Sunday, April 29, 2012
Quoth the raven ...
The new film The Raven (with John Cusak playing a sort of action-hero Poe) opened this weekend, and how could I not go see it? After all, I am one of Poe's myriad biographers (link: Poe Biography), and I often taught Poe to students both in middle and high school. I've memorized "The Raven" and a handful of other Poe poems.
Poe's great stories have had a hard history on the screen. Usually, they're low-budget and even lower quality. IMDB lists about 200 titles. Many I've seen; all are forgettable and regrettable for one reason or another. And here's one idea: Although blood and gore do occasionally decorate Poe's fiction, it's what's going on in the troubled mind that most interests him. In "The Tell-Tale Heart," for example, Poe does not show us the murder of the old man; we do not see the beating heart under the floorboards (if, indeed, it's even there). Instead, we wander around in the mind of a madman.
The same is true in any number of the other stories. In "The Cask of Amontillado" we don't see the body behind the wall years later. Again--we're inside a most interesting (and mad) intelligence. There are exceptions. In his last story, "Hop-Frog," we do see the screaming, roasting royal party. And I'm sure you can come up with other exceptions. But Poe was most interested, as I've said, in charting our psychological geography.
Which is hard to show in a movie. And so the films tend to focus on the viscera--and usually have to add quite a lot to what Poe provided. For example, in The Raven there's a killer running around committing murders that mirror those Poe has written about. (The same plot device as The Dante Club, by the way.) One killing is similar to "The Pit and the Pendulum"; the filmmakers show us the workings of that device (and its effects on the human torso) far more graphically that did Poe--for in his story, the nameless victim escapes.
And, of course, the character of the young woman is totally fictional. After his wife, Virginia, died, Poe freaked--pursuing/proposing to three different women--simultaneously. None worked out.
The film shows him slumped on a Baltimore park bench. Nope--that didn't happen. But other details about the death are accurate.
So, what does all this mean? Well, filmmakers can do what they want. Their principal goals are to entertain and thereby make money. The Raven is not really all that frightening; there are some ludicrous moments; there are some plot problems (where does our killer get his money? how does he know what Poe will wear to the masked ball? etc.?).
But it was kind of fun to watch just to see what they would do with history, with biography. They clearly had some fun. But I'm guessing that audiences will not flock like ravens to see it.
And I also am guessing that filmmakers will continue using his stories for a long time--or, as the Raven said, "Evermore." (I know--it's Nevermore ... just chill.)
PS--Poe has also inspired all sorts of written, not just cinematic, fiction. Some information about that tomorrow ...