I can well imagine that the insertion of modern technology into many of Edgar Allan Poe’s stories would have a tremendous benefit for those stories’ victims, and a deleterious effect on their monomaniacal plots. In one of the ironies of cultural transmission, the timeless quality of Poe’s work seems to depend upon its use of deliberately ancient methods of surveillance and torture. In a further paradox of sorts, Poe’s work never suffers, but only seems to shine, when technology is applied to it.
Filmmakers as esteemed as Roger Vadim, Louis Malle, and Federico Fellini have adapted him; singular dramatic talents like James Earl Jones, Christopher Walken, Vincent Price, and Christopher Lee, and Lou Reed and Willem Dafoe have made fine recordings of his most famous poem; The Alan Parsons Project recorded a pretty amazing prog rock version of “The Raven,” the first rock song to feature a digital vocoder.
Poe also appears as an animated puppet, alongside Dickens and Dostoevsky, in a successful Frank Capra-directed science education film. This role belongs to a rich tradition of Poe in animated film. “The Raven” inspired one of Tim Burton’s first animated films, Vincent, at the top, about a boy who wants to be Vincent Price (narrated of course by Vincent Price). The poem was also adapted by The Simpsons (above). South Park has featured the morbid 19th century writer, and Poe’s “The Pit and the Pendulum” birthed an award-winning animated short, as well as an interactive digital comic book.
Even before his screen time in Capra’s film, shared with famous actor Eddie Albert, Poe appeared in animated film with movie stars. In the 1953 adaptation of “The Tell Tale Heart” above, a menacingly suave James Mason narrates the story. This take on Poe’s tale of madness perfectly captures its nearly giddy air of dread. The film, wrote Open Culture editor Dan Colman in 2011, “was given a bizarre reception” upon release, garnering an “X” rating—the first animated film to do so—in the UK. The British Board of Film Censors deemed the film “unsuitable for adult audiences.” That said, it was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Animated Short Film.
Above (with Spanish subtitles) in a much later work, a less famous but no less menacing, actor, Billy Drago, narrates a stark retelling of “The Raven,” with a central character drawn like one of the homicidal creeps Drago typically plays on screen. Argentinian filmmaker Mariano Cattaneo remarks that he and fellow director Nic Loreti focused on the idea that the speaker’s mysteriously lost love Lenore “might have been murdered and wants to come back,” citing their influences as “German expressionist films” and filmmakers like “Sam Raimi, George A. Romero, Tim Burton, Robert Rodriguez, John Carpenter and even Stephen King.” If not all of these creators’ work is evident, the influence of German Expressionist film, particularly The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, certainly is.
In another international adaptation, acclaimed Czech stop-motion animator Jan Svankmajer uses high-contrast, dramatic lighting to very different, impressionist effect to recreate the chilling despair of Poe’s The Fall of the House of Usher. It is interesting that Poe’s work—obsessed with isolation and bookishness and history—should have the effect it has on modern media, particularly on animation. But then again, Poe himself was a technician, interested not in the past for its own sake but in its usefulness in achieving a vivid “unity of effect.” That his almost clockwork tales would make such excellent material for such technical means of storytelling as animated film makes perfect sense. But should you wish to return to the source of these humorous and grim adaptations, visit our list of the complete works of Edgar Allan Poe, in free eBook and audio book form.