Student Projects

Independent-learning super-curriculum projects: reading, research and ideas shared by Perse students

How has Sherlock Holmes Been Portrayed Through the Ages and How Does it Compare to the Books?

By Charlie S – Y8

Sherlock Holmes has been portrayed many times in different media, from actors Basil Rathbone and Peter Cushing in the early twentieth century to the more recent Benedict Cumberbatch and Robert Downey Jr, each one a slight variation on the original books, with spin-offs such as Young Sherlock (books [1] and film [2]), Mr Holmes (film [3]) and the Baker Street Irregulars (graphic novels [2011]). I thought it would be interesting to compare some of the many versions of him to see which is the most fitting to the original books by Arthur Conan Doyle.

The first thing I needed to do was to read some of the Sherlock Holmes books. I read 7 of the original stories: A Study in Scarlet [5], The Adventure of the Dancing Men [6], The Adventure of the Speckled Band [7], The Final Problem [8], The Five Orange Pips [9], The Red-Headed League [10], A Scandal in Bohemia [11], and Silver Blaze [12]. Also I read Sherlock Bones [13] which is a modern graphic novel.

Next I needed to watch some of the many visual interpretations. Here are all of them: Elementary [14], The Great Mouse Detective [15], The Hound of the Baskervilles [16], Sherlock [17], Sherlock Holmes [18], and the sequel to Sherlock Holmes: Sherlock Holmes – A Game of Shadows[19]. For comparison I watched episodes of the ITV series Hercule Poirot [20].

The first thing I had to do before I could compare the books to the films was to find out what defined Sherlock Holmes. Was it the setting, or the appearance of certain characters? To do this I compared Sherlock Holmes with the character of Hercule Poirot, who first appeared in books in 1920, 40 years after a Study in Scarlet was published. Sherlock Holmes is described as ‘rather over six feet’ with a ‘thin, hawk-like nose and eyes that were sharp and piercing’ [5]. All of this gave him an expression of ‘alertness and decision’. Sherlock never smoked a calabash [21] (the type of pipe he is often shown smoking) or even wore a deerstalker hat [21], but he dressed like a Victorian gentleman would and often smoked a clay pipe. Meanwhile, Hercule Poirot is a small Belgian man who cares very much about his clothes and his moustache, unlike Holmes who only cared for his work and didn’t care what he looked like. Both Sherlock and Poirot had companions (Watson and Hastings) and the detectives often worked with a policeman, who sometimes asked them for help. Some of the main differences are that Sherlock Holmes calls himself a consulting detective, a profession he made up, whilst Poirot settles on being a private detective. Sherlock also has no interest in things not important to his work, for example he did not know that the earth went round the sun [5]. Finally, he has brilliant fighting skills and strength as once ‘he picked up the poker and, with a sudden effort, straightened it out again’ [7]. This is different from Poirot as he is not very active or fights; he just solves the crimes.

Next I had to watch and read different versions of Sherlock and here they are:

Elementary is one of two modern television takes on Sherlock Holmes, the other being BBC’s Sherlock. In Elementary, Johnny Lee Miller plays Sherlock based in New York, with a female Watson (Lucy Liu). Sherlock is a recovering drug addict and Watson is a companion hired by Holmes’ father to make sure he is on the road to recovery. Sherlock is still socially awkward in this TV series, but is kinder to everyone on the whole (except criminals and bankers), but often gets very agitated and starts shouting. He also refers to his brain as an attic, saying that a normal person stuffs his brain with anything, but he only picks things that are valuable to his work, just as he does in a Study in Scarlet. This is one of the looser-based versions of Sherlock Holmes, but retains Sherlock’s impressive deductive and fighting abilities.

The second modern version of Sherlock Holmes I watched is Sherlock. It stars Benedict Cumberbatch as Sherlock Holmes and is set in London, at Holmes’s original home of 221B Baker Street. This is closer to the books except for the fact it is set in modern times, with many characters from the original books, such as Inspector Lestrade, Mrs Hudson, Irene Adler, and Moriarty. Moriarty looks more like the description in the books than the others do, thin, forehead domes out, clean shaven. On the other hand, Moriarty is more active as opposed to the books which say that Moriarty does nothing other than help the criminal world whilst sitting in a chair. This series stays close to the books, without copying them exactly, for example, a Study in Scarlet is changed to a Study in Pink and in another episode, Sherlock fakes his death, but instead of jumping off the Reichenbach Falls [8], he jumps off a building.

The only Sherlock- based film done by Disney is The Great Mouse Detective. It has Basil as the mouse version of Sherlock. He is called Basil because one of the most famous portrayals was by Basil Rathbone. In this, Basil is very energetic and is in a battle against his arch enemy, Rattigan (Moriarty). He also calls his enemy the “Napoleon of crime” just like in the books[8]. All characters look nothing like their descriptions, because they are all mice, except for Rattigan, who is a rat. Basil also plays the violin and is interested in chemistry and uses it to help him solve crimes, just like in the books. Unlike in the books, Basil gives up when he gets captured, and if it wasn’t for Dawson, who is the mouse version of Watson, they would never have made it out of Rattigan’s trap alive.

