To borrow a line from the British artist Richard Hamilton, ‘just what is it that makes authors so different, so appealing?’
I asked myself this question quite a bit last week. I had time to kill; twelve hours on a plane is a long time. It can seem even longer if (acting under the law that it is acceptable to watch films at 30,000 feet in the air that would never be seen on solid ground) you happen to catch the latest film about, and inspired by, the works of Edgar Allan Poe: The Raven.
Happily, James McTeigue’s version of Poe’s life stars John Cusack. Regrettably, this is as much compassion as any viewer can hope for in course of the ensuing two hours. The film is inspired as much by the grisly scenes in Se7en and Saw as by Poe’s work. It imagines the last days of Poe as a heroic crime fighter tracking a very nasty serial killer.
Initially, I suspected The Raven was a product of studio executives hoping to turn a cult graphic novel into a mainstream popcorn thriller, as was attempted with Albert and Allen Hughes’ From Hell (2001), but when I got back to ground level and an internet connection I learned that Poe’s impact on pop culture goes far beyond cult status. Not only are there two earlier films also entitled The Raven (one from 1935, the other from 1963), but the author is also the subject of another film this year, to be produced by (and at one time, it was rumoured would star) Sylvester Stallone.
Like many people familiar with the requirements for an undergraduate degree in literature, I am well acquainted with the works of Poe. His stories are the very definition of ‘macabre’, but if he were around today I’m not sure he would be penning scripts for Dexter or the CSI franchise, which is what The Raven seems to imply. The screenwriters of the film reference Poe’s stories in gory horror scenes of virgins buried alive, masked murderers, and critics cleft in twain (‘The Tell Tale Heart’, ‘The Red Masque of Death’, ‘The Pit and the Pendulum’) and, I confess, there is some pleasure to be found in matching the on-screen murders to the tales they replicate.
But, the desire to turn Poe (a man with a permanently haunted, hang-dog face) into a less dashing, more dissipated version of Robert Downey Jnr’s Sherlock Holmes seems a little more curious. Holmes is, after all, a fictional character. He was created to be a hero. Poe, on the other hand, is a writer – the creator of heroes (or antiheroes, as the case may be). While the notion that struggling poets spend their evenings running around town solving murders by riding horses into dark cemeteries, firing shotguns into foggy woods and exploring subterranean tunnels is somewhat appealing, it might be more realistic to show them sitting somewhere alone, slightly drunk, worrying about their reputation and how to make money. To be fair, in The Raven, Poe does a little of this too, but the film changes gear swiftly when the serial killer/Poe’s ‘biggest fan’ starts to show the author his ‘appreciation’.
There are a lot of reasons to celebrate Poe’s achievements. He was one of the earliest American practitioners of the short story and is considered the inventor of the detective fiction genre. He was also one of the first well-known authors to earn a living through writing alone, a situation that was both personally and professionally very challenging. But these are not the chief reasons that, as a literary figure, he offers fuel for the imagination. It’s because his stories, almost always written as pacy first-person eyewitness accounts, give the sense that author and character are one and the same. The dark sentiments that charge his creative writing seem drawn from his private soul.
Although The Raven is distinctly average as a piece of cinema, its conceit of making Poe the hero of his own stories makes you think: when we read, to what degree are the lives of writers already enveloped into the plotline? And to what degree does the plotline become part of the autobiography? Joyce Carol Oates’ book Wild Nights! Stories about the last days of Poe, Dickinson, Twain, James and Hemingway very wittily explores these questions while imagining the last documented day in the lives of these authors (you can read an excerpt of Oates’ story about Poe here). More imaginatively than The Raven’s screenwriters, Oates recontextualises her subjects so that Poe now lives in a lighthouse, ever searching, keeping guard, going mad. Poet-of-the-unsaid Emily Dickinson spends her final days as a futuristic domestic robot purchased for the entertainment of a suburban American family. I don’t know about you, but Emily Dickinson’s I Robot is the kind of movie I’d like to see. Perhaps it could augur a new genre of speculative author biography where writers and their works are meshed with blockbuster concepts. My first suggestion? The Sun Also Rises: Ernest Hemingway, Vampire Hunter.
Caroline Hamilton is a Killings columnist, and a research fellow at the University of Melbourne investigating the future of publishing, writing and reading. She has also written a book about the publishing success of Dave Eggers, One Man Zeitgeist.