In an early scene in the movie The Raven, Edgar Allan Poe, played by John Cusack (more on that later…) bets that at least one patron in a Baltimore tavern will know how to finish a line of his poetry. The fact that the person who does, is a Frenchman, seems like a subtle way to acknowledge that (like Jerry Lewis after him) Poe was huge in France.*
Originally translated by the likes of Baudelaire and Mallarmé, he’s still a respected and widely read literary figure in this country. There’s even an Edgar Allan Poe high school in Paris!
Which is why I was surprised that The Raven, a horror movie based on some of Poe’s short stories, and (all too) loosely, on the writer’s life itself, wasn’t released to more fanfare. Its French title, “L’ombre du mal” (“The Shadow of Evil”) doesn’t even particularly evoke its famous main character. So, although I’d been impatiently waiting for it to open here, I almost missed it.
We went to see it this past weekend, in one of the few Parisian cinemas where it’s still playing a little more than a week after its unremarkable release. The film had a special importance to me. As someone kind of obsessed with Edgar Allan Poe
, I wanted it to do well for many reasons, very much including this one: supporters of the Edgar Allan Poe House and Museum
in Baltimore were hoping that the movie would revive enough interest in the author to make their historic site and museum considered worthy of much-needed city funding
.** With its potential-packed plotline (In the mysterious last days of his life, Poe is called upon to help find a killer who is committing murders based on his stories) it seemed like an almost sure success.
But it isn’t. For one thing, while screenwriters Ben Livingston and Hannah Shakespeare are Poe fans enough to have Rufus Wilmot Griswold, Poe's harshest contemporary critic and the perpetuator of the author's bad reputation, meet a grisly end in the movie (in real life, Griswold outlived Poe and continued to malign him), they seem inexplicably to have thrown details into the author’s life that make no sense. For one thing, why and from whence did he casually procure a human heart to poke at for a while…and then give to his pet raccoon to eat?
It was also shocking to a fan who’s read several Poe biographies, to have Poe in no way allude to - or in spite of himself betray sorrow over - his beloved departed wife Virginia during a key confessional scene with new love interest Emily Hamilton (Alice Eve, whose brilliantly white teeth took us so out of the story at times that my boyfriend finally leaned over to me and said, “Who had teeth like that in the 19th century?! They should have gotten a European actress to play the role!”***). Granted, later in the movie, Poe does talk about Virginia, and police Detective Fields (Luke Evans), who is working on the case with the author, explains in another scene that “Every woman he’s ever loved has died,” which is also true.
The thing is, as Fields' statement suggests, Poe really isn't someone whose personality or life story needs embellishment. He didn’t, as far as I’ve read, have a pet raccoon (according to this interview
, it was intended to be a joking reference to a theory that Poe died of rabies) – but he did have a tortoiseshell cat who used to sit on his shoulders, and sleep on tuberculosis-stricken Virginia’s chest, keeping it warm and soothing her pain a bit. Tuberculosis seems, strangely, to have shadowed Poe, killing many people he loved, yet not affecting him. Poe had a drinking problem, though it may have been exaggerated by enemies like Griswold (some scholars, for example, suggest he wasn’t a binge drinker, so much as someone with a very low tolerance for alcohol). He had been kicked out of West Point for gambling debts; claimed to have learned basic mathematics from a teacher who made him look at dates on tombstones to figure out the lifespans of deceased occupants of a London cemetery; witnessed his wife have her first serious tuberculosis episode, blood pouring suddenly from her mouth while she was singing; he may have been murdered by disapproving relatives of a woman he was planning to marry. He was bad with money, not always very friendly to colleagues, and yet he was a dreamer, a poet, a lover, a literary innovator. Basically how could you not make a movie where Poe is a downright intriguing character?
Well, The Raven shows us how.
I could blame the casting choice, but I’m not exactly sure that’s it. For a long time, rumors had gone around that various people were going to play Poe in an upcoming film. The role had been attributed to such diverse performers as Johnny Depp (I think he would have nailed it) and Michael Jackson (not sure, but it would have been interesting to see at least some screen tests). John Cusack is much less of a “character” than these guys, but I do feel he was perfectly capable of handling such an eccentric persona. And yet, Cusack’s Poe is relatively even-keeled and unremarkable (at least compared to the real Poe). He has his moments of anger or pride, but rarely do we get the sense that this is a poet, or a man who’s lost so many loved ones. We do understand why he loves Emily, the new woman in his life, but where’s the baggage? By 1849, Poe had lived through a lot. Maybe director James McTeigue pulled Cusack back?
