Sunday, April 29, 2012

Poe-try in Motion (Pictures)

After reading Melanie's post on Friday, I promised myself I'd cut down on my movie intake and focus on writing.  I’ve done a pretty good job clearing my evenings and I’m actually making headway on a few of my stories.  But I'll admit, yesterday I broke my movie fast a little early and went to the theater to see John Cusack play Edgar Allan Poe in ‘The Raven.’

Let me start off by saying, if you are planning on watching this movie for Poe's horror stories, you’re going to be disappoint.  In fact, if you grew up loving ‘The Pit and the Pendulum’ or ‘The Mask of the Red Death,’ for instance, you might want to skip it altogether.  It’ll just annoy you to see how little deference they pay to Poe’s stories.  (Don’t go if you’re squeamish, either.  That should probably go without saying, but just in case, I’m saying it.  There.  You’ve been warned.)

The movie takes place in the days leading up to Poe’s death in 1849, and the script’s writers re-imagine history much the same way the author of ‘Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter’ has reinvented our sixteenth president.  It is a good movie for the sake of entertainment, but it in no way represents history, or literature for that matter.

I enjoyed the film for the most part, but I wasn’t totally satisfied with the story.  I went home and cracked open my copy of Matthew Pearl’s ‘The Poe Shadow’ to fill the void left by ‘The Raven.’  So far, I’m both in love with Pearl’s style and captivated by the story, so my hopes are high.  It’s startling to see how dissimilar the stories are—how they follow the same concept with two very different outcomes.

I started to wonder what makes one story more successful than the other, and how I can apply this concept to my own writing.  For me, so far, ‘The Poe Shadow’ is the more successful of the two renditions of the story of Edgar Allan Poe’s death.  Pearl was painstaking in his research.  He sketched a very realistic version of Poe, whereas 'The Raven' seems to draw most of its facts surrounding the poet from Griswold’s infamously libelous, 'Memoirs of the Author.”  Pearl’s Baltimore is better fleshed out, his plot is more imaginative and his characters are more sympathetic.  But how did he get to that point, and why didn’t 'The Raven,' as a story, make the cut?

I can see where 'The Raven' could have taken this turn or that and become a great movie.  The actors were all fantastic in their roles, the scenes were visually immersive.  Had the writers started at the genesis of the plot—the strange circumstances surrounding the death of Edgar Allan Poe—they might have made a movie worthy of him.  The genesis in this case is rooted in history, which means they needed to start with research, and lots of it.

The second step, the one I think a lot of writers skip, is pre-writing revisions.  When someone throws out the idea “What if Edgar Allan Poe had to solve murders based on his stories?” someone else needs to say, “What else you got?”  I’m totally fine with a blur of fact and fiction—'Shakespeare in Love' did it superbly well—but shouldn’t that blur be credible?  Somehow I doubt Poe kept a pet raccoon, and I doubt even more that he fed it human hearts.  I also doubt he rode out into the forest alone, armed with a gun, in pursuit of his lost love’s kidnapper.  Cusack plays the tortured artist well, but Poe was more of a cantankerous critic than a tortured artist at that stage of his life, something Pearl picked up on and incorporated well in his own story.

Finally, I think 'The Raven' suffered from something that is endemic in Hollywood movies these days: lazy storytelling.  The romance sub-plot, for example, was sheer laziness.  The writers tried—vaguely—to convey the strength of the bond between Poe and the new woman in his life, Emily Hamilton (played by Alice Eve), but they fell short with awkward love scenes and hastily thrown together dialogue.  On paper, it would have fallen apart.  As a movie, the writers relied on Cusack’s acting—his desperate rage toward the killer, and his burning desire to see Emily again—as evidence of Poe’s love and devotion.  To me, it seemed oddly misplaced and at times hard to swallow.  By the end, I really couldn’t care less if he found Emily in time.  I just wanted it to be over.  I'm pretty sure that's not the reaction the writers were going for, especially since the love story was meant to fuel the rest of the plot.

So what did I take from all this?  Research.  Pre-revise.  Don’t be lazy.  If your premise isn’t well researched, nobody will buy into it.  If your plot is stale—or worse, illogical—people will lose interest.  If your characters are awkward on paper (or on screen), nobody will care if they live or die.  It’s pretty basic stuff, but even Hollywood gets it wrong sometimes.

I think it’s time to get back to my movie fast.  I’ve got a lot of work to do on my own stories if I want them to be well researched, polished and imaginative.  Thanks to storytellers like Matthew Pearl and the master himself, Edgar Allan Poe, I remember why I wanted to become a writer in the first place.


  1. Awesome post, Trisha!! And Welcome to The Prosers. I'm so glad you decided to join us. :)

    I agree that Hollywood gets a way with a lot of lazy storytelling. Sometimes it is a little frustrating that movies can get away with these things and books can't, especially when I want to be lazy and not want to do the appropriate research. But in the long run, the story is stronger and better when the research is done.

    Look at the movie Titanic. Sure it is a fictional depiction of what happened on the Titanic, but they got a lot of details right, and that only enriched the story.

    Excellent advice. Thanks for sharing.

  2. Hollywood script writing seems such an odd process to me. Apparently, scripts can go through dozens of revisions, and little bits of plots get left in instead of being cleaned up. You'd think they could spend at least a little bit of money on that... anyone know something more about the process?

  3. Poe-try in Motion! That's an awesome title!!

    I wish I knew more about script writing. Except for one ill-fated adventure with Script Frenzy, I haven't done much. Someday I plan to go back and try again, because one of my favorite books would make a fantastic movie.

    All I know is there are a lot of awful movies lately, and even more sad, there are a lot of "almost good" movies, like this one. Too much emphasis on quantity, and not enough on quality.

  4. It is interesting how lots of bang and glitz and CGI can cover a multitude of faults. I'm sure there are some books that are like that, too - popular because of the action/romance/whatever but have glaring holes, but I think it's a lot harder to pull off. Readers are thinkers and there's more invested in getting through a book than a movie. I think that makes it harder to pull one over on them.

  5. Trisha, I really appreciate your contrasting The Raven with Pearl's The Poe Shadow. I'm a fan of Pearl's writing, too, so when my 24-year-old daughter told me she was going to see the movie, I immediately asked her whether it was based on the Pearl novel. (My second thought is that it was based on the Laura Lippman mystery In a Strange City, which is also good.) Now, I think I'll skip the movie and wait for Pearl's or Lippman's next books. If you like The Poe Shadow, you'll definitely want to read The Dante Club! -- Susan


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