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FROM POE TO WOE

A conversation ‘twixt fact and fancy
 

The participants:

Chad Denton from The Good, The Bad, The Ugly
Zack Handlen from The Duck Speaks
Liz Kingsley from And You Call Yourself A Scientist!

 

LK:  We might as well start with the big question: IS it in fact possible really to adapt Edgar Allan Poe? And how well do the films we all picked do it?

CD:  Naturally, it all boils down to what you mean by “adapt”. If you mean a “faithful adaptation” in the sense of meticulously reconstructing the story’s plot structure, then in most cases “no”, with the arguable exceptions of Poe’s lengthier and more tightly structured stories like “The Black Cat” and “The Murders In The Rue Morgue”. For something like “The Premature Burial”, however, it would be impossible, especially since that story would probably not even be categorised as a fictional short story today, but instead as something like fictive non-fiction, or one of those bizarre genre names lit theorists love to throw around.

If you mean “capture the feel” of a work, then it’s absolutely possible.  In fact, for the sake of comparison and since we were destined to mention H.P. Lovecraft eventually anyway, I’d go as far as to say that in this sense it’s actually much easier overall to adapt Poe than Lovecraft. Poe has specific and largely still easily relatable fears and anxieties that can still translate quite well into cinema. Both the story and the film “The Premature Burial” may have lost at least a little of their power due to medical advances and other changes, but the specific nightmare of being buried alive and the more general concept of being crippled by a phobia, no matter how irrational to the world at large, still has and always will have weight and relevance. As for Lovecraft, putting aside even the challenges in visually representing his horrors, it’s much more difficult to capture the sort of profound existential nihilism that Lovecraft invokes at his best.

ZH:  I’ve been reading Poe off and on for years – it's one of those things they give you in school where you know it's important, but you don’t really think about it that closely – and one of the things that made me interested in doing this Roundtable was getting a chance to revisit his writing with a greater sense of critical awareness. First thing I noticed is the incredibly florid prose; his sentences don’t so much end as they do drown slowly, and it’s impressive how closely Poe skirts the edge of self-parody without ever going over. (Or does he?) His narrators are generally unreliable, and their mental state is as much suggested by the way they explain themselves as by their actual actions. This poses a serious problem for adaptations; do you keep the narration in voice-over? It’s a clunky device, and it seems like kind of a cheat, but can it really be Poe without the language?

LK:  Poe’s writing makes me go Jeffrey Jones in Amadeus: “There are too many words in that story! Take some of them out!” Seriously (you'll appreciate this, Zack), I found myself mentally editing his sentences while I was reading them.

ZH:  Ha! Me, too. He makes Lovecraft look positively restrained.

LK:  Never use one adjective when three will do... You know, I realised during my reading that I’d always mis-remembered the last sentence of “M. Valdemar” as “....and there was an oozing liquid putrescence....”, because that is how Tales Of Terror ends. But the story actually ends, “....there lay a nearly liquid mass of loathsome – of detestable – putrescence.” So apparently Richard Matheson felt the same way about it that we do!

ZH:  And yet by and large it works, because the wordiness becomes as much a part of the character as the macabre events.

LK:  Zack’s comment about the occasional sense of self-parody in Poe’s writing touches upon something I found very interesting in reading around our subject, which was how calculatedly Poe seemed to go about his business. I mean, I think there’s this assumption out there that Poe himself was somehow reflected in his writing. That’s partly as a result of things like the biographical memoir written by Rupert Wilmot Griswold, which promoted the idea of the evil, immoral Poe who was writing of what he knew. But really, it’s pretty clear that rather than, say, de Quincey writing down his opium dreams, or Sylvia Plath exorcising her demons, Poe was very aware of the marketplace and what was selling to the public, and aimed his work directly at that, albeit in an extreme form. I believe he always really wanted to be a poet rather than a prose artist, and that he was exasperated at the fact that his hand was forced in that respect; and I think that note of burlesque, of the conventions on the various genres being ramped up to the nth degree, in his writings may have been Poe taking out his professional frustrations – possibly his contempt for his audience.

ZH:  While there may be an element of contempt in his work – a subtext of, “Hey morons, you like this stuff, let’s wallow in it” – I think it’d be a mistake to presume he didn't take any pleasure in his work. There’s as much fun in writing as reading sentences like, “Hereafter, perhaps, some intellect may be found which will reduce my phantasm to the common-place – some intellect more calm, more logical, and far less excitable than my own, which will perceive, in the circumstances I detail with awe, nothing more than an ordinary succession of very natural causes and effects.” No matter how much he complained, he’s clearly enjoying himself – I think it’s easy to overlook the dark sense of humour behind most of his work, but I’d argue it’s there.

