Edgar Allan Poe, The Filmmaker
This was originally a presentation for the Association of College English Teachers of Alabama (ACETA) Conference 2023. The presentation was paired with the short film, Garden Of The Gods.
Edgar Allan Poe died when he was merely 40 years old, in the ancient, bygone year of 1849 CE, in the city of Baltimore, Maryland, under some mysterious circumstances. He was a writer and a poet, an editor and a soldier, and a razor sharp literary critic. And in those roles he was an eccentric trailblazer. Well, except for the soldier role — he paid someone to fill out the rest his term of duty. He worked in mystery, in short stories, and in a category he may have invented, the detective story. He played with the odd and the macabre, the sarcastic and the ironic, too. And he touched on what would become science fiction.
So, he seems to be foundational to what we call ‘American literature.’ He was one of the earliest popular American writers to make money off of his work. But don’t worry…it’s still writing. He didn’t make that much. Poe still had to beg for money sometimes. Despite that, he was among the first American writers to become seriously popular in Europe, which I suppose is something. He influenced Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Jules Verne, H. P. Lovecraft, and H.G. Wells. And, later, the great Alfred Hitchcock.
He was mostly known as a literary critic in his day, though. An exacting and unrelenting critic, too. A fellow critic once said that Poe wrote his critiques in prussic acid instead of ink. He tangled with the likes of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and with many of the transcendentalists. But, critique was a two-way street. William Butler Yeats called Poe “vulgar.” Ralph Waldo Emerson called Poe, “the jingle man,” in that he was tasteless and wrote for the masses, which was and still is, looked down upon. Poe, however, regarded Emerson “as extremely tasteful, and boring in his tastefulness.” A razor sharp retort from across nearly two centuries. Poe also called Emerson “over-rated,” and he sparred with the transcendentalists generally. Poe wasn’t completely against transcendentalism, entirely, but he railed against the folks in that movement he thought to be plagiarists and the “pretenders and sophists among them”.
Perhaps Poe’s alignment against the Emersons of the world was because something about Poe’s character twisted in darker, more cynical directions than the Transcendentalists. Transcendentalism is more about the basic, foundational goodness of people, the purity of nature, about divinity being found within, and about how society works to corrupt the individual. Poe, however, instead of believing the individual to be pure and that people are at their best when they are independent and self-reliant, believed that people behave against their own best wishes, and that sometimes we don’t have a choice but to do so. That “we act for the reason that we should not…I am not more certain that I breathe, than that the assurance of the wrong or error of any action is often the one unconquerable force which impels us.”
While Poe, perhaps, felt that people were controlled, sometimes driven, by darker impulses, he did have a streak of Dark Romanticism in him, a sort of shadow opposite creature of transcendentalism. In his very last work, called Eureka, perhaps his most unusual, Poe deduced the structure of the universe, and the occurrence of the Big Bang some 80 years before someone in the sciences would conceive of the idea. He suggested that the universe expanded from and contracted to a primordial particle, that this happened over and over, and that all of the pieces of the universe, including ourselves and our souls, would collapse down into a divine whole, back into the ‘primordial particle.’
“The sense of individual identity will be gradually merged in the general consciousness — Man, for example, ceasing imperceptibly to feel himself Man, will at length attain that awfully triumphant epoch when he shall recognize his existence as that of Jehovah. In the meantime bear in mind that all is Life — Life — Life within Life — the less within the greater, and all within the Spirit Divine.”
Sounds remarkably like the transcendentalists, huh? I suppose my point here is to say that Poe is way more than a horror person. He played with satire, comedy, with ideas of science, with the absurd and the grotesque and with a great deal of irony. He tried very hard and used every tool in the book to get us to see ourselves as if we were strangers.
And, of course, Poe had ideas on literary theory. One of his more interesting takes on the form writing should take is his “unity of effect” idea. Poe let us all know in absolutely no uncertain terms that a work of fiction should be planned, that the author should know the ending and how the various segments should be arranged, but also that the author should, especially, plan for which emotional response, in the reader, was to be the aim of the overall piece. Once an author has chosen the desired emotional effect, then all the other components — tone, characters, plot, conflict, setting — should all sing in unison toward this overall emotional effect. The effect on the reader is the whole point of the entire enterprise of writing, he said.
