Welcome back to our blog series “Have You Watched a Good Book Lately?” The series’ intention is to track a number of books’ progression from the printed page to the silver screen and assess how well or how badly the filmmakers accomplished each of the adaptations.
Today we’re going to be taking a little detour into the world of poetry, discussing Edgar Allen Poe’s “The Raven,” which was published in 1845 and was adapted for the screen as an “inspired by” tale in 2012 by screenwriters Hannah Shakespeare and Ben Livingston and director James McTeigue (“V for Vendetta,” “Sense8”). For those of you unfamiliar with the basic premise, here is a brief synopsis of the poem (adapted from gradesaver.com) and the movie (taken from imdb.com):
“The unnamed narrator is wearily perusing an old book one bleak December night when he hears a tapping at the door to his room. Despondent because he cannot find release in his sorrow over the death of his beloved Lenore, he opens the door to find a raven. The only word it speaks to him is Nevermore, which only bleakens his outlook.”
“When a madman begins committing horrific murders inspired by Edgar Allan Poe’s works, a young Baltimore detective joins forces with Poe to stop him from making his stories a reality.”
NOTE: There have been many film adaptations of “The Raven” dating back to the 1920s, but for the purpose of this blog we will be looking at the 2012 version because of its unusual nature.
From the Source’s Mouth
While normally we would start our discussion with one of the main concerns of any story adaptation – how true the film is to the source material – because this film is an “inspired by” rather than a direct adaptation of Poe’s famous poem, we need first to consider the symbolism of the raven to understand its use in both the poem and the movie.
Many cultures have used the raven as a symbol, though not all gave it the same meaning. For example, in Greek mythology, ravens were associated with Apollo, the god of the sun and the god of prophecy. They were his messengers in the mortal world and were said to be a symbol of bad luck. The myth states that Apollo sent a white raven (or a crow in some tellings) to spy on his lover, Coronis. When the raven brought back the news that Coronis had been unfaithful, Apollo, in his anger, scorched the raven, turning its feathers to the black color we see today.
In Norse mythology, Odin, the king of the gods, is accompanied by two ravens, Huginn and Muninn, who served as his eyes and his ears. Huginn represented thought and Muninn represented memory. Each day the pair flew out from Hliðskjálf and brought Odin news from Midgard. There is no mention of them serving in any evil capacity.
Most references to the raven in western history and in literature deal with the widespread common raven, which people consider to be an ill omen or a symbol of death as a result of its black plumage, croaking call, and diet of carrion. It is relatively obvious that this was the view of the bird Poe had in mind when he wrote his poem, and it is completely in keeping with Poe’s dark, brooding nature.
So let’s take a look at the poem itself. The story is actually very simple. As with a number of Poe’s other works, the narrator is unnamed. In this case, he is a man despondent over the death of his beloved Lenore. In the course of his melancholy, a raven comes tapping at his door. While at first the narrator is curious about this visitor, the longer the raven stays there, and the more it repeats its only word, “Nevermore,” to him, the more depressed he becomes over his loss, until by the end of the piece he hits rock bottom.
The mastery in the story comes not from its content, but rather from its form, which is now known, appropriately enough, as the Ravenelle. According to Master Classical Poet Dusty Grein, that form has “the ability to create an atmosphere of deep emotional impact. Poe used it to build that eerie, haunting energy of grief and loss, and I find myself using it to craft stories of loss, pain, and more often than not, terror.”
The basic format is trochaic, where a trochee is a two-syllable poetic foot with a HARD-soft pattern (DUM-dee). Poe also used a very strict metered pattern and rhyme, and he sometimes omitted an end syllable to add emphasis to a particular word, a process called “catalexis.” In addition, the last line of each stanza was a refrain, a shortened line that creates an “echo” throughout the piece. If you look at the refrains all together, you can see that the narrator goes from a weary despondency to a state of terror, living in a perpetual shadow where Lenore is truly lost to him. To learn more about the specifics of the poetic format, you can find the information in Grein’s well-structured article on the Ravenelle here:
The movie is essentially a Poe story about Poe – he is both the writer of and a character in his own tale, which he notes himself at one point. Coming back to Baltimore a despondent, penniless alcoholic, he tries to get his literary reviews published in the local paper but is met with resistance from the editor who wants another “great story” like “The Tell-Tale Heart.” He also tries to woo Emily Hamilton, the lovely daughter of a wealthy Captain who despises him. Emily, though, clearly has a mind of her own, and after Poe sends her a copy of his passionate poem “Annabel Lee,” she all but demands that he propose to her. Before he gets very far on either front, though, the police investigate a series of murders from a killer whose methods stem directly from the pages of Poe’s gruesome tales. First, a mother and her daughter are strangled in a room that was locked from the inside and its window nailed shot, so that seemingly no one should have been able to escape. The young Detective Fields, however, discovers a spring lock in the window frame and, having read Poe’s story “Murder in the Rue Morgue,” where this exact method was used, recognizes the setup. Then, one of Poe’s literary enemies is found strapped to a board within a torture chamber, sliced in half by a massive pendulum hung from the ceiling –item for item right out of “The Pit and the Pendulum.” Fields concludes that Poe could not have committed the first murder because his hands don’t match the killer’s large reach; he concludes that Poe could not have committed the second because he was with the detective at the time the murder occurred. Out of ideas for how to catch the madman, the detective enlists the writer’s help on the case.