LK:  Oh, yes, I think that’s true. I came across an article where someone was complaining about how often “The Narrative Of Arthur Gordon Pym” is misinterpreted; that people insist on assuming that it was intended quite seriously and therefore find it ridiculous; instead of realising that at least parts of it were intended to be ridiculous, and enjoying it on that level. There’s a resistance to believing that Poe took his work anything but grimly seriously.

This also makes me think of “The Gold Bug”, where the narrator becomes convinced that his friend is going insane, and then at the end his friend laughs at him and says, “Nah, I was just screwing with you.” I think that is a very meta moment in Poe; an admission of the amusement he found in performing for his audience and how much he played up to his own reputation.

CD:  It’s kind of ironic; Poe was not a fan of certain strands of the Romantic school of writing, if I remember correctly, but he did share, along with so many Romantics and nineteenth century writers on both sides of the Atlantic, their knack for florid language.

LK:  Here we are back at the question of how far Poe was pitching to his marketplace. He did for the mental landscape what Ann Radcliffe did for the Pyrenees.

CD: That’s an excellent way of phrasing it. I think Poe may have been the first writer to “internalise” the Gothic.

To be honest, though, I don't think Poe is as egregious as Carlyle or, God help us, Ann Radcliffe (who admittedly probably did more to lay the cultural groundwork for Poe than most other authors). Anyway, to quote Grandpa Simpson, I just think “it was the style at the time”. Certainly if you go back far enough, for instance, you wouldn't be able to distinguish the earliest Gothic novels that were written around Poe’s lifetime from the parodies that came out after the middle of the 1800s.

ZH:  The narrators in Poe’s stories generally come off as trying to put a distance between themselves and their horrible actions with as much language as they can, and one of the things that makes them so unnerving is that their desperate loquacity (it’s a word, I checked) fails to explain anything at all.

LK:  Oh, I'm very well acquainted with it. Although for myself I prefer “logorrhoea”.

ZH:  The other thing I noticed during this about Poe’s writing was how he presents deeply illogical actions in a progression that, at least to the main character, makes complete sense. In “The Black Cat”, the lead goes from being a loving husband and pet-owner to a guy who carves a cat’s eye out, before hanging the poor puss, and then murdering his wife when she tries to protect another cat, and hiding her body – and the only real indication we have of why is that he has a problem with alcohol. It’s impossible to describe just how unsettling that disparity between event and tone becomes. It’s like having a conversation with a stranger at a party, but as the conversation goes on, it becomes a monologue, and you notice how the guy’s clothes look like they’re wearing him instead of the other way around, and his breath stinks, and he just keeps talking louder and faster and you can't get away. But he sounded so reasonable at the start.

LK:  Yes, the most unnerving stories are the ones where something that in cold blood is pretty crazy is treated as essentially normal. “M. Valdemar” falls into that category; I'd forgotten that it’s the narrator who’s the hypnotist! – not to mention those other fine members of the medical profession who shrug and go, oh, okay. “The Cask Of Amontillado”, too. “Yes,” I said, “for the love of God.” Why does that freak me out so much?

ZH:  Because you’ve come to trust the narrator. Unlike Poe’s other stories, he’s calm, level-headed, and you feel like you can relate to what he’s saying and doing. When he starts walling his enemy away, you get nervous; and that last line forces you to accept that this sane, calm guy is utterly batshit. It somehow makes you complicit in his actions, I think.

I’d love to see that translated into film, but it would be very tricky to pull off. The movie (TV show episode?) I’m covering does a great job capturing the dream-like quality of Poe’s stories, but not that awful sense that there is a logic behind everything, just not any logic we're familiar with. Like Chad says, that's getting into Lovecraft territory; somebody like David Lynch could pull it off, but there has to be a rational component to the madness that I'm not sure Lynch is suited to.

LK:  I've been thinking a lot about Poe’s different narrative POVs. That sense of a slide into insanity, of the reader being taken on a trip into madness, is very powerful. The most effective stories are the ones with the greatest mental disparity between go and whoa; “The Tell-Tale Heart” works, of course, but it’s not as viscerally disturbing as “The Black Cat” (and not just because of the latter’s animal cruelty).

ZH:  Well, I'd argue that part of the reason “The Tell-Tale Heart” isn’t as shocking as “The Black Cat” is that “Heart” has been done to death at this point; “Black Cat” is one of the second tier Poe classics that’s just as good as the others, but still manages to surprise new readers.

