Ranking 8 On-Screen Portrayals of Sherlock Holmes

Basil Rathbone, who played Sherlock Holmes in the 1939 film series, is just one of many actors to portray the famous literary detective. In this list, 8 of them are ranked according to how book-accurate and iconic they are.
Photo Courtesy of Dennis Amith

Dennis Amith

Basil Rathbone, who played Sherlock Holmes in the 1939 film series, is just one of many actors to portray the famous literary detective. In this list, 8 of them are ranked according to how book-accurate and iconic they are. Photo Courtesy of Dennis Amith

May 22 is Sherlock Holmes Day, celebrating the most famous literary detective in the world. Arthur Conan Doyle’s novels have been adapted into numerous TV shows and films over the years, and I thought it would be fun to rank 8 portrayals that I have seen on screen. Note that the ranking does not necessarily reflect my personal preference or my opinion on the adaptation as a whole, and is mostly based on how accurately and iconically the actor portrayed Sherlock Holmes. 


8. Henry Cavill (Enola Holmes)

Cavill’s Holmes functions as less of a detective than a sympathetic older brother in the first Enola Holmes film. He has not yet met his Watson, nor has he been seen to do any particularly brilliant sleuthing. He has a massive disadvantage in this list due to being a supporting character rather than the protagonist, but we have yet to see what he will do as the film series progresses. 

7. Nicholas Rowe (Young Sherlock Holmes)

I didn’t care much for the film itself, but Rowe did a decent job at playing a younger Holmes. Both the character’s arrogance and cleverness came off as natural as in the other adaptations, almost comically contrasting with his schoolboy status. He is one of the more obscure Holmes on this list, however, which knocks him down a few ranks. 

6. Robert Downey Jr. (Sherlock Holmes [2009])

One of the three well-known twenty-first century portrayals. As somewhat expected of his actor, this Holmes is exceptionally charming and cunning, but a bit too charming and cunning for my taste. Though the detective certainly knew how to fight and deadpan his way out of situations in the novels, it’s telling that Downey’s most famous scenes are filled not with his sleuthing but his snarking and/or brawling. This Holmes was a delight to watch but by no means an accurate portrayal of the detective from the novels. 

5. Yuko Takeuchi (Miss Sherlock)

Modern, female, and Japanese, Takeuchi’s Holmes, or rather, Futaba, is starkly different from the other Holmes in this list in terms of appearance. Although the glaring (and most likely deliberate) similarities to fellow Holmes actor Benedict Cumberbatch’s portrayal deduct from her rank, Takeuchi’s version still felt accurate and refreshing, and possessed surprising emotional vulnerability. In this unexpectedly gory and drama-heavy series, Takeuchi’s uniqueness was a pleasant surprise rather than a distraction. 

4. Jonny Lee Miller (Elementary)

My personal favorite Holmes, opposite Lucy Liu, who plays my personal favorite Watson. As another twenty-first century Holmes, he operates in New York City instead of London. He is a touch kinder and more social than most of the Holmes in this list, but retains his eccentricity and intelligence. I find him one of the most intriguing Holmes, as his addiction to narcotics is fully explored. Despite this, he is simply not the face most people think of, and strays a bit too far from the original Sherlock Holmes to be ranked higher on this list. 

3. Benedict Cumberbatch (Sherlock)

While he is another modern adaptation of Holmes, Cumberbatch’s portrayal of the detective is possibly one of the most iconic. He is significantly more acerbic and misanthropic compared to the other Holmeses, which adds to his unique appeal. While Sherlock as a series ages rather poorly, Cumberbatch’s portrayal is undoubtedly the most famous in the twenty-first century so far. 

2. Basil Rathbone (Sherlock Holmes [1939])

Together with co-lead Nigel Bruce, Rathbone starred in an impressive fourteen movies as Sherlock Holmes, two of which I’ve watched. With his pipe and hat, Rathbone is undoubtedly the most visually iconic Sherlock Holmes, and quite possibly the most famous portrayal across generations. The films were not 100% accurate to the novels, most prominently due to the fact that the character of Watson was flanderized into a bumbling sidekick, but the writers were still faithful to the source content while keeping it enjoyable. Likewise, Rathbone’s Holmes is appropriately mysterious and intelligent, and his black-and-white charm has not faded with time.

1. Jeremy Brett (The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes)

The Holmes of 80’s British television, Brett tops this list due to the sheer accuracy with which he portrays Arthur Conan Doyle’s detective. No other Holmes on this list sticks so closely to the books as he does, and it’s a pleasure to see him act out the original stories as they were written. I began watching this four-decade old series fully expecting that I would not enjoy it due to its age, but Brett and David Burke, who plays a similarly accurate Watson, pull off an enjoyable and impressive performance even without dramatic Hollywood flair. If you are a fan of the novels, I highly recommend that you try watching Brett’s series.