Despite the endless spate of film either directly drawn from or merely produced through the route of provident inspiration (an exampled by the much of the celebrated Roger Corman adaptations), precious little of value has emerged from film versions of the writings of Edgar Allan Poe. More disastrous are the few attempts that make the pretense toward biographical insight, usually diverging into the true intention of the film makers, which is to feed Poe’s macabre musings and the whole of his psychology into a crass predilection toward satisfying the popular horror/slasher/serial killer film trends of the time and to contort Poe’s writings, while exploited his name value, into any number of productions which have as much genuine connection to Poe’s writings as they would the works of Barbara Cartland. Given the facility with which the reader easily conjures startling images from Poe’s printed works, it is more than a little astounding to find that the purely visual art of silent film did not afford itself of more opportunities to translate these same images to the screen. As can be seen from these earliest examples of Poe related films, the tradition of casual misrepresentation of the author and his works was evident from the start.
The first problem evident from D.W. Griffith’s 1909 one reel “Edgar Allen Poe” is the misspelling of the subject’s name, a portent of things to come, for although it is credited as the first biographical movie in American cinema, this one-reel short film is not biographical in even the most liberal use of the word, but rather is meagerly comprised of a fictionalized one-note incident cobbled from two facts from Poe’s life: that he did compose and publish a poem entitled “The Raven”, and that his wife, the former Virginia Clemm, was chronically ill and expired at a tragically young age, though neither event has any dramatic relationship with the other, as “The Raven” was actually published two years prior to the death of Poe’s young wife, so the increased superneal pessimism expressed in the verses (unlike many of the author’s other poems pining for lost loves, “The Raven” is very direct in its expression that there is no soul reacquainting afterlife.) was found unlikely inspiration in the loss of his wife. Nor is the immediate positive reception of the poem accurately relayed as in this film it is primarily met with ridicule and dismissal. The symbol of the raven is simply used as a bit of hoary visual shorthand in identifying the author (Otherwise he might be mistaken for Twain? Hawthorne?) , since the poem- his most famous associatively referenced work -is identifiable (certainly not by content, but, at least, by title) even by school children as Poe’s signature work. Still, a figurative representation of the author’s writings instills no insight into his work nor does it illuminate an understanding of his life or creative process.
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