The film industry knows that moviegoers love watching geniuses at work, and they may have known it for more than a century, ever since the release of 1909’s Edgar Allan Poe above. The seven-minute silent short, made for the centenary of the titular literary figure’s birth (and subtitled, back in those days before the word biopic, “a Picture Story Founded on Events in His Career”) depicts the 19th-century pioneer of psychological horror composing his best-known work, “The Raven,” even as his wife lays dying of tuberculosis. In real life, the young Virginia Eliza Clemm Poe passed away two years after the poem’s publication, but D.W. Griffith, like a true craftsman of his medium, knew the potential for extra drama when he saw it.
Griffith, who did hundreds of such shorts in the late 1900s and early 1910s, would of course go on to direct two of the most innovative and influential works in cinema history: 1915’s The Birth of a Nation and the following year’s Intolerance. But just before that, in 1914, he further pursued his interest in Poe with a feature called The Avenging Conscience: or, Thou Shalt Not Kill, moving beyond a simple depiction of the author and his working process (or at least his working process as interpreted through the distinctive dramatic style of early silent film) to draw direct inspiration from the work itself.
Even if you’ve never actually read any of Poe’s writing, you’ll surely have absorbed enough of “The Raven” (even if just from The Simpsons) to quote it now and again, just as you’ll surely have heard enough about his 1843 story “The Tell-Tale Heart” to know the plot has something to do with a man tormented by his guilty conscience — and so you’ll probably know which story Griffith chose for this early example of adaptation even before you see its first title card. Just as the filmmaker uses striking light and shadow to evoke Poe’s inner world in the earlier film, here he, in the words of Edgar Allan Poe author Kevin J. Hayes, “brilliantly replicates Poe’s psychological tension in visual terms.”
Griffith’s second Poe film incorporates not just the stuff of his work, but more of the stuff of his life as well: “Some aspects of the plot, in which the central character is an orphan as well as an author, are also reminiscent of Poe’s life,” writes Hayes in The Cambridge Companion to Edgar Allan Poe. “The story includes echoes of other writing including ‘Three Sundays in a Week,’ ‘The Pit and the Pendulum,’ ‘The Black Cat,’ and ‘Annabel Lee,'” all “spun together in a story of love, murder, and vengeance, which nonetheless ends happily.” Which brings us to another piece of common cinematic wisdom, apparently known as well by Griffith as by any of his Hollywood successors: everybody loves a happy ending — apparently, once they get in front of the silver screen, even readers of Edgar Allan Poe.
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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and style. He’s at work on a book about Los Angeles, A Los Angeles Primer, the video series The City in Cinema, the crowdfunded journalism project Where Is the City of the Future?, and the Los Angeles Review of Books’ Korea Blog. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.