Saturday, October 20, 2012

Books on Film: The Raven

Edgar Allen Poe's The Raven isn't actually a book, it's just a really long poem about a crow. But the epic poem is about more than a bird or a man who can't seem to get to sleep, and it beautifully showcases the dark nature of Poe's work. Poetry doesn't translate easily into film, or in fact into any other medium. The three films loosely based on Poe's work reflect this truth rather spectacularly.


The Poem

Edgar Allen Poe published The Raven in 1845, and it became rather famous right away. The musical lines of the poem are studied often by scholars of all ages, and some people can recite entire passages. Reciting the entire thing takes a whole lot of study -- it's more than 100 lines long, but the rhyming scheme does help. 

The Raven mourns the loss of the lovely Lenore. A man wracked by grief for this woman, presumably a lost love, is being taunted by a raven who repeatedly tells him "nevermore." It's all the bird will say, and it's maddening. At the end of the poem, the bird is still sitting "perched above my chamber door" and still haunting the man who has lost his beloved Lenore.

It's heart-wrenching, and sad, and beautiful. But it doesn't necessarily made a great movie. Like, who would want to see a movie about a man sitting alone in a room with a talking bird? If you can get an audience to sit through 90 minutes of that, you're a genius. 

You will have also accomplished something that no director has ever accomplished before, and the three film adaptations of Poe's The Raven prove it.

The Films

The first film to borrow Poe's stark title premiered in 1935, with two masters of horror among the cast. Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi joined forces to bring the film to life. Lugosi plays a surgeon who is absolutely obsessed by Poe. He has his own torture chamber for his victims. Karloff's character is no better. He's a murderer currently on the run from police and living as a fugitive. 

In the film, Lugosi is asked to operate on a beautiful young woman who has been injured in an automobile accident. He agrees and succeeds, and begins to form a friendship with the young woman he's saved. As their friendship blossoms, he reveals his great love of the writer Edgar Allen Poe. He even shows her his prized collection of Poe's works, which includes many poems and short stories.

Her father, however, doesn't approve of the budding relationship. By the time the murderer shows up at the surgeon's home, Lugosi is angry enough to mastermind his own macabre plan. Using his surgeon's skills, he forces the murderer into carrying out a terrible plan about the family that has upset him so. He invites them all to a dinner party, and one by one they each come to some horrible fate as inspired by Poe's stories. The surgeon eventually falls prey to one of his own traps, and the beautiful young woman escapes (because that's the way of such movies).

Another movie named The Raven was made 30 years later, in 1963, but this time it had a totally different plot. Boris Karloff appears again, this time with legendary horror master Vincent Price. Though the plot was different, the theme of the film was the same: Edgar Allen Poe. This time, the story is set all the way back in the 15th century (long before Poe was born).

Price plays Dr. Craven (get it?), a wizard who is in mourning for his wife Lenore. He's been grieving for more than two years, a fact that distresses his daughter. Just like in the poem, Dr. Craven is visited by a raven who is actually a wizard named Dr. Bedlo (I'm not making this up). The two work together to create a potion that will transform the raven back into a man. Bedlo, you see, was transformed by yet a third wizard (they're coming out of the woodwork!) -- Boris Karloff. But the plot thickens, because Bedlo has actually seen the ghost of the beloved Lenore at the evil wizard's castle! 

Indeed. The two magical men set out to take on the evil wizard. Estelle the daughter joins them, as does Bedlo's son Rexford (played by none other than Jack Nicholson). Bedlo ends up getting killed by one of his own spells, or so it seems. He's really hiding inside the castle. Craven ends up recovering Lenore, who is also not dead as we believed. She actually faked her own death in order to take up with the evil wizard, because the guy does have his own castle. A magic duel is really inevitable at this point.

Naturally, Bedlo ends up getting transformed into a bird again. He tries to plead with Craven at the end, who tells him (what else) "nevermore." I'm not sure how Poe would have felt about it. 


But he may have liked the most recent film adaptation, in which he actually appears as a character and not just a subject of conversation. John Cusack plays the man himself in the 2012 movie The Raven. He doesn't really resemble Poe, but it's all right because he gives the famed writer an appropriately sad, hopelessly romantic aura.

The film opens with a mysterious teaser about the last days of Poe's life before it centers on 1849 Baltimore, where the writer spent his final days. The movie does mention The Raven and it does contain Poe as a character, but most of the plot is pure fiction. It's a very engaging murder mystery, and you know I love those. Many of Poe's stories are referenced, as they become clues in the mystery, and the writer's mysterious death is "solved" at the end of the flick. It has almost nothing whatsoever to do with the poem The Raven, other than a few references and some quoted lines, but it does draw from some true facts surrounding Poe's life. The movie does reflect the darkness and mysterious suspense that surrounded Poe's tales, but the twist wasn't all that startling and the pseudo-happy ending is a little too neatly done. It's a fun murder mystery, perhaps a little too fun to do Poe real justice, but it's well put together enough to warrant watching. It'll take you almost as long as reading the entire poem.

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