Dispatches from the Tube: The Brief and Bloody Resurrection of Mme. L’Espanaye: An exercise in structuralism within the context of short story-to-film adaptation (‘Murders in the Rue Morgue’, 1932): Part 1 of 4

While noted for its foray into ‘ratiocination’ amidst a detailed and well-peopled plot, the underlying cause of the titular killings in Poe’s ‘Murders in the Rue Morgue’ is rather simple: an orangutan with a straight razor gets loose from his master, climbs in the window of a house occupied by a widow and her daughter, and kills them both in a fit of rage and fear.  Again, a complex story once all the fine details are worked out, but with a backbone well-suited to the short story form.  At the time of its original publication, the early 1840’s, and for a substantial period after, ‘Rue Morgue’ maintained its popularity due, in large part, to its suitability within its market; while the popularity of the printing press continued to grow, longer works were still considerably more expensive to produce.  Given that Poe had a following in his own time, albeit largely foreign, the brevity of his tales made their publication that much cheaper and, therefore, more profitable to publishers.  Communications technology and its constituent and associated fields will continue to evolve, however, and the early 20th Century saw a media shift, or rather an expansion, into the emergent technologies of filmmaking.  Accordingly, this new, content-hungry market was quick to adapt the work of older forms to suit the needs of new ones.  And so, on several occasions over the last 80 years, Poe’s tale has been re-tailored in radical ways to fit the screen, each time being reconstituted as a conglomeration of new elements, an infusion of morals, concerns, and conceits contemporary to the respective period of the adaptation, and a consistently-present though diversely-constituted collection of commonalities with the text—‘original elements’—that would, it was likely hoped, invest the respective film product with the class status that popular opinion has often held should accompany a “literary adaptation”[1].

If we approach from a structuralist perspective, and, further, a Lacanian belief in the order of language, we must understand that such a situation, or rather the power underlying it and providing agency, demands that language be not simply invented or expanded, but used, and in its use, made to evolve.  However, while the expansion of a vocabulary might provide interesting insights, what concerns us here is, again, the development of communications systems as a substructure for the continued evolution of the linguistic order.  Ironic, then, that in a radically different media culture, Poe’s continued success is still tied to the length of his work.  The author himself noted the importance of this particular quality in valuing the effect of the immediate impression; “If any literary work is too long to be read at one sitting, we must be content to dispense with the immensely important effect derivable from unity of impression (‘Philosophy’).”  Through much of the first century of cinema, a similar sentiment became dogmatic due to the particulars of the act of film viewing; while televised serials eventually gained popularity and even the most monolithic films of mid-century were overshadowed by the franchising trend of the 1980s-present, there was a point at which the singular viewing of a film was an event, attended even by its own culture and, more to the point, its own duration; one sitting.

But what would prompt filmmakers to choose the particular elements of the story to

Two posters for Murders in the Rue Morgue (1932), starring Bela Lugosi. The subtitles in the piece below read: IN A CLASS BY ITSELF FOR A HUNDRED YEARS! Companion piece to DRACULA and FRANKENSTEIN... read by countless millions of people... a crime story… a horror drama… it has been the model for Mystery thrillers for generations! It may have been equaled as a hair-raiser, but it will never be surpassed… from the story by Edgar Allen Poe.

Two posters for Murders in the Rue Morgue (1932), starring Bela Lugosi. The subtitles in the piece below read: IN A CLASS BY ITSELF FOR A HUNDRED YEARS! Companion piece to DRACULA and FRANKENSTEIN… read by countless millions of people… a crime story… a horror drama… it has been the model for Mystery thrillers for generations! It may have been equaled as a hair-raiser, but it will never be surpassed… from the story by Edgar Allen Poe.

integrate into their film?  For that matter, why this tale, with its simplistic plot that even a production of two-hours in length (or considerably less) should not seem able to float?  Rather than attempt to construct some formula to try to explain (and thereby exert the existence of) a unified set of rules governing film adaptation in its entirety, I would suggest instead a thorough study of a single adaptation–perhaps the most accessible of its kind to the later development of Lacanian thought.  And since, as previously noted, filmgoing at this time was an event, we might find a good starting point in studying a media product that is not physically a part of the film adaptation, but is necessarily and quite closely associated with the experience.

