The raven (Edgar Allan Poe) by Kevin Dooley, under a Creative Commons license
The recent cinematic release of The Raven raised the prospect of a major Hollywood film adapted from a poem. Alas, the movie borrows the title from Poe – and Poe himself is conscripted as a character – but the plot itself is a standard whodunit. John Cusack plays Poe, investigating a series of murders based on deaths depicted in his short stories. The film is set in Baltimore in 1849, during the final days of Poe’s life, his own demise something of mystery itself: Poe was found wandering the streets, delirious, and wearing clothes that didn’t belong to him. Shortly afterwards he died, and to this day the cause of his passing has never been cleared up: everything from hypoglycaemia to rabies to murder has been attributed, although the coroner came to the misty conclusion he was felled by a 'brain fever’.
Given his end, and the fact that Poe is arguably the creator of the genre of the detective story, it is little wonder authors have used Poe’s life and work to fuel their own fictional mysteries. In Joel Rose’s novel The Blackest Bird, Poe investigates the real-life murder of cigar-vendor Mary Rogers, a case that inspired his story ‘The Mystery Of Marie Roget’. Poe’s own death was turned into a murder-mystery by Daniel Pearl in The Poe Shadow, while John Evangelist Walsh's non-fiction work Upon A Midnight Dreary: The Mysterious Death Of Edgar Allan Poe proposed the fashioner of gothic fancies was killed by the brothers of a woman whose letters he refused to return.
In 1846, Poe wrote in his essay ‘The Philosophy of Composition’ that "the death… of a beautiful woman" is "unquestionably the most poetical topic in the world"; and the entire run of his poems often seems dedicated to justifying that sentiment. ‘The Raven’ certainly continues a theme developed in works such as ‘Annabel Lee’ and ‘Lenore’. Poe’s achievement in ‘The Raven’ is to vividly depict the hell of grief; that desire to forget and to remember, although Poe being Poe, there’s more than a hint his narrator takes a perverse pleasure in torturing himself with the memory of the departed beloved.
As vivid as the narrative, imagery, and sentiment of ‘The Raven’ is, adapting it for the cinema has proven beyond the abilities of directors. So while there have been quite a few films called The Raven, very few do more than nod towards their source.
D W Griffith, the great innovator of cinema’s early days, made a short film, Edgar Allan Poe, in 1909, which some film historians argue was the first biopic. In it, Poe is depicted suffering from writer’s block and poverty when through his window hops a certain black bird… Three years later, another Poe biopic, called The Raven, was made in America, which depicted the composition of the poem as a consequence of a fever dream. This movie contrived to give Poe the happy ending his life notably lacked.
There have been numerous other takes on 'The Raven' over the years. In Edgar G Ulmer’s 1935 film, Bela Lugosi plays a mad scientist who despatches his enemies using tortures inspired by Poe’s stories. In 1963, Roger Corman turned the poem into a tale of two magicians locked in conflict, with Peter Lorre playing the eponymous bird. Perhaps the most faithful (in its way) take was The Simpsons’s, where Homer is tormented by a raven that bears a resemblance to his son Bart… Despite all the mysteries surrounding Poe’s life and work, one thing is certain – novelists and filmmakers aren’t finished with him or his spectral corvid yet.