That said--- I think you're pretty much dead on. “Heart” is curious because its narrator is never sane. One of the reasons Poe’s work has stayed effective as long as it has is because it’s still so singular; there are no morals, there are no lessons, there aren’t arcs or any commentary on the world. There are just these singular, horrible events. And like you say, the most affecting are the ones that give you this brief hint of trustworthy sanity before pulling the rug out from under you. (Or else helpfully pointing out that there is no rug, floor, or earth beneath your feet, and there never was.)

CD:  I think in raising the lack of moral certainties in Poe you hit on a large part of why he’s so adaptable regardless of thin and in some cases non-existent plots. It’s a cliché, but he really was ahead of his time, presaging the tenor of horror fiction and cinema of the latter twentieth century (which does raise questions, which I look forward to Liz answering, about how Poe was adapted at a time when mainstream culture was much more ambivalent, to say the least, about horror films that didn't come packaged with moral certainties).

LK:  Just in passing, Zack, your comments on “The Black Cat” remind me that Poe’s stories need for their effect a society where wives and servants kept their mouths shut and looked the other way no matter what “the master” was doing.

ZH:  It’s also worth mentioning that in Poe’s world, women seem to exist primarily to suffer. Admittedly, so do most of the men, but they’re much more proactive about it. The only woman I can think of with any agency at all in a Poe story is the “dead” sister in “The Fall Of the House Of Usher.”

LK:  Sarah Stickney Ellis: “....her highest duty is so often to suffer and be still....” You could say that Poe took that particular Victorian aphorism very much to heart, since being buried alive is pretty much the ne plus ultra of suffering and being still. There are very few actual female characters in Poe; they are objects only, to be fixated upon before and after death – and in between. As you say, Madeline Usher is the only one of Poe's women who has anything resembling power, or self-determination; but she doesn’t get it until after she's “dead”. This usage isn't as noxious as it would be in longer works because the brevity of his medium means that Poe is never compelled to engage with his women as real people; but it’s quite unpleasant enough. Particularly if you read Poe’s stories back-to-back, like I've just been doing.

Actually, the major alteration made in adapting Poe to the screen is probably the inclusion of women who are real people. That’s certainly so in the Corman Poes, and personally I find them the more effective because of it; there’s more at stake. I’m thinking particularly of The Tomb Of Ligeia, with that tiny insert of its two main characters actually having a normal, happy life, oh so briefly, before they go back to that damn house. (The really interesting thing there is that the scene nearly wasn’t there; it was put in after the event when Corman decided something was lacking. He was absolutely right about what it was, too.)

CD:  Although, the inserted female characters are one of the reasons that The Premature Burial is one of the lesser Corman adaptations. There are two female characters that figure very strongly in the narrative, but both are completely stock (Emily, of course, being the stockiest by far; I'm surprised she wasn’t accused of being a gold digger, just to spell things out by the end).

The Premature Burial does fall into “the spirit, not the letter” school of Poe adaptations, although the film also demonstrates how the popular understanding of Poe bleeds into broader ideas of “the Gothic”. Corman’s adaptation spends its first half invoking the story’s understanding of fear and obsession and the toll both take, with very little of the relief that closes it. Ray Millard even recites word for word some of the narration, while part of the narrator’s solution to the possibility of being entombed is not only brought to the screen but even made much more elaborate. The rest of the film, though, becomes a fairly typical Gothic horror melodrama, the sort of thing associated (rightly or wrongly) with Poe but which is not entirely of Poe.

LK:  I find the Corman Poes remarkably successful overall in finding a way, and keeping the tone. I agree, though, that The Premature Burial is the least successful in that respect; for me, having Ray Milland there instead of Vinnie removes just a little too much of the conviction; I never buy into his phobia quite the way I should.

CD:  I do think, after reading several other reviews, that Ray Milland’s performance tends to be underestimated; while he doesn’t make the phobia convincing by film’s end, I think he carries the one scene where he demonstrates all the devices he’s set up to prevent being buried alive. Still, I do think Vincent Price would have done it better. Price is able to convincingly bring soulfulness and vulnerability to even the most deranged or evil character (The Masque of the Red Death is the best example off the top of my head), a skill that would have been perfect for the role, while Milland can’t quite transcend the “uptight, emotionally repressed, British aristocrat” archetype (which makes me wonder if that might be part of the reason they set the story in England, other than the excuse to use the moors as a backdrop).

LK:  My problem with Ray Milland in The Premature Burial – which I also have with The Uninvited, if you've seen that – is that there’s a facile quality to his performances, a kind of lightness that tends to tell the audience that there’s not really any danger. It may have been that he didn't care for horror movies, but he just lacks the sincerity that Vinnie always brought to his roles.