It is in Poe’s influence on the filmmaker Alfred Hitchcock that interests me the most. Specifically, in Poe’s “unity of effect.” You see, film, as a medium, is Edgar Allen Poe’s “unity of effect” in practice. A film contains many, many different kinds of arts — costuming, make-up and hair, writing, the crafts of theater in creating a theatrical space for characters to inhabit and of actors portraying those characters, in photography composition and substance, in using light to affect mood, in music composition, and especially in editing. All of the various departments that a film needs in order to produce a final product are all arts or professions found individually, elsewhere in life. You could pick any one of them and make a career out of it — a musician, a hairdresser, a photographer, a writer! But, for a film to work, all of those pieces have to be set together in a unity of purpose…directors have to decide what the emotional effect should be on the audience and direct all these various arts to that effect.
The whole point of film is to create a specific emotional effect in an audience. Filmmakers are constantly, constantly worrying about what the audience will think. They worry about story structure, performance, setting, conflict, etc…
But they worry, very specifically, about getting all of these disparate elements to speak in unison — when everything is combined, is the emotional effect generated believable? Will the audience buy it? If we do things one particular way in the story, then what will the audience expect the story to do next? How will they feel if I edit this scene in one particular way over another? If I make a horror film about John Phillip Sousa, will having his marching music in the score be scary enough for the audience? The whole of the filmmaking profession is consumed by this worry, that the unity of effect they are driving towards will not be understood, or worse, will not be felt. But it is a unity of effect that is driving the whole profession. Movies are emotion delivery vehicles, a whole system of creating a singular emotional effect in complete strangers.
In this, I consider the medium of film to be a super art, a collection of arts singing in unison. Hitchcock certainly directed his films with a certain unity of effect in mind. In each of his films, he aimed for a particular, singular emotional effect. And he was very good at producing it. So, perhaps we might consider Poe a sort of pre-nascent filmmaker of a type. Poe lived in the first half of the 19th century, but had he lived in the 20th century, I wonder if he would have understood and liked film. I’m betting that he would. I think film, as a super-art medium, is on the same page that Poe started about the ‘unity of effect.’ He was a bright guy. He would have seen that.
However, nowadays, if Edgar Allen Poe is mentioned at all, it is because he wrote what we consider to be horror or suspense stories. That’s the lens we use to view Edgar Allen Poe now, despite Poe being so much more than horror. The heyday of Poe adaptations into film has long passed. There used to be quite a lot of Poe stories in film. Maybe some of you remember Vincent Price starring in a total of seven Poe film adaptations? The 1960 ‘House Of Usher’ film, adapted from Poe’s short story, “The Fall Of The House Of Usher’ stars Vincent Price, was directed by the king of B-movies, Roger Corman, and currently has a 74% audience rating on Rotten Tomatoes. But nobody is adapting Poe stories to film right now. Not like that.
Nowadays, Poe appears in cinema only as a fictional version of himself found in other people’s stories. This trend of depicting Poe as a character has been with us a long time. It began with the birth of American cinema over a hundred years ago and it ran alongside film adaptations of Poe’s actual stories. But now, if we see Poe at all on screen today, it is an actor portraying the gothic author as a fictional character.
In these modern movies, Poe the character is caught up in someone else’s fictional murder investigation. In fact, if Edgar Allen Poe the character shows up in a movie, then some other character must have died a twisted, terrible death. We see a typical example of this in a 2012 film called ‘The Raven” starring John Cusack as Edgar Allen Poe. In the film, Poe helps with a police investigation into a strange murder. The same situation can be found in a recently released Netflix film, ‘The Pale Blue Eye,’ starring Harry Melling as another fictionalized Edgar Allen Poe. In that film, Poe is, once again, assisting in a murder investigation, this time for the US Army and for Christian Bale.
