Poe’s mysteries hard to capture in film

Posted April 30, 2012, at 3:51 p.m.
Last modified May 02, 2012, at 4:51 p.m.

Edgar Allan Poe, the chronically needy writer and dipsomaniac who died at the age of 40 under mysterious circumstances and is buried in Baltimore, is way bigger in death than he ever was in life. Father of the detective story, master of the ghoulish tale, dissipated hero of the goth movement, melancholy romantic — Poe and his works have inspired countless books and scholarly studies and nearly 250 movies, including “The Raven,” which opened in theaters Friday.

“His image and legacy as a writer are pervasive in modern culture,” said Garth von Buchholz of the International Edgar A. Poe Society. “It partly has to do with his writing, but it’s also a cult of personality. The romance and drama of his life have become inextricable from his writings. He’s probably had more of an influence on pop culture than any of the English-language writers of the 19th century.”

The latest manifestation of this is “The Raven,” starring John Cusack as the tortured writer. Set in Baltimore, the film follows Poe as he investigates a serial killer whose murders are inspired by a number of the author’s stories, including “The Cask of Amontillado” and “The Masque of the Red Death.”

Taking off from the baffling final five days of Poe’s life, “the idea for the screenplay was not to truly speculate,” said Ben Livingston, who co-wrote the film with Hannah Shakespeare. “We just gravitated toward the idea that if Poe were confronted with these horrific images as reality, how would he react?”

“Poe was so incredibly visual. You’re always looking for source material that affects the audience, which is why filmmakers want to do his stories,” Shakespeare said.

In fact, they’ve been adapting Poe’s works since the beginning of the 20th century. And it’s easy to see why.

“He’s that most literary of visual artists,” said John Gruesser of the Poe Studies Association. “Poe has all these colorful images that appeal to filmmakers.”

“He’s a perfect mix, he’s a legitimate literary icon, and he is pure horror entertainment. Within one man, he is a Nobel Prize and a matinee double feature. Just heady, and good popcorn entertainment,” Livingston said.

And yet, it’s hard to name a truly great film adapted from Poe’s work. Partially this is because he wrote mostly poetry and short stories — Poe wrote only one novel, “The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket” — and adapting these forms into feature-length motion pictures means taking a great deal of license with the material. Even what are probably the most famous adaptations, the films Roger Corman made in the 1960s, many with Vincent Price (“The Raven,” “The Tomb of Ligeia,” etc.) bear little resemblance to their source material.

“The old Roger Corman movies were like mash-ups of several stories and poems in one,” von Buchholz said. “People like elements of the work without necessarily wanting to do it faithfully.”

There’s also a question of tone, what Gruesser called “the ambiguity in Poe,” which filmmakers find hard to capture.

“They have missed the combination of winking at the audience and manipulating the audience,” Gruesser said. “That has not been there in the films. They have gone for the shock value.”

He added, however, that it’s not entirely the filmmakers’ fault. He said that there has never been a really good version of Poe detective stories such as “The Murders in the Rue Morgue,” but added that, unlike Arthur Conan Doyle with Sherlock Holmes, “Poe is not really interested in characterization. He’s more interested in the plot.”

In a sense, none of this really matters. In 21st-century terms, Poe is a brand, and that brand has an extremely high recognition factor. There was even an episode of “The Simpsons” riffing on Poe, with Lisa reading “The Raven” and Bart playing the black bird. It’s also almost impossible to imagine Stephen King or other contemporary horror writers without the existence of Poe.

“Poe has influenced all kinds of film, art, music,” von Buchholz said. “I receive at least one message a month from someone creating something based on Poe’s work. He’s tormented and an underdog, and that appeals to a lot of artists for obvious reasons. You even see Poe’s image on posters and coffee cups. And he’s the patron saint of the macabre.”

Added Shakespeare: “It’s his use of language that created a standard. Not only does he imagine the dark side, the actual metamorphosis into death, he was able to translate that into a positive thing.

“These stories are fun to read. They are not a burden — they are fun.”

CORRECTION:

An earlier version of this story misstated Poe’s age at the time of his death. He was 40, not 42.

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