Poetry, like songs, aren’t adapted to other media often, not like prose or serial art. The goal of a poem is more about emotion than narrative, though there are poems that are stories. Such poems, though, are limited by length. Like songs, it can be a stretch to expand a poem from what is written to fill a time slot. Some studios have tried, though. What helps is using a well-known poem, such as Edgar Allen Poe’s works.
Poe’s “The Raven” is a staple in high school, serving as an introduction to mood and tone while not being so esoteric to turn students away. The moodiness of “The Raven” allows for dramatic reading, with readers being able to set their own interpretation of the words. The poem is told from the view of a man who is suffering from grief and possibly more and wanting salvation, only to torture himself when a raven enters his home and says just one word, “Nevermore.”
Universal had a number of successes with horror movies, including Dracula with Bela Lugosi and Frankenstein with Boris Karloff, both released in 1931. Lugosi and Karloff became draws for audiences, so Universal teamed them up, first in The Black Cat, based on Poe’s short story of the same name, and then in 1935 with The Raven.
The Raven starred Lugosi as Dr. Richard Vollin, Karloff as Edmond Bateman, Irene Ware as the dancer Jean Thatcher, Samuel S. Hinds as her father Judge Thatcher, and Lester Matthews as her beau Jerry Halden. While Karloff had top billing, the movie is really Lugosi’s. His Vollin provides the plot for the film. The catch of the movie, though, is that it is “suggested by” Poe’s “The Raven”. The film warns audiences that the adaptation might not be faithful.
The poem guides the movie, though. The film begins with Jean driving and failing to make a turn to a detour, leaving her injured. Only one doctor has the knowledge and skill to help her, Dr. Vollin, but he’s left his career. Judge Thatcher manages to convince him to go to the hospital, where Vollin begins his obsession over Jean.
The surgery is a success and Jean is able to get to her next performance, an interpretation of “The Raven” with her as the bird. Vollin’s obsession grows, though, and he hatches a plot when Bateman arrives at his doorstep wanting surgery to change his appearance. What no one suspects is that Vollin has a second obsession, torture. To escape his torture, he needs to torture someone else. Batemen is his first victim, becoming disfigured after surgery. Vollin makes an offer to Bateman – become his hands in what he has planned, and he will remove the disfigurement. Batement agrees.
Vollin invites Jean, her father, her beau, and their friends for an evening’s soiree. During this time, Vollin puts his plot to action. Bateman grabs the Judge, taking him down to a deathtrap straight from Poe’s “The Pit and the Pendulum”. It’s only when Jean and Jerry are trapped in a sliding room trap that Bateman acts, releasing the trapped couple and throwing Vollin in.
The Raven uses the poem for mood, the idea of obsession and of self-torture. Vollin is a tragic character, but by his own hand. He sets up his own demise, a very Poe-like approach. But the closest the film gets to adapting the poem is the interpretive dance sequence. Vollin does recite a few lines of the poem, and he uses a raven as his symbol. A doctor using a symbol of death isn’t reassuring, and it does foreshadow what will happen.
With the film being “suggested by”, there is no Lenore. However, if the poem is included in the movie, can there be a Lenore? There’s no one by that name, but Jean fills the role for Vollin. Even going metaphorically get be a stretch, though. The Raven is more inspired by “The Raven” and other works of Edgar Allen Poe than a proper adaptation. In that light, the film works. There is the horror and dangers of obsession, a theme Poe touches on in several works. As an adaptation, however, The Raven misses the mark.