Review of The Raven – Alas, Poor Poe
Posted on October 13, 2012
*Warning: This review contains spoilers!*
So I rented and streamed The Raven as it became available this week. I’m a huge John Cusack fan from back in the day (yeah John, hold that boom box high and proud). When I took my Poe Seminar in grad school, the film was in production. We couldn’t help but laugh at how our culture continues fetishizing and mythologizing Poe.
In my Poe post a little while ago, I talked of my long-time love for his work. I also touched a little on his issues as a writer and a reviewer. The film surprised me in how it addressed his frustrations. While Cusack’s acting was a bit manic and over-the-top, Poe’s real issues underpinned Cusack’s flailing about.
Set in Baltimore, the last place Poe lived, we find him a very frustrated and bitter writer. He thinks his writing is the best example of American writing. But his most popular piece, “The Raven”, is both a blessing and a curse. It gained him fame but not money. It has also branded him in terms of being the only thing he’s known for. In the film, he obnoxiously tries to earn a free drink if someone in the bar could finish the statement, “Quoth the raven…”. Only a French man answers him, and he proceeds to insult the American “swines” who can’t recognize good American writing.
The film shows the importance of newspapers for writers to gain a name and money. Poe would write reviews of others’ writings to earn money. He, like other 19th Century writers, would fight to have his own writings printed. In a not-so-subtle scene, he rants at the editor for including a Longfellow poem instead of one of his reviews. Poe and Longfellow did have a longstanding rivalry, and Poe eviscerated Longfellow’s very popular and lucrative poetry. Read into that what you will, but the film did touch on that.
The last thing that surprised me as being included was a salon for Poe. We now have Twitter, Facebook, and any other numerous places to pimp our work. For writers back then, to be included in a salon where other people (rich people) gathered to discuss and talk about writing, invite an author to recite and speak, and to share thoughts on local writers’ work was how an author made money, got places to stay, and had meals made for him kept an author living both in his writing and in his life. Through one salon, he could gain more readers and possibly others to invite him to other salons.
In the film, you see the ladies of the salon hanging on his every word like Poe’s a rock star! He comments on the first few lines of an attendant’s work, and we think he’ll be a jerk only to find him giving a compliment in a backhanded sort of way. All of a sudden, the police bust in on the salon, and the game is on for the rest of the film.
The concept of the movie is decent – taking Poe’s (sort of) real-life situation and adding in a psychopathic copycat. You can guess which stories were used. But the execution of the concept lacked. My biggest issue was because they focused solely on the gore of his stories rather than the subtleties and psychological challenges.
I cringed the most at the use of “The Pit and the Pendulum” where, of course, the unknown suspect took someone from Poe’s real-life background and tortured him. The real person happened to be Rufus Griswold, a rival and Poe’s biographer whose words about Poe’s death helped shape who we think he was ever since. However, in the movie, he becomes the victim of the pendulum with full gore included.
Here’s where I rolled my eyes. If this was how the filmmakers saw Poe, then am I so glad I paid a smaller percentage to see it at home than in the theater. Poe’s work was not about the gore. It was about humanity, and how we can treat each other. It was about holding a reader in total suspense and THEN bringing down the “hammer” to knock us over with a horrible (and sometimes gory) ending. “The Pit and the Pendulum” is not about taking someone and slicing them in half. It’s about the fact that someone chose to do that to the person. What did that person do to deserve it? Who would devise such a cruel punishment? And then the waiting and anticipation as the pendulum swings and gets closer.
Now I’m sure we’re supposed to be impressed that the killer has created a 19th Century contraption to mimic the pendulum, but I just sighed at the poor treatment. Many of Poe’s best known works are included, and maybe the filmmakers thought they were setting up a psychologically suspenseful movie overall. They didn’t succeed.
The cast is superb, which is another disappointing factor to the film not being better. Along with Cusack, Luke Evans played the detective part well. Alice Eve makes for a good love interest in Emily Hamilton and as the inspiration for “Annabel Lee”. Historically, the poem is one of his last to be published, but the inspiration is unknown or unspecified. Besides, Emily Hamilton is a fictional representation of how Poe might react to a romantic situation as well as being the – wait for it – screaming, girly victim.
*Warning: Ending Spoiler*
I think they could have done this film without it being in Poe’s time and still had the same effect. The fact that Poe and his life were in it is just a device to get you to see some gory scenes. It probably is an entire film built around a possible explanation of why Poe supposedly repeated the name, “Reynolds,” as he was dying (not proven to be true, although it is in Wikipedia). The fact that the killer, in his monologuing to tell us his true motives, states that he’s going to go do the same to Jules Verne is asinine. I guess we writers need to consider that some serial killer might use our words to inspire his/her misdeeds in the future!
I would be more interested to see someone do a true biopic of his life trying to succeed and never getting there in his time but now exists as one of the most famous American authors of all time with his short compendium of works. Even he, who wanted the fame, could not put a stamp of approval on The Raven. Alas, poor Poe!