I watched Mr Holmes in London on a busy June evening. Leicester Square was teeming with people; I mention the place because there is something iconic about this bit of London: something so congealed and essential with the Hippodrome, playhouses and unmistakable clatter of overpriced, safely English versions of cuisines being served all over the place, that watching a movie that re-imagines Sherlock Holmes as a retired detective in a cinema in the area felt almost felt like a necessity.

Yet it struck me, stepping out of the slightly improbable ending of the otherwise beautiful film, that the sheer volume of work inspired by the relatively modest amount of original fiction by Arthur Conan Doyle perhaps points to an obsession across the generations and time zones, an engagement at the very least, that goes beyond just the aspect of quintessential Englishness that we associate most readily with this character.

Perhaps this fascination with Sherlock Holmes lies in the universal fantasy of total self-reliance and superhuman intellect. After all, don’t we all want to know everything about the world around us and neutralize those baddies with a magnifying glass?

Contemporary film and television adaptations of Sherlock Holmes have capitalised on the timeless appeal of the pipe-biting hero who disdains at the thought of fiction. Here is why they work.

House (2004 - 2012)

Although not an open adaptation like Sherlock or Elementary, House is very much a re-imagination of Holmes in twenty-first century America. Set in a fictional hospital in New Jersey, the show revolves around its main character, Gregory House, played to perfection by Hugh Laurie. A misanthropic medical genius addicted to Vicodin, House grudgingly depends on his friendship with the likeable Dr James Wilson (notice the initials!) and Dr Lisa Cuddy, who is a bit of both Lestrade and Mrs Hudson at once.

The show’s creator David Shore is a massive fan of Sherlock Holmes, and the debt is referenced many times throughout the show. The biggest clue is perhaps the name of the gunman who shoots House in season three: Moriarty.

This show is perhaps the most interesting example of the world’s enduring love for all the things that Sherlock Holmes stands for, even when separated from the name itself.

 Sherlock Holmes (2009)

Guy Ritchie’s take on the Sherlock Holmes saga was not particularly cerebral, but it certainly marked the beginning of television’s renewed interest in Conan Doyle’s saga. With Robert Downey Jr cast in a larger-than-life, swashbuckling avatar of Sherlock Holmes, this film is a very enjoyable watch, and comes with the same quips, stunts and easy charm that has marked Downey Jr’s other screen characters such as Iron Man.

This movie adaptation uses a properly Gothic backdrop (full of undead villains and bleak blue horizons) to deliver Victorian London in an easy, comic-book aesthetic.

Sherlock (2010 -)

Doesn’t really need any introduction. Ever since it was launched by BBC in 2010, the television series has been a worldwide hit, commanded an ever increasing fan following, and launched the career of Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman.

Set in contemporary London, this adaptation accords its hero the superhuman intellect and sub-par social skills that form the hallmark of the Sherlock Holmes saga. Although Cumberbatch’s good looks and Freeman’s brilliant timing gets the most attention, this show has many amazing actors. Most notable is Andrew Scott’s classy, deranged Moriarty who tastefully adjusts his Vivienne Westwood while casually arranging explosions.

Elementary (2012 -)

It is a shame that the series does not get more attention. Arguably the most politically engaged and sensitive adaptation of Sherlock Holmes, this show stars Johnny Lee Miller as an irascible but self-aware recovering addict living in his father’s dilapidated house in New York. The story begins when a sober companion is foisted upon Holmes against his wishes. This companion is Joan Watson, played by Lucy Liu.

The main reason for checking out this adaptation is to see how it is possible to take Victorian popular fiction with no more than one important (and still peripheral) female character, and turn it into a staunchly feminist narrative with a female Watson and (spoiler alert!) female Moriarty. And Elementary does not stop there: it wrestles with the subject of surviving sexual violence in a sympathetic and nuanced way, a subject still shunned by most mainstream TV shows.

Mr Holmes (2015)

An absolutely stunning performance by Ian McKellen. Even if you are not a fan of Sherlock Holmes (seriously though?), go watch this film for a beautifully told story of an old man grappling with memory loss and mortality. McKellen’s Sherlock Holmes needs assistance to move, and often makes mistakes. And yet this is only one part of the story. We also see a younger, more arrogant Holmes – one more easily recognisable as Conan Doyle’s hero, who strolls down the streets of London in perfectly tailored coats and mollifies his client with little effort even as he openly pities him.

Even though set in the same timeline as the books, this film chooses to focus on things that the original body of work had gently stepped around.  We see Holmes visiting Japan after the Second World War and confronting a tragedy that cannot really be solved. We also see him trying to solve himself and his own past through a feebler, older mind.

Based on the 2005 novel, A Slight Trick of the Mind by Mitch Cullin, this film is an intricate attempt at deconstructing the myth of Sherlock Holmes. In many ways it is almost an answer to Guy Ritchie’s take on the saga.