CD:  If he was uptight about being in genre films like The Premature Burial and The Uninvited, I can only imagine how he felt about The Thing With Two Heads!

LK:  Heh! – or Frogs! Anyway, to get back to Chad’s question of how film-makers went about adapting Poe in an era of moral certainty, the answer is – THEY DIDN’T – not really. Instead they framed Poe’s stories in a way that allowed any horror evoked to be dismissed in a comforting way. I should say, though, that this is how my three American adaptations handled the problem. Poe was being adapted all over the world at that time and it is quite likely that other countries were less squeamish on this point, just as they didn't feel the same compulsion that American cinema did to explain away their supernatural events.

CD:  I couldn't help but sneak a peek at your review of The Avenging Conscience, Liz, and it was interesting how not only you had the assurance of the dream at the end, but also the idea that the murder of the uncle was in no way justified after all (perhaps the uncle softening was just a way to set up the “real” ending, but I think it served the purpose of negating any justification on the part of the dream-nephew as well) and the intrusion of Christian notions of divine judgment as well. So you can argue that, even without the ending, the film strives to reassure the audience and divert Poe’s original purpose.  While in “The Tell-Tale Heart” there is the implication that, if it weren't for the narrator’s insanity, his gruesome thoroughness in hiding the body and his “civilised” manner might have saved him from any real suspicion, in the movie the deck is pretty clearly stacked against the poor nephew.

LK:  Yes, it does give us a nice little irony there: the uncle goes out to break up the romance and instead changes his mind about it. The nephew comes home after actually breaking off his romance and offs his uncle. I might add that the “oh, the uncle's really a nice old buffer” business is a lot less convincing than the “oh, the uncle is a selfish old git” business, but yeah, the need to attempt to remove anything that looks like an excuse for the nephew is fairly obvious.

The overriding issue in all of this, right from the beginning of film, is that Poe’s stories tend to take place in the self-contained universe of his protagonist’s mind where anything goes, whereas until quite recently film versions have had to be kept within bounds either by social pressure or the threat of censorship. That’s why I really wanted Zack and his contemporary adaptation in, so we can see how people are dealing with Poe in an era that allows the same anything goes approach – as opposed to my film era, where nothing goes, and yours, Chad, where censorship and the good-must-triumph trope were loosening up, but there was still the impulse towards punishing the guilty and rescuing the innocent.

CD:  The American International productions of Poe’s works really did show that the American horror film genre was realigning more closely with Poe’s sensibilities. You can argue, and I would agree to an extent, that it’s still somewhat toned down. There’s a morality of sorts to most of the movies, instead of, as Zack says, just “horrible things happening”; but usually the morality is enforced with horrific, EC Comics-esque retribution – and not before the innocent suffer. Even with The Pit And The Pendulum the heroes fail to realise that one of Nicholas’ victims is still there, trapped in an iron maiden. So it is with The Premature Burial; all of the guilty are annihilated, but the real victim of the piece suffers terribly too before dying.

Even if it's still not quite as relentlessly pessimistic as Poe himself, the contrast between that and the films as they stood in the era Liz is discussing is still incredibly striking.

ZH:  My version of The Black Cat operates as sort of a mini-biopic, focusing on the period of Poe's life after he'd married his cousin but before she'd died, when he was in the process of gradually drinking himself to death. Poe himself is presented realistically enough that he's sort of a de-mythologised version of his own leading characters. It doesn't really evoke “The Black Cat”, but it does give you a sense of the terrific despair and self-loathing that could’ve inspired the story.

LK:  That’s a curious coincidence, because two of my three films are biopics too: both Edgar Allen Poe and The Raven are fictionalised versions of Poe’s life that have the composition of “The Raven” as their crux. The Avenging Conscience is not really an adaptation of “The Tell-Tale Heart”, although it draws many of its circumstances from that story. What it does do, which seems to me to touch upon the big question of adapting Poe, is to use film technique to illustrate the psychology of its protagonist. I think The Avenging Conscience is a very worthy attempt at capturing the spirit of Poe, if not the letter. However--- I had a giggle when I learned that in Zack’s version of The Black Cat, it was all a dream; that’s exactly how they wriggled out of things in The Avenging Conscience, too! I guess everything old is new again.

Now, can I get a few thoughts about Poe-as-character? – in general, because he has certainly cropped up in a lot of films, and in particular in your film, Zack. My films’ depictions of Poe were obviously dictated by the social mores of the time and by the then-prevailing, positive view of him. What would you say about your film’s choices?

