The Many Faces of Sherlock Holmes

In honor of the Mr. Holmes movie release this weekend, starring Gandalf Sir Ian McKellen, we wanted to look back at the various faces of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle‘s infamous detective.

The original text describes Holmes as “over six feet” tall and “excessively lean”, with sharp, piercing eyes and a “hawk-like nose” (A Study in Scarlet). But his incarnation on screen has run the gamut from young to old, bookish to brawny. No other character has been portrayed more often on the big screen—over 250 times, according to the Guinness Book of World Records.

I’d love to know your favorite iteration, and if you’re planning on seeing the film this weekend, so share your thoughts in the comments below!

Basil Rathbone

The Hound of the Baskervilles, etc. movies (1939-1946)

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Rathbone’s gentlemanly portrayal is the classic that defined Sherlock Holmes for generations to come. Rathbone’s character was the first to don the stereotypical Holmes getup: deerstalker (the hat with bills in the front and back) and cape.

Jeremy Brett

Sherlock Holmes TV series (1984-1994)

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More arrogant than the Rathbone portrayal, Jeremy Brett’s Sherlock Holmes is also more dramatic. This iteration of the famous detective emphasizes Holmes’ friendship with Watson.

Nicholas Rowe

Young Sherlock Holmes movie (1985)


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Rowe is cast as the teenage Sherlock Holmes who gives us insight into his early years of solving mysteries. His teacher describes him as “too precocious, too egotistical, for his own good”, and the mature, intense portrayal may have you wondering if Holmes was always a grownup.

Michael Caine

Without a Clue movie (1988)


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Caine’s Holmes is a bit more, er, “bumbling” than “classic”. If you’ve always secretly rooted for Robin over Batman,  or Tonto over the Lone Ranger, then this flick is for you. Without a Clue’s Dr. Watson, portrayed by the great Ben Kingsley, is revealed to be the real mystery-solving mastermind.

Robert Downey, Jr.

Sherlock Holmes (2009) & Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows (2011) movies


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Perhaps one of the flashiest takes on Holmes is Downey’s big screen version. Purists to Conan’s original works might snub RDJ, but others might like the fast-talking, even faster-thinking sleuth.

Benedict Cumberbatch

Sherlock TV series (2010- )

Image via BBC/Hartswood

Image via BBC/Hartswood

Cumberbatch is the Sherlock of the 2000s. He has the beloved characteristics of the 1880s Holmes, placed in modern London with a few dramatic quirks (such as storing everything in his “Mind Palace”). A bit arrogant, a bit “high-functioning” sociopathic, and a whole lot of brilliant.

Jonny Lee Miller

Elementary TV series (2012- )

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Miller’s portrayal is another contemporary take on Holmes. A recovering drug addict, assisting the NYPD in solving crimes, will all the Holmes-y eccentricities.

Sir Ian McKellen

Mr. Holmes movie (2015)


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Is it possible for McKellen to disappoint? Scientifically speaking…no. As for his version of Holmes, we’ll find out!