and seems to be mostly respectful of the source material, I cannot get behind the idea of Moriarty as an anti-hero.
Holmes looks to be a sort of ladies’ man in this rendition? I don’t know where they got that idea but he seems to bask in the light of women’s attention. He’s unusually chivalrous and flirty, which isn’t traditional–but again, interesting as a concept, just not on the Holmes mark for me enough to commit to watching.
15) Robert Downey Jr: Sherlock Holmes (2009) and Sherlock Holmes: Game of Shadows (2011)
This was the first Sherlock Holmes movie I watched, and it was long before I actually got into Holmes, if that tells you anything. If I watch it, it's usually because I've just watched too much of my go-tos and wanted to shake things up. But this never scratches the Holmes itch I have. If I have a craving for something Sherlock, this would leave me hungry. It's Victorian Iron Man, so it's enjoyable to watch, but it doesn't capture the Sherlock essence in that specific flavor I've come to expect from a Sherlock Holmes film.
14) Kerry Shale: Crime and Punishments (2014)
This is a video game by the talented company Frogwares, and it was actually pretty good. It puts the player in the shoes of Holmes, to make deductions, and choose the case's resolution. Its portrayal of Holmes is fairly cookie-cutter, and old fans are sure to love it. Although it is very, "classic Holmes", which isn't bad but may not be as exciting for a video game. The stories didn't originally portray Holmes as an action star or anything. A great game, but it doesn't stand out very much.
13) Henry Cavill: Enola Holmes 2 (2022)
Aha, he's come back! And he actually did much better this time around. This time he's actually given some of Holmes's iconic quirks. He's sort of a drunk instead of a drug addict (probably to be more kid-friendly) and he shows off when he feels insecure, which I thought was great. Loved the sibling banter. Could definitely pack it on more as Enola gets to know her brother, but a huge improvement compared to the first film.
12) Alex Jordan: Sherlock Holmes: Chapter One (2021) & Sherlock Holmes: The Awakened (2023)
Back to the video games, these two stand out a lot compared to Crime and Punishments. Frogwares went back in time to show us a younger Holmes which started out very promising in Chapter One, but kind of went sideways in The Awakened. Holmes has an immature Icarus-like hubris to him and is almost instantly hit with the realization he, nor his family, are as perfect as he remembers. And he's met with things that defy everything he knows and loves.
Although I love the idea of exploring a young Holmes, it does go into non-canon themes that I really dislike, as a fan. Such as Holmes being insane and/or a believer of monsters and ghosts. And some sexuality in Chapter One that I really would've preferred not to have been in there. I enjoyed both games. Aside from those themes, it is a very entertaining franchise.
11) Alex Jordan: Sherlock Holmes: The Devil's Daughter (2016)
Honestly, my favorite of the Sherlock video games. Here, we see Sherlock trying to raise the daughter of Moriarty, and that is truly a fantastic twist that I've never seen before from any non-canon works. This take on it was a great combination of classic Holmes while updating him for the action and excitement of a video game. He almost has a Hugh Jackman feel to him, which is unfamiliar but not unpleasant. So fun seeing Holmes as a father figure and a mentor, and would love to see more of that in future adaptations. (Maybe try my hand at it, hehehe)
10) Robert Stephens: Private Life of Sherlock Holmes (1970)
Ah, the inspiration behind BBC Sherlock. It started off very funny, then turned pensive. Again, it was interesting seeing Holmes with a love interest, but it was done very well. The beginning was hilariously awkward. As a whole, a very classic Holmes feel, a good movie to watch on a rainy day with a warm cup of tea before bed. A good comfort film.
9) Michael Caine: Without a Clue
Speaking of comfort films...to my mom’s surprise, I actually like this one. It portrays Holmes as a fake, but I liked the way this one was handled. It was very light and funny. A parody without being disrespectful (looking at you, Will Ferrell), and had a lovely, happy ending. Very fun.
8) Michael Pennington: The Return of Sherlock Holmes (1987)
To this day, I am devastated that this never got picked up as a full series. I was initially not huge on Pennington as Holmes, but he won me over by the end. He and Watson's descendant had great chemistry. I would've loved to have seen where the show would've taken this idea. Such a fun idea to see Victorian Holmes in the 1980’s future, and it had just the right amount of cheesiness to it.
