Of All the Sherlocks I’ve Known Before


I love me a good mystery.  Trying to figure out the solution before the characters do is one of my favorite games to play while watching crime dramas, cop shows, thrillers, sci fi, pretty much anything where a seemingly unsolvable question is asked of the audience.  So it should come as no big surprise that Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes is my favorite fictional detective.

There’s something about Holmes that transcends generations.  Maybe it’s his absolute devotion to observational deduction.  Maybe we’re drawn to his lovable bastard persona.  Maybe we just want to see if we can be as clever as Holmes and deduce the solution before he does.  Whatever the reason, you can find Sherlocks and Sherlock-inspired characters throughout the generations.

I’ve seen many versions of Sherlock and I love them all.  This is by no means an exhaustive list, but here are six of my favorite Sherlocks.

John Gielgud

John Gielgud

I’m a huge old time radio fan and the 1950’s BBC radio version of Sherlock Holmes was my first introduction to the character.  John Gielgud’s voice will forever be connected to Holmes in my brain.  His version of Holmes was more joyful than I think Conan Doyle intended.  You could hear him almost laugh as he would explain his reasoning to Watson.  I always imagined Gielgud smiling cheek to cheek as he read his lines.  You could tell he had a blast playing the character.  Far more genial and warm than other versions of Holmes.

The best part about the radio version is that they laid out all the clues before you to figure out yourself.  I rarely did, but I never felt cheated when it came to the big reveal.

I also really liked the theme.  It was just a solo violin noodling about.  Playful and fun and still rings in my head when I hear the name, Sherlock Holmes.

Jeremy Brett

Jeremy Brett

Jeremy Brett played Sherlock Holmes for the Granada Television version from 1984 to 1994 which ran for 41 episodes.  The thing I like best about Brett is that his version of Holmes has no indoor voice.  He’s always shouting his dialog like every single word is the most important.  And it usually is.  And it’s bloody hysterical.

Brett’s Holmes is much more abrupt than Gielgud’s and suffers no fools.  Watson is more like a punching bag than a true partner.  Were it not for the fact that Watson stands in for us as audience members to ask Holmes to explain shit to us, you could imagine Brett’s Holmes would be happiest figuring this shit out on his own.  He’s more cold than I generally like from my Sherlock, but he’s still fun to watch accuse the shit out of villains.

Rober Downey, Jr.

Robert Downy Jr as Holmes

I don’t think it’s possible for Downey to do anything without swag.  Try as he might to make his version of Holmes in the 2009 film, Sherlock Holmes, and 2011 sequel, Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows, as socially awkward as possible, his swag comes through.  It makes for an interesting combination that works perfectly for film.  Downey’s Holmes is fairly needy with an addictive personality.  He deeply depends on Watson and finds it difficult to deal with Watson’s impending marriage.

Though I found both films to be thoroughly entertaining, I felt robbed of the opportunity to figure out the mystery.  I don’t know why Hollywood thinks audiences are drooling idiots, but there was a lot of hand holding in the films.  The director might as well have broken the fourth wall and yelled LOOK, YOU DAFT GITS, THIS IS A CLUE.  That, and a handful of things that we couldn’t have figured out on our own because we didn’t get all the information on screen made for poor mystery stories as they stacked up to other Holmes tales.  Still, I loved both of them and didn’t regret paying for full price movie tickets.

Jonny Lee Miller

Jonny Lee Miller as Sherlock

What’s interesting about ABC’s Elementary is that you can’t really talk about Holmes without mentioning Watson.  It’s not just the gender reversal with Lucy Liu playing Joan Watson.  Jonny Lee Miller’s Holmes genuinely needs Watson as a sounding board.  She brings a second pair of eyes that see things he might miss or otherwise ignore.  The interplay between the two of them is really fun.  Watson is Holmes’s equal which we don’t see that often.

The one thing that detracts from this series is that we don’t get all the clues we need to solve the case.  Often times, the NYP detectives will uncover a new piece of evidence that takes a case in a completely new direction.  This usually happens in the third act of an episode so any deductions we’ve made up until that point are useless.  Still, I think it’s a series worthy of the name.  And I like that Holmes challenges Watson to deduce things on her own.  It’s like he’s challenging us to figure shit out.

Hugh Laurie

Hugh Laurie

If you didn’t figure out that House was basically the doctor version of Holmes, what the hell show were you watching?  I absolutely loved, LOVED, Hugh Laurie as House.  He fully embodied the lovable bastard aspect of Holmes’s personality with Wilson as his moral compass.

More than any other version, the show did a wonderful job of exploring what made House the bastard he is today, a man who desperately needed connection with others yet did everything in his power to push people away.  The relationship between him and Lisa Cuddy, his Irene Adler, was just heartbreaking to experience.

Like most medical shows, unless you are in the biz there’s no way a regular person could ever figure out the solution.  And even if you are in the biz, the inevitable third act turn where some other condition rears its ugly head is nearly impossible to anticipate.  So we don’t get to follow along with the mystery.  But this version of Holmes is more about getting into his head than anything else.  It’s about the mystery of the man.

Benedict Cumberbatch

Benedict Cumberbatch

Benedict Cumberbatch’s portrayal of a modern Sherlock Holmes is my most favorite version of the character thus far.  He’s cocky, brash, socially unaware, utterly confident, a complete asshole, yet somehow charming.  The way his eyes look through you is haunting.  Life is so boring that he needs these mysteries to keep his brain occupied.

What I love most about the BBC Sherlock is that it does two things so brilliantly well.  One, we get to follow along with the mystery and attempt to deduce the solution.  There are no deux ex machina last minute clues out of nowhere.  It’s all there for us to figure out.  Two, it explores Holmes’s personal relationship with Watson.  There’s a great bromance going on.  The little in jokes.  The freaking safe word that tells Watson to duck.  There’s a lot going on between those between scenes that we get hints of.  It’s fantastic.  I can’t wait for Season 3 to drop!

It’s Elementary

So those are my favorite Sherlocks.  I’m certain there will be more to come as I grow older.  And I suspect I’ll love every one.  In the end, the mystery is the thing.  I love a good mystery.  I love trying to figure out the solution along with the master detective.  The best is when the solution is revealed and it’s something that my little pea brain could have figure out.