Dawn Reader

Dawn Reader
from Open Door Coffee Co.; Hudson, OH; Oct. 26, 2016

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.

The filmmakers of The Raven did a lot of research.  They knew that Poe went to West Point (where he was court-martialed and dismissed); they knew about the enmity of Rufus Griswold (who gets his in the film--though he actually outlived Poe and trashed his reputation); they knew about Poe's bitterness toward Longfellow (whom he accused over and over of plagiarism, bemusing Longfellow, who later helped Poe's family with a financial donation); they knew about the death of Virginia Poe.  They seemed to know, as well, that Jules Verne was an admirer (Verne wrote a sequel to Pym, by the way.)  And on and on.

So any deviations from fact in the film (and there are many) are intentional, not careless.  I wondered why they altered Poe's facial hair for the film?  Why they didn't give him a Virginia accent?  Why did they show the name "Edgar Allan Poe" on one of his books (he never used that name on publications)?  Why did they show him firing down drinks with abandon when, in all likelihood, he was a "quick drunk"--a little alcohol hurting him grievously?  Why they had Poe declare he'd never written a story about a sailor?  (He has several sea stories--including his only completed novel, The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym.)

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 ...

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