1932’s Murders in the Rue Morgue stars Bela Lugosi as Dr. Mirakle, a character invented somewhere in that peculiar creative territory of the adaptation process; most of the currently-accessible facsimiles of the film’s various posters serve as an introduction to this figure, prominently featuring Lugosi’s image in-character.  Looking to the first of the two examples provided here, we notice some details of structural significance.  While the color palate and rendering style of the composition clearly indicates an attempt to leverage on the actor’s star-power in light of the recent success of Dracula (1931), let us here show a generosity of optimism by crediting the poster-designers as the first point in an extended address the film makes to its more well-read viewers.  We might consider this the first iteration of an assertion that will be made, rather explicitly, many times over: Lugosi, artistically depicted as villainously as he had appeared in his previous role, serves as a flag to those who, knowing the tale, would be otherwise shocked—or tantalized[2]—by such a broad departure, despite the exact transposition of the title.  Let us ignore, for a moment, the leftwards labeling that so obviously contributes to the transmission of the message, even going so far as to provide the astute viewer with a name for the non-text-based other.  Assuming such blindness, we might figure that there are several minor, often-unnamed characters Lugosi might be portraying—any one of the foreigners who are interrogated after the discovery of the murders, for instance—but none is important enough to rate such centrality within the image.  Meanwhile, while he might pass for some viewers’ conceptions of Dupin, who is never exactly described in the story (and was, in fact, played by an elderly George C. Scott in a much later version), Lugosi’s age, looks, and newly-built reputation support the assumption of the character’s villainy and, therefore, his novelty.  Thus, considering the simplicity of the short story’s conceit (orangutan with straight razor, with no human villain in sight), a viewer familiar with the text would have ample reason to correctly presume the two media products widely divergent, and all before setting foot in the theater.

But, in affirming the distance between text and film, we must also deconstruct that affirmation; this particular situating of the two media products posits both as equals, each diverging from a normative position defined by the other.  This is an attitude that seems to lie in sharp contrast to the theoretical structures built upon the belief in the eminent primacy of the text, a convention touched upon earlier.  As such, the approach we are making here is informed by the close proximity of Barthes’ obviated author, or rather our proximity to the conviction that the author is, indeed, obviated.  And if we no longer need an author, it is for the same reason that the text does not maintain its supremacy; film, text, and all individuals involved in the creation of either form are products of that pervasive linguistic structure which stands as the true authorial force.

Moving from the marquee into the movie house, taking our seats as the lights dim, we find elements of interest—further messages commenting on the difference between what has been read and what will be seen—even before the action of the film commences.  The film’s titles constitute a liminal element that speaks to the ways that the text is transformed in its transposition. While the short story is credited to Poe alone, the film’s first title frame displays an interesting juxtaposition of Poe’s name with those of the filmmakers, the title itself, and some legal and technical information.  But, even as the viewers have already paid their money, the film still takes the occasion to sell (and, therefore, categorize and compare) itself as ‘based on the immortal classic’ of the text, and each word in the object portion of the assertion must be carefully considered in this instance, for both are indicative of the values (or, at least, biases) being adopted by the linguistic system.  Indeed, such adoption shows a degree of adroitness in itself, as taking advantage of a culture’s text-privileging ideology through its most advanced and novel communications medium serves to gain the viewer’s familiarity and favor that much more thoroughly.  ‘Immortal classic’ as a unified term can thus be considered a bow of respect made on behalf of the audience to not simply an old story, but to an antiquated but still meaningful story format.

credits 1But none of this insight effectively dismisses the question of the use of these specific terms—‘immortal classic’—and the inclusion of each is, indeed, curious.  The film was produced only 90 years after the first publication of the short story, so that while it might have been a classic by somestandards, it had not ecredits 2ven reached the period of maximum human lifespan; not quite yet an ‘immortal’ tale, even by conservative measures.  On the other hand, the film does seem to be disclaiming its own position, yielding to a tale that, presumably, would still be read long after audiences had ceased discussing this particular adaptation.  In this sense, the credits 3descriptors are quite apropos, the film being almost as old now as the story was when the film was produced; it doesn’t seem unreasonable to assume that the text is very likely still being taught and talked of far more often than any film version.

Come back for part 2 of 4, available in two days.

[1] Also, note that we do not presume here that these ‘original pieces’ were ever necessarily chosen and assembled as a scaffold, a gross extension of the short story from which to hang the new bits.  To do so would be to presume an intention of plot fidelity, to some identifiable degree, on the part of the respective filmmakers.  But this would be a resumption the research for this piece has, as yet, not found justification for.   Further, the label ‘common elements’ is purely functional and should not be taken to imply any direct assertion regarding the nature or value of the specific material under discussion.

[2] If tantalized, because of the exertion of the phallus through the increasingly-influential communications system, which displays its empowerment through the ever-improving technologies it makes accessible.  Essentially, then, we patronize media markets because they tell us to, an affirmation of McLuhan’s theory.

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