Besides emotions, even the way Poe speaks is watered down. I feel like it’s reasonable to give Poe a soft Southern accent, but if not that, he should certainly use the language of his time. I imagine someone decided, though, that the lingo in the movie should be updated, so as not to alienate audiences. (Fun Fact: the word “okay”, used numerous times in a vital scene in the film, was popular by around 1840, but with its silly origin
still fresh in the public mind, using it to comfort or reassure someone in 1849 was probably like saying “It’s all good, man” today.) The thing is, if you like Edgar Allan Poe, or even if you don’t but you’re going to read his stories after the film, early- to mid- 19th century English – or at least standard old-fashioned- sounding English - is kind of part of the package.
Okay, so I'm a little old-fashioned myself when it comes to things like this. And I do admit that historical accuracy isn't the only thing that makes a believable Poe. For example, check out this interpretation of the author, played by one of his descendants on an episode of "Sabrina the Teenage Witch":
(Skip around to watch several scenes featuring Edgar Allan Poe IV)
But the lack of historical accuracy or consistency shouldn't take you out of the movie, and I feel like The Raven's spotty dialogue often did.
Watching the movie, with its gory and well-executed (no pun intended) depictions of Poe-inspired murders, I couldn’t help but think of another film, one I consider a masterpiece: From Hell
. Though the time period and victims’ circumstances are different, the basic idea is the same: An eccentric person must find a brutal killer before the woman he loves becomes the next victim (because of course Poe’s lovely, white-toothed Emily is kidnapped by the killer early on). The difference is, while The Raven
seems to play it safe in many ways, From Hell
lets it all hang out: Johnny Depp’s character is a tortured opium addict who has visions, the script keeps as close as possible to the English spoken in late-nineteenth century London and unflinchingly shows the harsh realities of the lives of prostitutes at the time. Although some of its characters are fictional, From Hell
basically realizes that the true story it’s based on (the Jack the Ripper murders) is enough.
The Raven could have been a movie like this. But instead I feel like it doesn’t know what it wants to be. It turns out that the vague French title is actually more appropriate: so directionless is the film that when I told the boyfriend, a fellow Poe fan, what it’s called in English-speaking countries, he asked, “Why?” There are ravens in the film, but they seem more like decorative elements than a reflection of Poe’s inner thoughts, or the killer’s.
For me, the title could be evidence of what’s probably the biggest problem I had with the movie (along with the way it could have made its proposed theory about the author's death even more believable, by not having it publicized and then apparently forgotten by everyone): it seems like the film started as something deeper. The poem “The Raven” is about eternal sorrow and infinite longing and separation. Did the screenwriters originally want to explore themes like this? Did they want to delve into the mind of Poe the troubled writer, and not just make him a less interesting caricature of himself?
I could see so much potential in this movie. What if they’d added a few discussions between Poe and Detective Fields, or shown Poe writing letters or a journal to relieve his tortured mind (they do show him writing in the film, but as a vehicle of the plot). What if, instead of featuring gross-out elements like the author poking at a dead cat on a deserted street (an activity I’m not convinced the real Poe would have felt inclined to partake in), the film’s few solitary street scenes instead depicted, say, the writer staggering in a drunken stupor, perhaps, alienated from the few late-night passersby he came across? What if Poe’s observations were more than just surprise and frustration, but reflected the very unique mindset of an unusual and brilliant man?
There was some cleverness in The Raven – including an interesting interpretation of some of Poe’s alleged last words. And it’s that cleverness that hurts the most, because it shows what could have been.
*Sadly, due to different copyright laws at the time, Poe made no money from overseas sales of his works.
**The producers of The Raven very kindly contributed to this cause by donating profits from advance screenings of the film, which is an extremely classy gesture. Respect. If you'd like to help, please see the link below these footnotes.
***Though she has an American accent in the movie, it turns out Alice Eve is English. Still, for the French, impeccable white teeth or veneers are an American thing.
For recent news about what's happening with Baltimore's Edgar Allan Poe House and Museum, and ways you might be able to help keep it open to the public, please check out this article