Classic Stories, Re-Adapted For Harlem

As an epicenter of African-American and American culture, Harlem has been the subject of countless books and films.

We can go all the way back to the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s to see the flowering of a cultural movement that would go on to shape popular culture for decades to come.

Since then, the streets of Harlem have provided the inspiration for some of the greatest stories ever told. While these are well-known, what might be less known are the numerous ways that classic stories set elsewhere have been adapted for this unique urban space.

The politics, society, culture, and larger-than-life residents of Harlem have found new salience in old stories, in ways that manage to bring out new elements from the originals, while also making an incisive commentary on the Harlem of today. With that in mind, here are some of our favorite classic stories, re-adapted for Harlem.

Dracula

Bram Stoker’s 1897 novel Dracula, which follows the schemes, struggles, and deprivations of a blood-sucking Romanian aristocrat, has enjoyed countless reprisals over the years. There have been some unforgettable Hollywood re-enactments over the years, with the likes of Gary Oldman, Bela Lugosi, and Gerard Butler stepping into the shoes of the iconic vampire.


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Meanwhile, we have been treated to countless Dracula TV shows, video games, and graphic novels. Therefore, it should come as no surprise that Dracula has also been depicted on the streets of Harlem.

In the 1979 comedy horror film Love at First Bite, the Count finds himself seeking adventure in upper Manhattan, quickly losing himself in the seedy underbelly of 1970s New York, per Harlem World Magazine. When the great blackout of 1977 occurs, mayhem naturally ensues. All of the action takes place in Harlem, with this light-hearted tale also providing a fascinating snapshot of a New York of the past.

Romeo & Juliet

Shakespeare’s iconic play Romeo & Juliet has probably endured more adaptations than any other work of literature in the history of the world, and it’s not hard to see why. The source material is truly timeless, offering a parable of the dangers of forbidden love, and the young hearts that so often become casualties of the whims of the powerful.

Over the years, we’ve had some truly unmissable reimaginings of this classic play, be it the 1996 film starring Leonardo Dicaprio and Claire Danes in a neon-splattered Mexico City, or Love is All There Is, which tells the story of two recent Italian immigrants living in the Bronx.

In Harlem too, the tale of Romeo and Juliet has found fertile ground. In the 2017 film Romeo & Juliet in Harlem, Jasmine Carmichael and Henry Caicedo play the star-crossed lovers, this time on the streets of modern-day Harlem, navigating prejudice and class conflict in the vain hopes of being together forever.

Sherlock Holmes

For the first hundred years following the publication of Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes detective novels, the entertainment industry generally stayed away from adaptations. However, something began to shift at the turn of the 2010s, when creatives of all stripes began to realize that the novels offered totally timeless entertainment gold.

Perhaps most well-known is the BBC Sherlock series that launched the career of then-unknown Benedict Cumberbatch, who stars as the detective in a gritty portrayal of contemporary London. Since then, we have had new retellings across every form of media imaginable.



In video games, we have had the Sherlock Holmes video game series by Ubisoft, which incorporates gothic and steampunk elements into the original tales. Even further afield, we have seen recent reimaginings within the online casino industry. There are numerous real money slot games that take direct inspiration from the novels. If we look at online slots site Betway, their Sherlock inspired games include titles like Sherlock of London and Shamrock Holmes, among others.

As such, it should come as no surprise that this highly adaptable body of work has also found a home in Harlem, in the form of the Watson & Holmes graphic novel series, as covered at Barker Street Fandom. In this, the two detectives star as a disillusioned PI and an inner-city clinic volunteer navigating the crimes of 1990s Harlem, offering an incisive retelling that is a true masterclass in the art of adaptation.

A Christmas Carol

The Charles Dickens novel A Christmas Carol stars Mr. Scrooge as a miserly capitalist visited by three ghosts sent to teach him the error of his ways. As a parable on the dangers of money worship and the corrosive and isolating nature of greed on the human soul, it is only natural that this story has inspired dozens of adaptations in the 170 years since its initial publication.

Again, the city of New York has consistently proven to be an ideal setting for a reimagining of the tale. Who can forget the 1988 film Scrooged, starring Bill Murray as a blackhearted and cynical TV executive who embodies the worst of Reagan-era excess and greed? Then there are the various Scrooge appearances in TV shows, musicals, and games that are too numerous to count.

One of our favorite retellings of A Christmas Carol comes from a recent stage production of the same name, where timeout.com reports that Scrooge is recast as a Harlem slumlord who is forced to confront the consequences of his actions. Truly one of the greats.

Just as these tales provide rich fodder for retellings, the streets of Harlem provide a perfect setting through which to do so. What are your favorite Harlem adaptations?

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"Dr. Harry Delany is a renowned Harlem born and raised surgeon, the son of the great jurist and civil rights leader, Hubert Delany...." This monthly post is made in partnership with Harlem Cultural Archives.

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