This is all very typical of Poe’s representation now, that filmmakers are more fascinated with the personality and character of Poe the man, with his association with the macabre specifically, as opposed to the stories and philosophies that Poe actually wrote about. This is unfortunate. Like I said, Poe is more than just a horror and suspense and a ‘strange murders’ guy. “The Raven,” a poem about being weirded out by a talking bird, hasn’t a single murder in it. Except, well, if the bird were a crow instead of a raven, then it would only be an attempted murder, right?
And so, when we set out to create Garden Of The Gods, we asked very specifically — does Poe say anything to us today, through his stories? Is an adaptation possible? Do the themes still work? Do Poe’s philosophies on human behavior still resonate? They do. They absolutely do. Now, in an internet age, we see a full spectrum of human behavior, including some sadistic, sinister, perplexing stuff. Sometimes we log on somewhere and we are just left scratching our heads. Poe said it would be like this.
From the short story, The Cask Of Amontillado, writer and producer Katie Boyer took a fancy brand of wine, which was used as a lure for revenge in the original story, and changed it to marijuana, still illegal in Alabama in our age and still a source of high legal drama. Instead of wealthy carnival-goers, Katie changed our main characters to drug dealers, people who are connoisseurs of a different type of psychotropic compound. And, a drug dealer is a person who could, conceivably, do harm to their fellow human in a spar over an illegal business.
Katie added a layer of commentary concerning Alabama’s changing demographics — Mike is hispanic, Felix is not. In the original story, we have no idea whatsoever why Montresor kills Fortunato, which is so chilling. We can only guess that their ethnic background is ‘Italian.’ Katie’s innovation for Garden Of The Gods was to suggest a possible motive using our own changing demographics here in Alabama, by invoking a racial and cultural division we all know fairly well. And instead of setting the story during Carnival, Katie continued to evoke Alabama’s changing demographics with an anglicized, US version of a Día de los Muertos. In Garden Of The Gods, the solemn, traditional Mexican Day Of The Dead holiday that honors family and ancestors passed is turned into a backyard party, a reason to drink beer from a keg and mingle. It is a little bit of commentary, perhaps, about how the United States ingests cultural practices, and certainly a personification of Felix, who, afloat on the air of cultural privilege, doesn’t quite realize how things might look from Mike’s hispanic perspective.
And, of course, bricks don’t change that much. Those were easy to adapt.
I’m biased, but I think this film works as an adaptation. It has the same sense of vengeance, the same kind of ploy to trick an unassuming victim, the same drive to satiate a dark impulse that, in all likelihood, predates our species. Revenge is a tale as old as any human story, after all.
At any rate, Poe still has things to say to us…about humanity’s dark impulses, but about so many other things, too. He can even speak to the spiritualism of the Big Bang, apparently. It is important to note that Poe wrote for the masses…that he was a pop artist, in a sense. A BROKE pop artist writer, most of the time, forced to write for the whims of the marketplace. Despite writing words that are now literally read by every student in the empire, Poe spent most of his professional time getting told “no” by publishers and scrounging sentences together for a handful of dollars. Poe wrote to a friend in the year that he died, “the poem which I enclose has just been published in a paper for which sheer necessity compels me to write, now and then. It pays well as times go — but unquestionably it ought to pay ten prices; for whatever I send it feel[s] I am consigning to the tomb of the Capulets.” Any writer, any storyteller trying to make a living will understand this sentiment to the core.
But, he is also a foundational member of American Literature — I expect Edgar Allen Poe stories to perennially reappear in film and in other mediums. I expect Poe to continue to influence artists in the generations to come. Every generation discovers a new version of Poe, it seems.
But, perhaps, in this next go around of Poe adaptations, we will get a chance to see a different side of Poe other than the macabre and the twisted. I, for one, am ready to watch a film about Edgar Allen Poe the scathing literary critic, as down-on-his-luck underdog, waging a writing war against the holier-than-thou Transcendentalists. It might have the same vibe as an Addams Family movie, but filled with more clever, cutting remarks.
Anyway, thanks for reading and I hope you enjoy our film.