The Best Sherlock Holmes Portrayals (According to Us) in History

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For over 100 years, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s brilliant detective  Sherlock Holmes has been portrayed on stage, screen and radio. The character has been played by such iconic actors as Christopher Lee and Leonard Nimoy. What makes it such an exciting and varied character to play is ultimately Sherlock’s brilliance and how it manifests itself, allowing each actor to bring their own interpretation to the role without dismantling his pathos. In essence, Doyle has created a man so complex he’s allowed a veritable smorgasbord of interpretation to be made without disrespecting the character himself. This has resulted in a myriad of portrayals that — while all different — still give us the man we’re after.

So without further ado, here are a few of my favorite portrayals and how they stood out from the pack.

Benedict Cumberbatch in BBC’s Sherlock (2009-present)

Photo by Robert Viglasky/BBC

In BBC’s Sherlock, Benedict Cumberbatch contributes one of the darkest and most memorable depictions of Sherlock Holmes we’ve seen. The actor plays the character at his most cold and detached, emphasizing Holmes’ lack of empathy. Cumberbatch’s Holmes does not try to make friends or win anyone over: he’s brash and often times just plain insulting. I often find myself relating to this interpretation of Holmes the most. I’m sometimes logical to the point of not realizing or just plain ignoring the feelings of those around me. Yet (hopefully) there are endearing qualities making us still root for Sherlock despite these flaws. Cumberbatch’s ability to straddle the line between detached and yet still human is what makes his interpretation of Holmes stand out.

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

Photo by Evening Standard

Having played the character in over 40 productions from 1984 to 1994, Jeremy Brett is the quintessential Sherlock Holmes. His intense depiction of Holmes paved the way for the witty and unpredictable Holmes we’ve come to expect ever since. Brett’s serious Holmes shows the importance of the jobs Holmes undertakes. What Brett brings to Holmes always reminds me that even though Sherlock appears to lack empathy, he ultimately is charged with solving mysteries and bringing justice to those who’ve been wronged. That’s a pretty important task! Brett researched the character fully, paying close attention to detail to inform his performance. He was pensive, brilliant, and also gave just the best monologues. Don’t tell anyone else, but he might be our favorite.

Robert Downey Jr. in Guy Ritchie’s films (2009, 2011)

Photo by Courtesy of Warner Bros.

Setting aside the fact that Robert Downey Jr. is my favorite human, his portrayal of Sherlock Holmes has all of the RDJ flair one might expect from his interpretation of the mystery man. In the flashy and physical films directed by Guy Ritchie, RDJ balances his Holmes with equal amounts of attitude and lovability. His banter with Watson (Jude Law) makes me love this version of Holmes even more. Their friendship sometimes is depicted as unlikely but in this version I could totally see them being BFFs. They’re able to count on each other despite disagreements. And that’s pretty much what you want in a friend, right? RDJ’s is cocky with a side of charming and delightfully witty, bringing out Holmes’ lighter side and allowing the brilliant man to have a bit of fun. Plus, those fight scenes are pretty epic.

Rupert Everett in BBC’s Sherlock Holmes & The Case of the Silk Stocking (2004)

Photo by BBC

Rupert Everett’s depiction of Sherlock in BBC’s TV movie Sherlock Holmes & The Case of the Silk Stocking is almost uncomfortably unhappy. Honestly, I don’t think he cracked a smile once. As an opium-addled Holmes, Everett plays the detective almost over-the-top cold and unlikeable. There are several diversions from Doyle’s canon and overall Holmes seems gloomy. Everyone reacts in different ways to horrors and difficulties they experience. While some depictions of Holmes are sillier or more outwardly emotional as a result, Everett’s Holmes goes in the other direction. His reaction is to retreat into himself (and sometimes drugs). To me, this is just another side of Holmes’ humanity. He’s been hurt in the past and keeps people away to avoid getting hurt again. Everett’s depiction is unique and interesting because of his extreme move in that direction.

Christopher Plummer in Murder By Decree (1979)

Photo by Silver Screen Collection/Getty Images

In Murder by Decree, Christopher Plummer brought us a more empathetic Sherlock. In comparison to the detached Sherlock Holmes of more recent times, Plummer’s portrayal is much more human. He’s still intelligent but also seems kind, unlike the cutting and mean wit used by some Holmes’. It’s nice to intentionally see the emotional toll taken in Plummer’s version of Holmes. He doesn’t hide how upset his is when unable to save people, which makes me really able to understand the softer side of the character typically missing from other interpretations. He’s able to show another side of Holmes without losing the distinct familiarity of the character.

Honorable Mention
Sherlock Holmes in the 22nd Century

Finally, everything we’ve been waiting for — an animated and futuristic Sherlock Holmes. This almost comically dramatic Sherlock Holmes has all of the cockiness of Sherlocks of the past but with The Jetson’s setting. After faking his death by Moriarty, actually dying of old age, and then being “rejuvenated,” Sherlock Holmes and his bright blue eyes make their way into the 22nd Century in this wonky take. Holmes’ famous “eyes and brains” come back from the dead to help bring Moriarty to justice. He does, proving that his cockiness is well-earned.

Who is your favorite Sherlock? Let us know in the comments!

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