Only a few seconds have passed in The Raven before that familiar shot of a quill pen at work is interrupted by the arrival of a police inspector. Edgar Allan Poe puts pen to paper twice in James McTeigue’s film, for a total of maybe a minute. Even so, the writing process has to be given pizzazz by being made part of the deadly “game of wits” to which the author has been challenged by a killer; for some reason—it’s not really clear—one of the rules is that Poe has to write up each of the crimes. The film, though, isn’t content to just let him work. Poe’s more often riding a horse through some misty wood, knocking back a tankard, or chasing the killer across a rickety scaffolding, gun less-than-firmly in hand. He trades barbs with the “philistines” and “mental oysters” that are his critics. At one point, he prods a dead cat with what might be a pen. From the writer’s perspective, The Raven seems like a fight against the opinion of its villain, who muses, near the end: “That’s life: so much less interesting than fiction.”
This is a common problem for the literary biopic: The writing life just isn’t that compelling. What’s interesting happens inside the writer’s head, and, candlelit curlicues aside, there’s little cinematic interest in putting pen to paper. Maybe some of us writers are poor, drunk, or insane, but such states are also boring unless sublimated somehow.
So filmmakers sublimate. They might focus on an especially riveting event in the writer's life, avoiding the actual writing process where possible. (See: Wilde, The Last Station, Henry and June.) Or they may venture into fiction, conflating biography with some salient aspect of the work. So, in Bright Star, Keats is not just Romantic but romantic too: head pillowed upon fair Fanny’s breast, mooning about in blue velvet tails, he essentially speaks in his own verse. The writer’s life reads like CliffsNotes—elements of plot, true or invented, explain the writing itself. Shakespeare in Love, Quills, and Becoming Jane based their plots almost entirely on this kind of speculative riff.
Poe, for his part, is peculiarly susceptible to being cast as a literary action hero. The Raven, a flagrant improvisation on Poe’s last days, plucks a few of the juicier bits from his prose: a murdered woman shoved up a chimney; a critic named Griswold sliced in two by a swinging, crescent shaped blade. On the trail of this copy-cat killer, the police find themselves in need of Poe’s “unwholesome expertise.” The killer then kidnaps Poe’s weirdly telegenic fiancé, and the two begin their game: Each new body contains a clue to the next, eventually leading to the girl. To solve the clues, Poe—played with a bonus goatee by John Cusack—must perform virtuoso feats of self-interpretation, parsing his own work and eventually writing the ending himself. His final story (entirely invented for the film) would have the real Poe rolling in his early grave: “Poe could feel the poison already feeding on his blood, as the maggots were soon to do.”
Poe’s treatment in The Raven is predated by films like The Spectre of Edgar Allan Poe (1974), Castle of Blood (1964), and The Man With A Cloak (1951)—campy, popular entertainments starring the author that run the gamut from bloody slasher flicks to Twilight Zone-like tales of the unexplained. In some sense, it’s a fitting legacy. After all, Poe was led by poverty to produce works catering to popular tastes for the morbid and bizarre. “To be appreciated,” Poe wrote, “you must be read, and these things are sought with avidity.” Or, as his editor puts it in The Raven: “Blood and death! Give me something I can sell!”