- Adapting Poe by Dennis R. PERRY, and Carl H. SEDERHOLM
Few writers’ works and image have proved as adaptable as Edgar Allan Poe’s. That sentence could have been written fifty years ago with as much assurance as I write it now. But whereas fifty years ago that observation probably would have preceded a justification for devoting serious academic study to the Poe canon—and, implicitly, ignoring those Vincent Price movies—today it points toward a growth sector of the Poe industry, represented by Perry and Sederholm’s collection Adapting Poe. “Ours is an age of adaptation,” the editors proclaim in their informative introduction; “one in which scholars have begun to employ more sophisticated theoretical perspectives that allow for new possibilities in understanding Poe-inspired texts, and then reexamining Poe’s work from the new intertextual-theoretical prisms” (5).
The collection’s primary theoretical prism is Linda Hutcheon’s A Theory of Adaptation (London: Routledge, 2006; 2nd ed. 2013), which is cited in sixteen of the nineteen essays. Generally following Hutcheon’s influential theory, the contributors regard adaptation as “extended intertextual engagement with the adapted work” (Hutcheon 8), “a derivation that is not derivative—a work that is second without being secondary” (Hutcheon 9). Wisely, then, none of these writers fetishizes fidelity to the adapted Poe text; instead, they examine how the adaptation operates in relation to Poe (the myth more often than the man) and his writing. They face a challenge, however, in constructing meaningful, original arguments about those relationships.
Some of the authors, such as Sandra Hughes in an essay on James Wan’s film Saw and Poe’s “The Pit and the Pendulum,” make precise, thoughtful comparisons but settle for rather modest payoffs—in Hughes’s case, that “Wan’s film goes beyond even Poe’s worst imaginings in its attempts to appeal to a modest audience” (71), and thus “Saw is Poe for the twenty-first century” (79). While most of the essays focus on works that announce themselves as adaptations, Hughes’s chapter and several others—Dennis R. Perry’s on “Ligeia” and Inception, Alexandra Reuber’s on “William Wilson” and the films Fight Club and Identity, Rachel McCoppin’s on Vertigo and The Sixth Sense, and Tony Magistrale’s on the industrial rock music of Nine Inch Nails—work with texts that seem to carry Poe’s direct or indirect influence. However, none of these writers want to settle for an “influence” argument, perhaps because that would oversimplify their relationship, or simply because positing that X probably influenced Y because Y’s [End Page 135] work resembles X’s and came after it is not exactly cutting-edge criticism. But if the post-Poe text does not announce itself as an adaptation, it’s difficult, I think, to usefully complicate the argument, to avoid settling for influence and nothing more.
Difficult, but not impossible: in one of the best essays in the collection, Perry uses “Ligeia” and Eureka to elucidate the “self-reflexive structures” of Inception and argues for a common aesthetic of confusion that both Poe and Christopher Nolan employ. He succeeds partly because the common threads he identifies in Nolan and Poe are not simply conventions of a genre to which Inception belongs. On the other hand, the thematic ties that bind Poe’s “The Black Cat” and “The Tell-Tale Heart” to Vertigo and The Sixth Sense in McCoppin’s essay (“as with Poe, the misdirected obsession becomes the necessary agent of unconscious revelation” ), are the stock-in-trade of gothicists from Poe’s predecessors Hoffmann and Brockden Brown to other contemporary films including Silence of the Lambs and Fight Club. The common psychological tropes go beyond direct “influence,” but they’re so widespread that it’s difficult to see them in terms of adaptation.
The best essays in Adapting Poe reveal surprising complexity in both adaptations of Poe and the nature of adaptation itself. Invoking Foucault’s “What Is An Author?” Jeffrey Weinstock effectively describes the “Poe function”—Poe’s signifying power in literary and popular culture—before...