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.
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.
“The Adventures of Shirley Holmes” (1996-99)
This children’s mystery series follows intrepid girl detective Shirley (Meredith Henderson), the great grand-niece of Sherlock Holmes, as she solves crimes around her Canadian hometown and deals with her sociopathic nemesis and classmate Molly Hardy (get it?) while attending a high-end private school. Instead of a Watson, she has former gang member Bo Sawchuk (John White), which is forward-thinkingly “Veronica Mars” of her — she also got to share screen time with a young villainous (!) Ryan Gosling.
“The Return of the World’s Greatest Detective” (1976)
Larry Hagman, J.R. Ewing himself, plays Sherman Holmes in this goofy TV movie from writer/director Dean Hargrove. A Los Angeles cop who gets bonked on the head by his own motorcycle while reading Conan Doyle, Holmes starts believing he’s the fictional character, even taken up his style of dress and manner of speech. Jenny O’Hara is his shrink, Dr. Joan Watson, who indulges his delusions — ones that actually end up making him a better detective as he works to track down a serial killer.
“Sherlock Holmes in the 22nd Century” (1999-2001)
Holmes is brought back to life with the use of futuristic technology in this animated series set in “New London,” in which Inspector Beth Lestrade enlists the reanimated detective to help her catch a Moriarty clone wreaking havoc on the mostly peaceful 22nd century. Watson is a robot — a “compudroid” — who takes on the personality of Holmes’ companion after absorbing his journals. While we’re all about contemporary Holmes these days, this show was actually one of several instances in which the original Holmes was imagined to have been brought into the present or future — a time storm stranded him in the 23rd century in “BraveStarr,” while in TV movies “1994 Baker Street: Sherlock Holmes Returns” and “The Return of Sherlock Holmes” he awakens from suspended animation and from being cryogentically frozen.
“Young Sherlock: The Mystery of the Manor House” (1982)
Like Barry Levinson’s 1985 film “Young Sherlock Holmes,” this eight-part UK series looked at a youthful Holmes (Guy Henry) as a 17-year-old schoolboy who’s forced by a typhoid epidemic to return home from boarding school early to his family’s manor, only to find his parents have been kicked out due to their lack of funds — and the place’s new occupants of course turn out to be harboring secrets. The framing story presents the mystery as being one of many recorded by Holmes on a dictaphone and left to Watson to be listened to after the detective’s death.