The First Biopic of Edgar Allan Poe: 1909 Film by D.W. Griffith Shows the Horror Master Writing “The Raven”

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.

Both films will be added to our col­lec­tion of Silent Films, a sub­set of our meta col­lec­tion, 4,000+ Free Movies Online: Great Clas­sics, Indies, Noir, West­erns, Doc­u­men­taries & More.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Down­load The Com­plete Works of Edgar Allan Poe: Macabre Sto­ries as Free eBooks & Audio Books

Edgar Allan Poe & The Ani­mat­ed Tell-Tale Heart

New Film Extra­or­di­nary Tales Ani­mates Edgar Poe Sto­ries, with Nar­ra­tions by Guiller­mo Del Toro, Christo­pher Lee & More

Edgar Allan Poe Ani­mat­ed: Watch Four Ani­ma­tions of Clas­sic Poe Sto­ries

The Simp­sons Present Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Raven,” and Teach­ers Now Use It to Teach Kids the Joys of Lit­er­a­ture

The Mys­tery of Edgar Allan Poe’s Death: 19 The­o­ries on What Caused the Poet’s Demise

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.

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