7) John Barrymore: Sherlock Holmes (1922)
Honestly, Holmes when he can't talk was so surreal. The scene when he first meets Moriarty was terrific, and it was so cool to watch my first silent film. However, Holmes loses a lot of his soul when he isn't rambling his thought process for the audience like the show-off he is. We didn't get to see a firm friendship with him and Watson; the doctor had a minimal role in this adaptation. And they gave Sherlock a love interest, which I'm not against, but they did the 'love at first sight' trope, which I think goes against Sherlock's character. But it was still a fun film to watch.
6) Ronald Howard: Sherlock Holmes (1954-1955)
Another series that should’ve had a chance to go on longer. This one was quite charming. A lot shorter, a lot less mystery and a lot more humor, but very entertaining. All the humor of Leave it To Beaver and The Andy Griffith Show (speaking of Ron Howard) but with a Sherlock theme. Howard’s version is witty; it’s the first adaptation where Holmes is the initiator of crazy ideas and Watson is the one who has to hold him on a leash and remind him to act like a normal human being (not that he ever gets his way, mind). A light, cute adaptation that is completely underrated.
5) Jeremy Brett: Sherlock Holmes (1984-1994)
Pardon my inevitably unpopular placement of this adaptation. I do love Brett’s rendition. He is responsible for a lot of the themes that are commonly added to Holmes’s character today. Every episode he did in each series was literarily accurate–practically a line-by-line remake, so what more can you ask for? The only reason he is not higher is that there’s something so intense about him, almost scary. His voice is off-putting. Maybe it’s the theater dramatics but something about him is a little too in-your-face, like he’s doing a play. Which is both perfect Holmes and just too much. Not to mention, apparently Brett himself went too far down the rabbit hole of Holmes in his real life.
I adore every series and he’s always a pleasure to watch, but compiling this list required nitpicking.
4) Nicholas Rowe: Young Sherlock Holmes (1985)
Another comfort film I love. Steven Spielberg did such a lovely job capturing the essence and aesthetic of Holmes’s London, and Rowe gave such heart to the character of young Holmes. Again, there’s a girlfriend, but the dynamic between the three friends was so wholesome–and I love the idea that the reason Holmes is single in his later years is because he’s already had and lost a love that is unmatched. It would explain why he’s hiding in his work with such fervor. Such a tragic backstory and so wonderfully done.
3) Barry Ingham: The Great Mouse Detective (1986)
This is a high ranking for a mouse, but this is my blog post and I can do what I want. I genuinely feel between this, Sherlock Gnomes, and that British episode of Suite Life on Deck, that Disney really wants a mini-Sherlock universe for their empire but just can’t bring themselves to establish a human Holmes (probably because he’s public domain and they want to own it like the selfish little jerks–)
Anyway, this version is very charming, nostalgic, and wholesome (except for that weird pub scene. Didn’t fully understand where that came from). And Ingham sparked such life into this incarnation of Holmes. Funnily enough, despite making such drastic changes as the species of the characters, it maintains a considerable amount of the, ‘Holmesian’ heart in there. The aesthetic, the background music, it felt like such a cozy Holmes film. Have I mentioned the term ‘comfort film’ yet?
2) Benedict Cumberbatch: Sherlock (2010-2017)
BBC Sherlock is by far my favorite show to watch. The cases are interesting, Moriarty is shown in his best form, and the script blends drama, suspense, and humor so perfectly that the MCU should be envious. Others might have their complaints about Cumberbatch’s Holmes because he is so rude to those around him, but I argue a man as unique as Holmes just wouldn’t get along with the modern day. He surpasses whatever time he’s in and it’s still a fantastic show, with Holmes staying at the heart of it. He isn’t 100% accurate, obviously, but whatever they changed just enhanced the character for the modern audience. Absolutely adore.
1) Basil Rathbone
The man, the myth, the legend!
Now, if I had to choose whether to watch one of his movies or BBC Sherlock, it would probably be the latter. The dynamic of Holmes and Watson and the show as a whole is so greatly entertaining for my Gen-Z attention span. But when I think of Sherlock Holmes, I think of Basil Rathbone.
Now, if he could see this, he would most likely be upset. Like the late, great Sir Arthur Conan Doyle himself, he was tired of being typecast as Holmes–especially when his dear Watson passed away. But look at the man. He is Holmes. His wife thought so too–enough to write a play with him in it. I don’t make the rules–well, I do, but I have all the correct opinions, mind you.