Pity Edgar Allan Poe.
He was scarcely understood in his lifetime. And now his legacy is being equally ignored by Hollywood.
That’s not to say that studios aren’t finally paying attention to him. This year three different projects feature Poe as a main character including a big studio picture starring Chicago’s John Cusack in the role of Poe. There have been scant portrayals of him before, with no biopics to speak of on or off the big screen. It’s encouraging to see Poe finally getting his due. But alas, all three have treated their Poe the same – he’s an amateur sleuth helping solve a murder mystery. Poe played many roles in his day. He was a poet, literary critic, short story writer, journalist and puzzle expert. But a CSI? Ah, Hollywood.
The reason for the gumshoe angle is that Poe wrote the first detective story in literature. His short story The Murders in the Rue Morgue became the template for every book, film and TV show about crime solving forever after. Poe’s work inspired Sir Arthur Conan Doyle to create Sherlock Holmes, and Agatha Christie to create Hercule Poirot and Miss Marple. The Rue Morgue story also established literary devices that have since become standard in the genre: the hero detective; his colleague or friend ‘narrating’ the story; a twist in the last moments that puts all the pieces of the puzzle into place; and an ending where all is explained by the intrepid shamus.
But Poe’s resume had greater achievements. Unfortunately Hollywood doesn’t seem to be interested in delving into much of that, nor in dramatizing his harrowing life. Did you know that as a young man, Poe was disinherited? And that he was thrown out of West Point? And that he married his 13-year-old first cousin? You probably knew that Poe struggled to stay sober and avoid the poor house all his adult life, but did you know that in his last days he was found lying in the streets of Baltimore, babbling incoherently and wearing another man’s clothes? Less than a week later he died in a hospital and yet the exact cause of death remained a great mystery. Everything from an epileptic seizure to rabies was blamed. Poe lived hard and died harder. And during his 40 short years on earth he wrote some of the most distinguished short stories of all time like The Tell-Tale Heart and The Fall of the House of Usher. He wrote classic poems of love and tragedy like The Raven and Annabel Lee. And he set the stage for modern horror with macabre tales like The Pit and The Pendulum and The Black Cat. You’d think that would make for an incredible motion picture biography. It certainly made for a fascinating and chilling play last year at the First Folio theater in Oakbrook, Illinois. During the Halloween season of 2010, author David Rice, director Michael F. Goldberg and a brilliant cast of actors brought Poe’s words and history to life in The Madness of Edgar Allan Poe, but so far no movie studio has been as willing to tread upon such cryptic territory.
Perhaps they consider Poe’s life to be too dark and depressing to depict in a major motion picture so rather than showcase his true story they fictionalize his world, turning him into a sleuth that everyone can love. But do they have to do the same exact angle three times running? Apparently so.
As mentioned earlier, John Cusack is starring as Poe in a film entitled THE RAVEN and its plot has the author helping out the Baltimore police in pursuit of a serial killer offing his victims in ways inspired by Poe’s prose. (I’m sure the pitch to studio execs was a mere three words: Poe meets SEVEN!)
In Francis Ford Coppola’s soon-to-be-released interactive feature TWIXT starring Val Kilmer and Ben Chaplin, audiences will be able to determine the film’s plot while watching it. Apparently members get an electronic gizmo that they then manipulate during the screening to determine the trajectory of the story. Their choices will instantly change the direction of the narrative, just like one does during a video game. And what kind of story is TWIXT? You guessed it it’s a detective yarn, this one concerning an author trying to solve the murder of a friend with the help of the ghost of Poe. (My guess is that pitch went something like this: Poe meets Nintendo!)
And finally, CBS shot a TV pilot called POE, although it isn’t on their prime time schedule just yet. It’s hook? Yes, that’s right, Poe is an amateur sleuth in this dramatic hourly series as he assists the Baltimore police in the 1840’s in their most baffling cases. It’s Poe in a way but it’s really just another variation on CASTLE or THE MENTALIST.
Hollywood has a long history of excelling at biopics. RAGING BULL (1980), GOODFELLAS (1990), MALCOLM X (1992), SCHINDLER’S LIST (1993), CAPOTE (2005), and MILK (2008) are just a few standouts in the last few decades. None of their stories had happy endings yet they were all quite successful, so what’s the resistance to telling Poe’s true story?
Maybe they’re fictionalizing him over and over again because of the fact that most of Poe’s work was not appreciated in his lifetime. Like Van Gogh and Mozart before, he was an artist ahead of his time, and one who died in poverty because the masses failed to recognize his brilliance. Poe wrote dark, horrific stories and haunting, intricate poems about death and despair and love. He was a man who conjured some of literature’s greatest nightmares yet lived a life that was more direful than any of his fiction.
That’s a fascinating story. But apparently it’s one you won’t be seeing any time soon. And what a missed opportunity it is. I like “mash-ups” whether they’re songs on GLEE, new takes on old classics like the Pride and Prejudice and Zombies novella, or having the X-Men prevent the Cuban missile crisis in the movie X-MEN: FIRST CLASS. Thus, I’m looking forward to Poe’s new role as a criminal profiler in THE RAVEN. But he was more than just the father of detective fiction. He was one of the world’s most important and innovative writers and Hollywood should showcase the larger picture of him. But for now, a truer appreciation of Edgar Allan Poe remains nevermore.