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'Sherlock' and 8 Other Television Reinventions of Sherlock Holmes

Photo of Alison Willmore By Alison Willmore | Indiewire May 4, 2012 at 5:32PM

One of the reasons that "Sherlock," the BBC's delicious contemporary adaptation of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's famous detective stories, is such a pleasure is that it's a reinvention that's also logical and deeply faithful in spirit. Holmes, played by Benedict Cumberbatch, may be modern, but he's still a genius and an oddball, emotionally removed, arrogant, disinterested in people other than as aspects of a case and possibly sporting a mild case of Asperger's. Dr. John Watson, played by Martin Freeman, is still recently returned from Afghanistan (this time from the present war instead of the Second Anglo-Afghan one) and injured, and seems drawn to Holmes out of a sense of disconnect to the rest of the world as much as due to his respect for Holmes' gifts.
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Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman as Holmes and Watson
PBS Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman as Holmes and Watson

One of the reasons that "Sherlock," the BBC's delicious contemporary adaptation of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's famous detective stories, is such a pleasure is that it's a reinvention that's also logical and deeply faithful in spirit. Holmes, played by Benedict Cumberbatch, may be modern, but he's still a genius and an oddball, emotionally removed, arrogant, disinterested in people other than as aspects of a case and possibly sporting a mild case of Asperger's. Dr. John Watson, played by Martin Freeman, is still recently returned from Afghanistan (this time from the present war instead of the Second Anglo-Afghan one) and injured, and seems drawn to Holmes out of a sense of disconnect to the rest of the world as much as due to his respect for Holmes' gifts.

The Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss-created "Sherlock" returns for a second three-episode series on PBS this Sunday to the delight of the clamoring masses. While it may be unique in its particular take, this is far from the first time Conan Doyle's character has been given an unusual tweak. While Basil Rathbone, Peter Cushing, Jeremy Brett and others have embodied traditional Holmes on the big and small screens, the detective's also seen a wide range of variations, particularly on television. And there are more to come -- CBS, for instance, has a modern-day take of its own in the works, "Elementary," with Johnny Lee Miller playing Holmes as a recovering addict who goes to rehab in New York City and stay on in Brooklyn with his "sober companion" Joan Watson (Lucy Liu).

Here's a look at eight more small screen reinventions of the legendary sleuth:

"House M.D." (2004-12)

The mysteries are medical and he may have punnily become a "House" instead of a "Holmes," but Hugh Laurie's Dr. Gregory House owes a debt to Conan Doyle as deep as his vicodin habit -- he's even got a Dr. James Wilson (Robert Sean Leonard) at his side in the place of a Dr. John Watson. (Holmes never was much of a romantic, which may be why House's relationships have all been so agonizing.) Creator David Shore has discussed how much Holmes has influenced the show, and dropped homages throughout the series, from House's building number being 221B in reference to 221B Baker Street to the gunman named Moriarty, for Holmes' nemesis, who shoots House at the end of season two. For a truly Holmesian finish, here's hoping "House" retires in the May 21st series finale to take up beekeeping.


"Sherlock Hound" (1984-85)

Hayao Miyazaki directed six episodes of this steampunky animated series in which Holmes and everyone else is, for reasons of cuteness, a dog (Professor Moriarty, however, is a wolf). It's lighthearted and awfully adorable, though it does take the liberty of turning Baker Street landlady Mrs. Hudson into a fetching young widow and possible (Golden Retriever) love interest for the detective.


"Monk" (2002-09)

The best argument for Tony Shalhoub's Adrian Monk being an OCD-suffering contemporary take on Holmes are the episodes in which we see Ambrose (John Turturro), Monk's brilliant but agoraphobic brother and a clear analog to the original detective's older sibling Mycroft, who's lazy rather than frightened of leaving the house. Mycroft might be even more brilliant than Holmes, serving the British government as "the most indispensable man in the country... all other men are specialists, but his specialism is omniscience." Ambrose is the same, though instead of essential goverment work he's supported himself by writing owner's manuals for different consumer products in multiple self-taught languages. "Monk is like Holmes," the show's head writer Andy Breckman once told the New York Times, "in that he is the most gifted guy around and the most troubled. He's just not happy out in the world. Everything is just in such disarray that he can't deal with it."


"Murder Rooms: The Dark Beginnings of Sherlock Holmes" (2001-02)

The real-life inspiration for Holmes, Dr. Joseph Bell (Ian Richardson), becomes the detective in this five-part BBC mystery drama, with Robin Laing and later Charles Edwards playing a young Arthur Conan Doyle as his assistant and a kind of Watson to his Holmes. Bell was Conan Doyle's mentor and tutor when he was studying medicine at the University of Edinburgh, and sometimes did forensic work for the local police -- his deductive abilities were said to be Holmes-like in their power.

This article is related to: Television, TV Features, Sherlock