One of the traditional screen versions of Sherlock Holmes is the film Sherlock Holmes, starring Robert Downey Jr. This focuses more on Sherlock’s fighting and disguising skills, rather than his deductive skills. Also the mysteries are bigger and more dangerous than in the books and other adaptations. In the sequel Moriarty features, and is more intellectual and less active than in Sherlock and The Great Mouse Detective. In the sequel, just like in the books, Watson gets married and then has to juggle his time between Sherlock and Mary, his wife. Also Sherlock is very fond of fighting his opponent, rather than talking to them like a gentleman. In some cases, just before he fights, he visualises what he will do in the fight and then carries out his plan.

One of the older films I looked at was The Hound of the Baskervilles, featuring Jeremy Brett as Sherlock. This film is based entirely on the book, The Hound of the Baskervilles. Sherlock is very sure of himself, and very rarely smiles. He also looks nothing like the description of Sherlock. He makes some excellent deductions by looking at one of the character’s walking stick; first he allows Watson to make his own guesses, before saying he is completely wrong and goes on to wow Watson with many pieces of information such as the owner’s height. It is hard to draw any more comparisons to the short story books, as Sherlock, just like in the book, very rarely appears in the film.

The final thing I looked at is Sherlock Bones, a manga comic book that is one of seven volumes in the series. In this, Sherlock is a dog having been reincarnated after his death. He now lives in Japan with his owner, Wajima Takeru. Sherlock, or Sherdog as he is called, believes that Takeru is the reincarnation of Watson as his name phonetically spells Wa To Son (Watson). As Sherdog is a dog, he can only talk to Watson (and no one else) via a pipe, which is apparently one from his previous life. It gets even weirder when Sherdog finds out that Watson’s sister is Airin or as Sherdog knows her, Irene Adler [11]. Sherlock looks nothing like his human description, for obvious reasons, but uses his powerful deductions and doesn’t rely on a dog’s ability. He is also very concerned about his gentleman’s honour, even though he is a dog.

In conclusion, I believe that none of the material developed from the original books is perfectly like the books but for different reasons. For some it is that they are modern adaptations, so the stories will have to be changed in order to fit the time period. For example, instead of Sherlock having the need for books filled with paragraphs so he can do research on someone or something [11], he uses the internet. In both TV series, Elementary and Sherlock, the Baker Street Irregulars come up, but in different forms. In Sherlock, Holmes uses a series of homeless people to find information whereas in Elementary, he uses some former criminals.

In the films, the plots are longer and more complicated than the typical Arthur Conan Doyle Sherlock Holmes story, with the exception of The Hound of the Baskervilles, which is one of four novel-length stories. The films also spend more time on the involvement of other characters, which is unlike what happens with the books and the TV series, where Sherlock Holmes is the main focus.

Sherlock Bones is a lot more serious and grown up than The Great Mouse Detective, even though they are the two animal-based versions of Sherlock. Sherlock Bones differs greatly from all of the other versions of Sherlock Holmes for many reasons, including the fact that the whole crime is set at school, unlike all the others which have the main characters as grown-ups.

Looking at all the evidence, I believe that different Sherlock Holmes variations have achieved different aspects of the original books. In the TV series Sherlock, Benedict Cumberbatch looks more like Holmes than all the other takes on him that I have looked at. The other TV series, Elementary, Sherlock has best captured the balance between Sherlock’s fighting skills and his deductive powers. Finally, the film The Hound of the Baskervilles is the closest resemblance to the story and the setting.



  1. Young Sherlock Holmes, Andrew Lane (2010)
  2. Young Sherlock Film (1986)
  3. Mr. Holmes film (2015)
  4. Baker street irregulars, Tony Lee and Dan Boultwood (2011)
  5. A Study in Scarlet, Arthur Conan Doyle (1887)
  6. The adventure of the dancing men, Arthur Conan Doyle (1903)
  7. The adventure of the speckled band, Arthur Conan Doyle (1892)
  8. The final problem, Arthur Conan Doyle (1893)
  9. The five orange pips, Arthur Conan Doyle (1891)
  10. The red-headed league, Arthur Conan Doyle (1891)
  11. A scandal in Bohemia, Arthur Conan Doyle (1891)
  12. Silver Blaze, Arthur Conan Doyle (1892)
  13. Sherlock Bones, Yuma Ando and Yuki Sato (2012)
  14. Elementary TV series (2012-)
  15. The Great Mouse Detective Film (1986)
  16. The Hound of The Baskervilles Film (1988)
  17. Sherlock TV series (2010-)
  18. Sherlock Holmes Film (2009)
  19. Sherlock Holmes- A game of Shadows (2011)
  20. Hercule Poirot TV series (1989-2013)
  21. The third QI book of total ignorance (2006)


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