true cast of characters

The Many Faces of Sherlock Holmes

One of the world’s most famous fictional detectives, Sherlock Holmes, made his debut in the novella A Study in Scarlet by Arthur Conan Doyle, published in 1887. Doyle went on to write a huge canon of Sherlock Holmes stories and novels, which have continued to fascinate readers and mystery fans well into the 21st Century. In preparing for the Multimedia Book Club at Irmo Branch Library, I recently did a deep dive into Sherlock Holmes, who has been portrayed in various forms on screen since 1916.

Though not the first fictional detective, Sherlock Holmes is arguably the best known. By the 1990s there were already over 25,000 stage adaptations, films, television productions and publications featuring the detective, and Guinness World Records lists him as the most portrayed literary human character in film and television history. Holmes's popularity and fame are such that many have believed him to be not a fictional character but a real individual; numerous literary and fan societies have been founded on this pretense. Avid readers of the Holmes stories helped create the modern practice of fandom.

Here are a few of my favorite faces of Sherlock Holmes …

5. Robert Downey Jr.

If there’s one thing Robert Downey Jr.’s portrayal of Sherlock Holmes showed me, it’s that Tony Stark and Sherlock Holmes are basically the same person — smart, innovative, kind of a jerk but still cool. I know plenty of people who love the RDJ version, but it wasn’t my absolute favorite. To me, it seemed like the films try to make Sherlock Holmes hip in a way that isn’t in his lane, making him a bohemian-era bro. Perhaps the Sherlock Holmes 3 (slated for December 21, 2021) will change my mind?

4. Jeremy Brett

This may be the Sherlock Holmes a lot of people my age grew up watching. For me, Jeremy Brett’s series was always squarely in the category “grown-up” shows. He’s distinguished and witty and not at all interesting to a ten-year-old. Watching a DVD of The Hound of the Baskervilles recently, I realize his versions are actually pretty good — generally faithful to the plot with lots of subtle humor. If you’re interested in a more thorough look, check out Sherlock Holmes Revisited: Looking Back at Jeremy Brett’s Classic Series. The article takes a deep dive into Sherlock-mania and the many faces that portrayed him.

3. Basil & Wishbone (TIE)

If we’re going to use what’s “interesting to a ten-year-old” as criteria, then I have to mention my favorite anthropomorphic Sherlock. Basil of Baker Street in Disney’s The Great Mouse Detective positively captivated my imagination as a kid. I had known Sherlock Holmes as a boring grown-up — and suddenly here was this mouse, living underneath Sherlock Holmes’ apartment, playing violin morosely and solving the mystery just in time. And for PBS kids like myself, who could forget Wishbone’s fantastic take on The Hound of the Baskervilles. Stroll on over to the Wishbone Wiki page (yes, it has a fandom) because you just have to see it for yourself.

2. Basil Rathbone

When I asked my book club which version of Sherlock Holmes they thought I should choose, “Basil Rathbone” was the resounding answer. While the original films with Rathbone as Holmes and Nigel Bruce as John Watson are faithful to Doyle’s time period, some of the 1940s-era films update the setting to have Sherlock and Watson fighting Nazis, such as Sherlock Holmes and the Secret Weapon, which adapts Doyle’s story The Adventure of the Dancing Men into the World War II era.

1. Benedict Cumberbatch

Benedict Cumberbatch as Holmes and Martin Freeman as Watson win top spot in my ranking because the 2010 BBC version was among the first to make me realize the ongoing relevance of Sherlock Holmes. Doyle’s stories have remained popular for a reason — Sherlock Holmes is sophisticated, and not in a way that needs to be modernized. Benedict Cumberbatch plays Holmes primarily in today’s world, but his depiction is one of the most accurate to Doyle’s Sherlock. Holmes has a charming intelligence that makes Watson stick with him and write down his stories, much like Doyle set out to capture the personality of his real life teacher in the fictional Holmes. It’s a charisma that is timeless, no matter how much the world changes.

Join the Conversation

Each month, the Multimedia Book Club looks at a work of literature that has taken on a new life because of its many adaptations, whether in movies or on TV, or through retelling in comic books or fan fiction. We’ve discussed cult classics, like Frankenstein, and new takes on old favorites, like Little Women. Since we won’t be able to gather for a while, we’ve moved the discussion online, and all are welcome to join the conversation, no matter which version — book or movie — you happen to like best.

Next Up ...

Jane Austen’s Emma. We’ll take a look at the far-reaching influence of Jane Austen through her beloved but “clueless” heroine, Emma Woodhouse. Screenwriter Gina Fattore talks about how Jane Austen is present even in modern TV romances. You can find Emma on Hoopla, along with the 1996 film version and a comic adaptation by Nancy Butler and Janet Lee. We’ll discuss these and so much more starting later this month. For more information, call (803) 798-7880 or email
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