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 discussing “The Tell-Tale Heart,” the classic horror story penned by Edgar Allan Poe and published in 1843 in The Pioneer, Vol. 1, No. 1, page 29. It’s been adapted at least a dozen times over the years, but we’re going to be discussing only two of them. The first was the 1991/2006 (re-release) video short written and directed by Scott Mansfield (“Deadly Games;” independent film producer and distributor for Monterey Media). The second is the 2016 film with the screen story credited to four different writers, and the screenplay written by John La Tier (“Pain”), who also directed. For those of you unfamiliar with the basic premise, here is a brief synopsis of the short story (adapted from WikiSummaries) and the films (both adapted from imdb.com):
“The Tell-Tale Heart” follows an unnamed narrator who insists on his sanity after murdering an old man with a “vulture eye.””
(1991/2006) “From master storyteller Edgar Allan Poe, this adaptation brings to life what is perhaps Poe’s best-known short story, full of murder, madness, and betrayal.”
(2016) “A tormented man continually re-admits himself into a medical facility in a futile attempt to escape his pending madness.”
From the Source’s Mouth
Let’s start our discussion with one of the main concerns of any story adaptation – how true are the films to the source material? Though both films unquestionably derive from the original story, they are very different from each other. The video short is pretty much a word-for-word retelling of the original, while the 2016 feature is, as the credits indicate, “inspired by;” while it uses much of the original dialogue, it nevertheless deviates substantially from the original narrative, often in perplexing ways.
Poe’s story is very short and direct, and although it’s one of his best-known, I don’t think it was one of his best. An unnamed narrator (Poe loved to use those) speaks directly to the reader, trying to convince us he is not mad while at the same time recounting the specifics of his premeditated murder of an old man. “How, then, am I mad? Hearken! and observe how healthily – how calmly I can tell you the whole story.” The narrator, whose relationship with the Old Man is also not specified, though they live in the same house, tells us that he had nothing against him – in fact, he loved him – nor did he want his money. Instead, he was vexed by the Old Man’s “vulture eye,” a watery blue eye covered with a film: “Whenever it fell upon me, my blood ran cold.”
He spends seven nights, always starting at midnight, slowly opening the Old Man’s bedroom door a crack at a time, inserting his head into the room to observe, and then opening his lantern just a crack so it falls on the “Evil Eye,” reinforcing his need to commit murder. On the eighth night, as he’s opening the door slowly and carefully once again, the Old Man startles awake, crying out “Who’s there?” The narrator does not answer and most certainly does not back down from his proposed course of action. He waits minute by painful minute, but the Old Man does not go back to sleep; nevertheless, he proceeds with his plan. Opening the lantern just a crack, he directs the light at the eye: “It was open – wide, wide open – and I grew furious as I gazed upon it.”
The narrator also suffers from over-acuteness of the senses, and now he hears a low, dull sound – the beating of the man’s heart – which only serves to increase his fury. The heart’s pounding grows louder and quicker with each passing moment until, afraid a neighbor might hear, he rushes into the room, drags the Old Man onto the floor, and pulls the heavy bed over him, crushing him with its weight. Working quickly but surely, he dismembers the corpse, deposits it beneath the floorboards, and sets the room to rights so no one would be able to tell something terrible had happened. At 4 a.m., just as he finishes, there is a knocking at the door. There stand three policemen, notified by a neighbor that they had heard a shriek. The narrator invites them in to inspect the place, even sitting them down in the Old Man’s room right over the floorboards concealing the corpse. As they’re talking, though, the narrator, hears a faint ringing, which grows louder and louder, though the police don’t seem to notice anything amiss. The narrator tries to talk over the noise, but it continues to grow, until he becomes hysterical with fear and horror and convinced the policemen must suspect something. Finally, in agony at the cacophony, he shrieks, “Villains! dissemble no more! I admit the deed! – tear up the planks! here, here! – It is the beating of his hideous heart!”
This brings us to the 1991/2006 video short. Essentially the video was just the filming of a stage production, with one or two cutaways to the Old Man or the policemen to indicate this was actually a video. The narrator recited word-for-word what Poe had written on the page, but somehow not realizing the camera does not appreciate the big, bold gestures and speech patterns of the stage, he overacted to the point of ridiculousness. It was tedious and dull and did nothing to make me appreciate the horror of the story being told. I couldn’t even giggle at its hamfistedness.
Then we come to the 2016 adaptation, which, I’m convinced, wasn’t sure what it wanted to be – that’s often the problem when you have too many writers. The filmmakers seemed to feel a need to be somehow relevant to modern audiences beyond the typical horror stories we seem to crave, yet they still didn’t want to move too far off the mark from the story Poe told over 150 years ago. The result was like watching a train wreck and not being able to look away.
