Poe’s Long Shadow
Poe has influenced generations of successful detective, horror, and psychological novelists, and sometimes less successful adaptors of his own work. Such horror novelists as H.P. Lovecraft and Stephen King owe a freely confessed debt to him, and Fyodor Dostoevsky and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle have likewise noted the enormous effect of his work on their own. French writers in particular have acknowledged Poe’s example, and the poet Charles Baudelaire remains one of his earliest champions and finest translators.
As with even the best translations of Poe into other languages, his translations into other media may always fall short of the original. But even the weakest of Poe adaptations have the virtue of driving us back to the originals, and artists who in good faith continue to plunder him for material—unlike most of his characters—need feel no guilt. Poe's short but always visual stories pose particular opportunities and challenges for the unwary adaptor. Yet an admirer can easily put together a midnight, or even an all-night, film festival that does Poe credit, if never quite justice.
Two film versions of “The Fall of the House of Usher” may stand in for as many as 200 attempts so far to translate the author’s work. Remarkably, both “Ushers” have made the Library of Congress’s annual National Film Registry of movies worthy of preservation. A product of the promising yet sadly stillborn Rochester, New York, film industry, the 1928 version holds up well for its striking avant-garde approach and inventive look.
More famously, Roger Corman and Richard Matheson’s House of Usher (1960), starring Vincent Price, started a vogue for Poe that indirectly led to the second golden age of Hollywood. Corman was a journeyman B-movie director-producer when he discovered in Poe the perfect opportunity to combine cheesecake with pure cheese. He hired mellifluous classical ham Vincent Price and great pulp writer Richard Matheson (The Incredible Shrinking Man (1957), Duel (1971), “The Twilight Zone”) and their several resulting Poe adaptations brought out the best in all three. The money made in the process later allowed Corman to bankroll low-budget first films by Francis Ford Coppola, Martin Scorsese, and many of the other filmmakers who ushered in the American film renaissance of the 1970s.
Many musical works interpret Poe’s poetry and fiction. These adaptations include a choral symphony of The Bells by Sergei Rachmaninoff (1913, rev. 1936), and two operas based on “The Fall of the House of Usher”: one finished, by Philip Glass (1987), one not, by Claude Debussy. Perhaps the oddest stab at setting Poe to music has been POEtry (2000), a theater piece and song cycle of selected Poe work by Lou Reed and Robert Wilson, which later became a Reed album called The Raven (2003).
The stage, too, has taken frequent advantage of Poe’s inherent theatricality. Some of these versions have even flourished for a season or more. In the end, though, whether on stage or screen, it’s difficult to make Poe any more dramatic than he already is.