John Cusack’s “The Raven” opened last weekend to mixed reviews. As an expert in Gothic Literature, and Edgar Allan Poe specifically, (I have a Master’s degree in Literature and studied Poe extensively) I felt it was necessary to add my voice to the mix.
I have already seen this movie twice because I have a number of friends who insisted that I go with them so they could get the whole “Poe experience.” My review is based solely on the film’s treatment of Poe himself and his works and does not concern itself with the other characters (except the murderer), or the actual plot—this is a literary review so feel free to read without fear of spoilers!
I have to say that I really enjoyed this movie. I thought they did an excellent job in a number of areas of the film. The movie was accessible to audiences who may know little to nothing of Poe. It was also enjoyable for those of us who are more knowledgeable about Poe, Gothic literature, or just literature in general.
The character that John Cusack creates is entertaining and a fairly believable representation of Poe through his work. I love how true Cusack tried to be to the character of Poe. He did a ton of research and read a majority of his work to prep for this role. That pleases fanatics such as myself very much. I loved his raving, his ego, his sorrow, and his drunkenness. These are all things I have envisioned in Poe throughout my research.
The dialogue written by the script writers for the character of Poe was excellent. They tried to stay true to his voice as one would have read it in some of his critical theory pieces. Poe was all about legitimizing himself in the literary community and all of his critical theory works were written to achieve this end. The insults Poe hurls throughout the film, particularly in the bar scene, were humorous and I sat in my chair laughing appreciatively.
The only thing I’m not sure about is whether Poe would have gone around quoting himself all the time. I imagine him to be a bit more dignified. I could be wrong in that interpretation. But the construct works for the character they were going for in this film. This detail allows for Poe to grow as an individual, a necessary part of a story for the hero—despite this being a story about the last days of his life. He becomes more humble as the movie trucks along.
I absolutely love the references made in the film to Poe’s various stories. And I was pleasantly surprised and delighted that they incorporated some of his poetry in there as well. I originally fell in love with Poe in middle school because of his poetry. My interest in his stories did not come until later. His works are referenced either directly with story details, props, by title or quotation from various works, in the plot of the movie and in the dialogue. There are also indirect references to works which you can see in the cinematography, if you know what to look for. Here is a list of all pieces referenced throughout the film: Murders in the Rue Morgue, The Mystery of Marie Roget, The Cask of Amontillado, The Black Cat (very minutely), The Masque of the Red Death, The Premature Burial, The Pit and the Pendulum, The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar (very briefly), The Tell-Tale Heart, William Wilson, Descent into the Maelstrom, The Raven (of course!), Dreamland, and A Dream Within a Dream.
All three of those poems are on my list of absolute favorites. And one of the things that pleases me most is that the movie does not just rely on Poe’s most famous works. There are a number of his lesser-read pieces in that list. I have read all of these works and highly recommend them! If you have a chance to read any of them before going to see the movie, your viewing experience will be enhanced exponentially.
I do wish there would have been more of a reference to Poe’s detective character, C. Auguste Dupin (after all, the movie is a detective story). But perhaps they were fearful of encroaching on Sherlock Holmes territory. I see a lot of similarities between Holmes and Dupin as characters; though I am not sure if other literary types would agree with this assessment or not. Please remember that Dupin came first and it is actually Poe who is considered the father of the detective story—not Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.
I also wish there would have been more of a reference to madness and insanity. Poe wrote specifically about Mania, Monomania and Moral Insanity, though he mentions one of these terms only once directly in any of his works (if memory serves me correctly). Insanity was a significant discussion at the time because of the McNaughten trial in 1843 in England and the subsequent creation of the rules for determining insanity (The Wild Beast Test and the Right or Wrong Test). The murderer in this film exhibits a number of qualities of Monomania. But you would only know that if you had studied these terms and the period. The film does not allude to them at all.
They do call people “mad” or “insane” at times in the film, but they missed an opportunity to get more into the period and to discuss an important topic of the time. I believe Poe comments on these issues directly and purposefully in a number of his murder stories, particularly those written in first person. (My Master’s thesis hinges on this construct.)
Overall, I would recommend this movie to others. I think that one of the reasons why people have given this movie mixed reviews is because the director and writers had to walk a precarious line of engaging the novice viewer while satisfying the expert and the fanatic. This is no easy feat and I do not envy their task in any way. This may make me just an easy sell, but personally, I really just loved seeing one of my favorite historical figures brought to life on screen. (And I may get that again because Poe is a character in the book Abraham Lincoln—Vampire Hunter!)
I would love to hear your thoughts on the movie and on Poe in general!