The opening again starts with Poe’s original dialogue, but this time we see a man (Sean) in some kind of a cell being tortured and telling us with a voiceover that he’s sacrificed himself to protect the team, and that the sacrifice never ends. Next we’re at a military base where an officer enters the room with the same man (Sean), and asks him where he disappeared to the last week. He starts to tell his story about the Old Man and the “vulture eye” and refuses to be interrupted. Throughout the process he repeats over and over that he just “wants his old life back” and wants “her” back so they can escape the hell he’s in, though we have no clue what this means. The Old Man turns out to be some kind of doctor, probably a psychiatrist, who comes in to help him regain his faulty memory. But Sean’s “clarity of purpose” keeps draining away when he’s with the doctor, and so he goes through a meticulous eight-day plan, much like in the original story, to get rid of him. Aside from the hatred and fear of the “vulture eye,” he’s convinced that the act will liberate him from his current situation and will allow him and Ariel – another patient who comes in to cook for him and subsequently becomes his lover – to escape together. “We can save each other. We can free each other,” he declares to us. The doctor tells him the only thing that’s keeping him there is himself, and Ariel convinces him that to get out of the nightmare, his thoughts have to change. That’s all fine, but we still don’t have a clue where he really is or what’s going on.
Sean, still seeking release (yes, this is about the eighth or ninth time we’ve heard this – we get it), goes ahead with the murder, just as Poe outlined in the short story, complete with hacking up the corpse and burying it under the floorboards. It’s 4 a.m. when the police show up, and he provides the obligatory tour of the house, complete with seating everyone above the concealing floorboards. Sean, narrating once again directly from Poe’s words, describes the pulsing sound and the hysterical fear overtaking him, finally confessing to the grisly murder to save his sanity (if he in truth has any). And here’s where the film takes a major detour. When the police look under the floorboards, there’s nothing there but a blanket and a bottle of Sean’s pills. Suddenly we cut to a fleet of planes bombing the ground below and then to more scenes in the torture chamber. What’s real and what’s not? Who cares?
Back in the base’s holding room the officer keeps telling Sean that no one “saved” him. In fact, he’d saved the officer by telling his captors he had the information they wanted so they’d let the others go. But he hasn’t been a pilot for over seven years; he’s been in and out of a comatose state ever since his plane was hit in Afghanistan; and every time he wakes up he tells the same story of the Old Man and Ariel. He didn’t kill anyone, the officer tells him, and Ariel? She’s a trauma therapist, and she’s been working with him for three years. Where does he go when he’s not awake? Sean, if he even knows, doesn’t reveal the information, and so we still don’t know, either. The last scene is Ariel the therapist asking Sean if he’s nervous about the session. “Yes, I’m nervous,” he admits. “Does that make me mad?”
I think Rose McGowan, the actress who played Ariel, summed up the film really well. According to imdb.com, she admitted that once it was finally released, she had no plans to watch it because of how disappointed by it she was. “I felt a little duped by Tell Tale,” she commented. “Blinded by Poe, as it were. Sometimes you think people have a strong vision, and it’s often not the case.”
There were many things I felt were so out of place in these adaptations as to be incredible, but I shall restrict myself to only a few. In both the story and the video short (yes, the story too), the police arrive at 4 a.m., and after maybe a half hour in the house chatting pleasantly the narrator gets so distraught that he blurts out his confession to keep his sanity. First of all, why would he need to keep his sanity when he’s spent the entire story trying to convince the reader/viewer that he was and is completely sane? Second, this is a man that has spent eight full days planning the murder of the Old Man for no other reason than the eye “vexed” him. It was premeditated, and, by his own admission, calculated. Why then, in such a short time does he suddenly come unhinged? It’s completely implausible, and it wrecked the “horror” of a cold-blooded killer for me.
In the video, when the narrator lets the police in at 4 a.m. and tells them the shriek the neighbor heard was his, having come from a nightmare, he is still in his evening dress wear. Didn’t any of the cops think it at all suspicious that he said he was asleep dreaming and wasn’t even in his nightclothes or at least in a rumpled suit? I certainly would.
The 2016 adaptation not only used live action to tell the story, but it also used a series of paintings and drawings to depict the action when Sean was narrating in Poe’s words. I guess this was meant to be an “artsy” departure, to help give the very modern film an old-fashioned feel. Instead, it made the action that much harder to follow, especially with the absurd cuts between the torture chamber, the medical facility, the planes on their bombing run, and the military facility, none of them adequately explained.
The Final Cut
So, how did “The Tell-Tale Heart” as a video short and as a movie fare as a short story adaptation overall? Well, at least the video was true to the spirit of the original, even if it didn’t enhance it in any way (so why make it?), so I’ll be gracious and give it a C-. The 2016 film, on the other hand, was absurdly ridiculous and not worth the time spent watching, even according to the actress who worked on it. A D- for sure.
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.