Griswald, the unfortunate literary rival, was also found with a large red mask on his face. Poe identifies it as coming from “The Masque of the Red Death,” and he suggests that the killer may try to recreate that murder the next time around. Captain Hamilton is having a masked ball two nights from then, and Fields pleads with him to let the police attend. All is going well when a horseman storms into the ballroom. The police mistakenly think he’s the killer and shoot at him, but he is only a delivery man, and he hands them a note, which is addressed to Poe. In the confusion, the real killer has kidnaped Emily, and he taunts Poe in the note, saying her life rests in the writer’s hands – and mind. He must write the story of the murders, with each one giving a clue as to what the next one will be. If he is up to the task, where the story must end in madness, sin, and horror, then Emily will be freed.
Not even a day later, at a medical school nearby, a doctor is displaying a cadaver to his students. Before he opens the coffin, though, there are terrible scratching sounds and loud thumps against the wood. As he pulls the lid open, a raven streaks out of the box, cawing loudly, an ill omen for the police, and certainly for the victim. The woman’s face is bloodied and torn. When Fields and Poe come to investigate, Fields determines the cause of death was actually strangulation, and Poe immediately declares the rope used had a bowline knot – it was straight out of “The Mystery of Marie Roget.” The woman’s wrists are bloodied, too, but there are no wounds – it is stage blood, and she must have been an actress. It is the next clue, which leads them to a murder at the theater. Fields tells Poe he must write the story as the killer demands so they can catch him and rescue Emily. “I am a master of my art,” Poe responds. “I will not fail her.”
One murder leads to the next and the next, until the chase takes the men to the parish, where there is an empty grave with Emily’s name on the cross above it – it is the clue that Emily has been buried alive (a common occurrence in Poe’s stories). The new story is not finished, though, so there may still be time to rescue her. In his last chapter, which runs in the morning paper, Poe offers his life in exchange for Emily’s; the killer leaves a note saying, “An epitaph worthy of your gifts.” The note, though, was delivered in advance of the paper’s delivery, which means the killer has to be someone on the inside. Henry, the editor, is dead at his desk, which leaves only Ivan, the printer. Poe, on his own at the moment, confronts Ivan at his house, and the man commends him for his ingenuity, offering the alcoholic a poison-laced drink, which Poe accepts so Emily can be saved.
Ivan: The idea of drinking something that will kill you, but having time to carry on a conversation is, as they say, fraught with dramatic possibilities.
Poe: You’re mad.
Ivan: Really, Mr. Poe? You’re one to talk. Ah, but that’s life, isn’t it? So much less satisfying than fiction.
Poe dies at the hospital shortly after, but not until he’s gotten a message to Fields telling him the killer’s last name is Reynolds. It doesn’t take long for Fields to find him.
As the film is an “inspired by,” is hard to say there were any deviations from the original that were unwarranted. I have to say that the decision to use Poe’s actual stories to provide clues to the fictional murders was a brilliant plot device, and the “story” that the fictional Poe wrote was wonderfully rendered using the author’s known style.
The Final Cut
So, how did “The Raven” as a movie fare as a poem adaptation overall? I think one can appreciate both of these media for the brilliance they display in their content and execution, and I would give the adaptation a solid A for its ingenuity and fabulous use of Poe’s masterful work.
What do you think? Do you agree? Disagree? Please add your comments in the section below.
– Miriam Ruff, Content Creator, PoetsIN
DISCLAIMER: The opinions discussed in this blog post are solely those of the blogger and do not necessarily represent any thoughts, values, or opinions of PoetsIN and any of its affiliate groups.