Hollywood has never shied away from saturating multiplexes with several films of similar origin. Hollywood sent two “Alexander” film — based on the life of Alexander the Great — into production in the same year. British fantasy adaptations, “Harry Potter” and “The Lord of the Rings,” came out within days of each other, to say nothing of the host of 9/11 films that came out in 2006. In 2012, Hollywood has done it again with two films based on the life of Edgar Allan Poe.
Rather than being straight adaptations of one of Poe’s many short stories or poems, “The Raven” directed by James McTeigue and “Twixt” by Francis Ford Coppola use Poe as a fictional character and his literature as a backdrop to the horrific events of their films.
“The Raven” takes Poe as its protagonist. He is drafted in to investigate a series of murders that take after episodes in his stories. It is interesting and well-researched. The film is generally quite likable; though perhaps the generous helpings of blood, gore and overblown digital cinematography push what is a satisfying horror story dangerously towards “Underworld” territory.
“Twixt,” however, is a something much more daring. Coppola — enjoying something of a second wind as director — uses Edgar Allan Poe as a mysterious spiritual apparition who visits the protagonist Hal Baltimore (Val Kilmer) as a sort of Virgilian guide to the nightmarish dreamscape that Hal wanders every night.
Where Coppola succeeds and McTeigue fails is in the way they use the confines of adaptation to tell an interesting and personal story. McTeigue is overly concerned with demonstrating how literary he is, while Coppola uses “Twixt” as a sort of cinematic confessional. Every character in the film seems to contain a piece of refracted Coppola, as if the lens were a glass prism scattering pieces of the director onto the screen.
The most poignant of these is the subplot involving Hal’s dead child, who we learn died in a boating accident similar to the accident that claimed the life of Coppola’s own son, Gio in 1986. Hal, a writer of tacky genre fiction must confront his grief in order to write. He does this with the help of Poe, who also channelled personal grief (for his cousin/wife) into his writing.
Coppola’s success in creating a moving piece of cinema and McTeigue’s relative failure led me to think about adaptation and in particular the use of adaptation. Of all Coppola’s impressive oeuvre including, ”The Godfather,” “The Conversation,” “Apocalypse Now,” and “Tetro,” how was it that this, a (partially) adapted gory horror film, could be his most personal?
Cinema has always thrived on adaptation. At the Oscars, one in four Best Picture winners have been adaptations. The quality and method can vary of course. Perhaps one of the most outlandish examples is Charlie Kaufman’s adaptation of “The Orchid Thief,” a New Yorker article which became the story of a fraught writer (named Charlie Kaufman) struggling to adapt the “The Orchid Thief” into a film. Eventually, Kaufman’s twin brother gets involved and they turn the story of Charlie’s writer’s block into a screenplay.
To confuse matters further, Kaufman has no twin brother. The screenplay, credited to Charlie and Donald Kaufman, stands as the only work to win an Oscar for a fictitious character. “Adaptation” stands to remind us that we can never really know how personal a work is. It is a film that can neither be classified as direct adaptation, or the personal story of the director and reminds us that neither adaptation nor original writing has a monopoly on an artist’s ability to express themselves.
The restrictions of adaptation challenge directors. An adaptation can only be be successful when its story and characters pop with the same intensity and of the source material. This is perhaps why Baz luhrmann’s musical (yes, musical) adaptation of the life of Alexander the Great never got the green light, or why the Harry Potter films always feel lacking. After many years in the wilderness, Coppola has carved a nice niche for himself somewhere between adaptation and original work, perhaps that is where the best adaptations lie. Someone tell Walter Salles; his high stakes “On the Road” adaptation is due on screens later this year.