ZH:  Well, in the Stuart Gordon film, he’s probably a little more dramatically troubled than in real life, but one of the reasons I think this works so well is that Gordon manages to subvert the standard expectations of what Poe was like. The Southern accent, the theatricality, the almost effeminate gestures--- He's brooding and tortured, but not in the sort of quiet, emo way I always imagined. This version seems much more in keeping with the guy who trashed his friends’ books in print, and still hit them up for money afterwards.

As for it all being a dream, this is a rare case where it would work worse if it had all been real. Given everything else that happened on Masters Of Horror, I don’t think anybody had serious qualms about the eye-gouging (which is gross, but not that bad, since the CGI is really obvious; for my money, the most disturbing scene is when Virginia coughs up a couple of gallons of blood). I just think Gordon was trying to explore that hoary old cliché of where writers get their ideas, and for once, he did some interesting things with it.

LK:  How you feel about the repeated film insistence that writers never imagine anything, they just write down what they experience?

CD:  Oh, you just made me think of that stupid, insulting movie, Becoming Jane.

ZH:  I think it’s a bit like scientists who are only motivated by personal tragedy---

LK:  Gaah!

ZH:  ---it’s short-hand characterisation, and it’s tough to pull off convincingly. Although the weird thing is, there are actual writers behind the films, so wouldn’t they know?

Actually, that’s one of the more enjoyable things about this Black Cat adaptation; it uses the real-world-inspiration trope, but does it in such a clever, satisfying way that it never feels like a cheat. After all, writers are inspired by their own lives. They just tend to translate that inspiration better than the movies give them credit for.

LK:  I keep thinking about the longevity of Poe-as-character. In films, he’s been played by everyone from, well, Herbert Yost and Henry B. Walthall, through Joseph Cotten, all the way to Klaus Kinski. And really, it’s a parade of dramatically convenient constructs; no-one’s interested in the reality, just the romance – or the horror. The only works that seem to have any interest in the truth are the recent films trying to get at the circumstances of Poe’s death – and even then they tend to the romanticised (kidnapped for electioneering) rather than the prosaic (one final bender). Okay, reality often makes for poor drama; but it is intriguing how much of a licence to lie film-makers have always seemed to feel they had (and writers before that).

But let’s face it, most authors do not get turned into fictional characters this way, no matter what they wrote. But with Poe we have one hundred years of him cropping up in films as a character, and never the same character twice. What was it about this particular author that brought this on?

ZH:  He's like Kafka and Lovecraft, in that his writing is so strikingly weird you almost have to assume he’s weird too. And since Poe is more accessible than Kafka and more widely known than Lovecraft, it makes sense that he’d be the one who gets the fictional treatment. When all of your fiction is delivered in the first person, your audience is going to start imagining things about your personal life; the whole “married my 13 year old cousin, died under mysterious circumstances” thing is just icing on the cake.

LK:  In context of this project, I’m interested to hear that you have a more realistically selfish Poe in your film, Zack; my biopics both whitewash him. To my mind, the most unforgiveable thing Poe ever did was quit the best-paying job he’d ever had, or ever would have, because he decided it was beneath his dignity – even though that was the only time he was able to keep Virginia in comfort. He always seemed intent upon casting himself as a victim – the victim of fate, the victim of other people’s malice and jealousy – and if “fate” and “people” weren’t obliging him, then he’d victimise himself. The fact that he held two financial hostages while indulging himself that way, one his dying wife, is horrifying.

CD:  Its interesting to note that, at least compared to other pioneering Gothic/horror English writers like Emily Bronte and H.P. Lovecraft, Poe really did have a life that seemed primed for fiction (in Lovecrafts case I cant think of a single instance where writers using him as a character didnt go with the everything he wrote about is real angle). I agree with Zack that a large part of it is that Poe is THE representation of pre-twentieth century horror; basically he is to horror what Jane Austen is to romance. But I think its also because his life story hits so many notes - the starving artist (the fact that if I remember correctly he was the first well-known American writer to try to make a living out of writing alone adds a historical dimension to it), unfulfilled ambition, the doomed romance, and a life surrounded by tragedy and death. Not only is it the ideal suffering artist story, especially in the context of Poe's themes, but its so...perfectly nineteenth century. But even then writers and film-makers still feel the need to embellish details, such as, as Liz pointed out, portraying his career choices as heroic and/or tragic rather than selfish and short-sighted.

See also: 

     Edgar Allen Poe (1909) at And You Call Yourself A Scientist!     
     
The Avenging Conscience (1914)
at And You Call Yourself A Scientist!     
     
The Raven (1915)
at And You Call Yourself A Scientist!     
     
The Premature Burial (1962)
at The Good, The Bad, The Ugly     
     
The Black Cat (2007)
at The Duck Speaks

 


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----posted 28/07/2009