With hundreds of movies and series already crowding the Sherlock Holmes canon, it takes expert sleuthing to determine which rank above the rest.
Luckily, The Times is on the case, with the help of some expert film historians and Sherlockians. Here are 10 of the greatest adaptations of Arthur Conan Doyle’s classic mysteries.
“Sherlock Holmes” (1916)
The oldest known surviving Holmes movie, which recently and miraculously turned up mislabeled in a Paris archive, stars William Gillette as Holmes and Edward Fielding as Watson as they investigate royal blackmail. The Sherlock Holmes Society of London’s Roger Johnson called the newly restored flick “a wonderful treat.”
“Sherlock Holmes” (1954)
The first small-screen American take on Conan Doyle’s stories starred Ronald Howard as Holmes and H. Marion Crawford as Watson. It appeals to Baker Street Irregular and “The Seven-Per-Cent” solution author Nicholas Meyer — a self-proclaimed Holmes “purist” — for its fidelity to the originals.
“A Study in Terror” (1965)
In this British thriller, John Neville’s Holmes and Donald Houston’s Watson pursue infamous London serial killer Jack the Ripper with the help of Holmes’ sedentary brother Mycroft, played by Robert Morley. Baker Street Irregular Leslie Klinger praised the film for its “very intelligent script.”
“Sherlock Holmes” (1965)
Johnson called this series featuring Douglas Wilmer as Holmes and Nigel Stock as Watson “excellent.” The British program ran until 1968 on BBC, with Peter Cushing eventually taking over for Wilmer in a later version.
“The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes” (1970)
This Billy Wilder film stars Robert Stephens as a more complex Holmes beyond the suave observer depicted in Watson’s (Colin Blakely) tales. Johnson lauded the movie’s ability to honor Conan Doyle’s creations with “a completely new story.”
“Sherlock Holmes” (1984)
Klinger hailed this long-running series, starring Jeremy Brett as Holmes and David Burke (later Edward Hardwicke) as Watson, for presenting “serious and deep” portrayals of Holmes’ loyal companion that audiences can “really admire” — as opposed to other, more buffoonish takes.
“Without a Clue” (1988)
Multiple Sherlockians admitted to having a soft spot for this “hilarious” reimagining that flips the personalities of its dynamic detective duo, featuring Ben Kingsley’s Watson as the brain and Michael Caine’s Holmes as the bumbling student.
“Sherlock Holmes” (2009)
For one of the most recent big-screen adaptations, Klinger paid particular kudos to Jude Law, who plays “one of the very best Watsons ever” opposite Robert Downey Jr.'s Holmes. Klinger served as a technical adviser on the first two Warner Bros. films; a third installment coming in 2021.
Sherlockians and film historians agree BBC nailed this serialized, updated take on Conan Doyle’s mysteries, featuring Martin Freeman as Dr. Watson and Benedict Cumberbatch as a Holmes with “a kind of arrogance that ... is actually not very sympathetic but that made the role interesting,” according to UCLA Film & Television archive director Jan-Christopher Horak.
Sherlock Holmes, but make it modern-day Manhattan. That’s the premise for this buzzy CBS series starring Jonny Lee Miller as Holmes and Lucy Liu as a rare female Watson. The program’s success, Horak said, proves “great capacity” for change in the Holmes canon as long as “the essence of the characters remains.”