Two weeks back, Lost in Translation reviewed The Raven, a film “suggested by” the poem of the same name by Edgar Allen Poe starring Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff. While the movie is a showcase of horror, especially with Lugosi’s portrayal of a man who took a flying leap off the precipice of sanity, it really didn’t have much to do with “The Raven” other than set dressing and an odd interpretive dance number. The film itself is well worth watching, so changing it might break some delicate balances.
Instead, the proposal is to change the “suggested by” from just “The Raven” to “inspired by the works of Edgar Allen Poe.” The movie pulls in from many of Poe’s work, “The Pit and the Pendulum” being the most obvious, and a twist on “A Cask of Amontillado” with the sliding walls. The idea is less focused on any one of Poe’s works. A quick look at Wikipedia and the list of Poe’s works and collections show that he published mainly in newspapers and magazines. The best title may for the film may come from Tales of the Grotesque and Arabesque, but that may not have the draw that “The Raven” does. The goal is managing audience expectations; the film uses Poe’s works for inspiration and mood, so that needs to remain.
Remaking The Raven will require a deft touch and the right cast. Modern technology can make or break the remake. Today’s makeup skills have improved since 1935, thanks to new materials and techniques. While impressive for the time, Karloff’s fake eye after Bateman is subjected to Dr. Vollin’s tender care looks, well, fake in close ups. Today, makeup and prosthetics can have the eye look and behave as a real eye.
However, the temptation to go overboard has to be fought. The Raven works as horror because of what lies beneath the surface. Vollin appears as a respectable surgeon up until the point where the facade shatters. Until that happens, the horror has to be kept simmering beneath, not out in the open. The tone of Poe’s works can act as a guideline here. The Raven doesn’t have to be effects heavy. Good use of lighting and background music can help scenes feel off kilter.
What may also help is lengthening the film. The Raven ran just over an hour, a length not seen in today’s films. Today, films are at least ninety minutes long, and some can run up to three hours, though those are rare. An extra thirty minutes can help build up the obsession Vollin has for Jean and set up the deathtraps at the end. Lingering shots over Vollin’s bookshelves showing key works, including Poe’s, to hint at what’s to come at the end.
The climax is where the danger lies in a remake. The temptation to go all action works against the story. Sure, there are deathtraps, but they work on the idea of an awaited death that steadily creeps closer and closer. Rushing the ending removes the tension. In the 1935 film, what stops Vollin is his own madness; he is the cause of his own downfall through his torment of Bateman, Having Jean be the instrument takes away much of Bateman’s torture and Vollin’s narcissism. Jean, too, is a victim, but not one that Vollin wants to torture right away like he does with her father and with Bateman.
Last piece to work out is the title. Again, The Raven was merely suggested by “The Raven”, and while it does include the poem in a couple of scenes, it’s more the raven as a symbol of death that gets used by Vollin. However, to get the audience in the proper frame of mind to enjoy the remake, the title needs to invoke Poe. As discussed above, Poe published his works singly, but Grotesque and Arabesque may just work, especially if Jean remains a dancer in the remake.
Improving a work like The Raven is difficult. The film is a study of one man’s madness and how he takes it out on others, with Bela Lugosi delivering a brilliant role as Vollin. Remaking the film would take a delicate touch, even with the modern techniques available now, and one wrong note could sour the entire movie.
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.