I am not going to cover all of the myriad variations of Sherlock Holmes in literature, radio, television, and film, rather I would like to look at the ones I enjoy the most, and a couple of the offshoot films that tickle me.
So, oldest first; Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce portrayed Holmes and Watson from 1939 to 1946 in a series of US made films.
Young Sherlock Holmes (1985, dir. by Chris Columbus)
Granada Television's Sherlock Holmes starring Jeremy Brett, David Burke and Edward Hardwicke (1985-1994)
Brett as Holmes and Burke as Watson (pre-hiatus)
Brett as Holmes and Hardwicke as Watson (post-hiatus)
Jeremy Brett is, in my opinion, the Consummate Holmes. Not only is his portrayal magnificent, but it was supported and broadened by not only the writing in this show, but his two Watsons. David Burke is my personal favourite, but Edward Hardwicke takes up the reins quite nicely in the later seasons. This show is follows the short stories and novels most closely, matching dialogue word for word in many places. They also feature many of Sidney Paget's original sketches which were featured in The Strand Magazine when the stories were run as serials.
What I enjoy most about this series, aside from the gorgeous costuming and brilliant acting, is that Holmes feels so human. For me, this was the first time I really saw him laugh, show fear, pain, sadness, love for his stalwart companion and romantic love towards The Woman. Watson was also much more enjoyable in these since he wasn't just a dumb assistant, but a true sidekick. Watson learns deductive reasoning and applies it constantly, much to Holmes' delight. The solve cases together, and come out stronger for having known the other.
I was, happily, entertained by this adaptation. For me, it had a very distinct wink at the canon, as if to say, "Forgive us for this, but it was too much fun!" Visually rich, lovely costumes, good characters, good villain, and entertaining moments of laugh-out-loud silliness. Oh, and Jude Law...did I mention Jude Law?
Next up is BBC One's Sherlock (2011-) starring Benedict Cumberbatch as Holmes and Martin Freeman as Watson.
This adaptation delighted me utterly. I had my trepidations (modern adaptation? who needs that?) but after watching the first episode I was hooked. This isn't so much an adaptation as it is an update. They took the bones of the original stories and modernised them to fit in 2011 London. The Study in Pink rather than the Study in Scarlet, quotes from the original, moments that I had grown to love from Granada's series were updated and honored in Sherlock.
Let's just take the above picture for example; in one story Watson comes home to hear gunshots and discovers Holmes has shot the letters "VR" for Victoria Regina in the wall. This time it's a smiley face, but same concept. "Bored! Bored! Bored!" is the reason the 1887 and 2011 Holmes' give to the perplexed Watsons.
This Holmes is extraordinarily awkward at time, a product of his spending so much time in his own mind that occasionally it's hard to watch. Each time, however, he pulls through and learns how to be a proper human. Love it. Watch it.
I watched the pilot...and then I watched another and another episode until this morning when I anxiously packed up the Netflix disk to the mail to await the next one!
For die-hard Holmes fans, this show is shocking. You begin watching hoping for some connection to the stories or any part of the canon and you just don't find it. It is completely different, and still very good. The writers basically took the essence of Holmes and the essence of Watson and distilled them down to the core of the characters, plugged them into New York and went from there. Holmes and Watson still meet, but this time because Watson is Holmes' Sobriety Companion to recover from his drug addiction. Holmes' father arranged for Watson, there is no mention of Mycroft, the brother, and they begin their awkward yet fascinating relationship together.
This Holmes is imperfect, childlike in his reactions to situations, and open to mentorship. Inspector Gregson and Watson guide Holmes through his world, buffering his awkwardness for other people.
He opens up to Watson more than Watson opens up to Holmes. Watson catches him on things and he acknowledges his error. They learn together and grow from each other. And as much as I never thought I would say it, this is worth a watch.