“True! – nervous – very, very dreadfully nervous I had been and am; but why will you say that I am mad?” laments the unnamed narrator of Edgar Allan Poe’s short story The Tell-Tale Heart, a haunting tale of guilt, madness, and murder (Poe 1). Adapted in 1953 by UPA’s Ted Parmalee and Paul Julian into the short film of the same name, The Tell-Tale Heart recounts the story of an accused murderer, one who killed the old man with whom he lived because of his horrifying “vulture-eye” (), while he attempts to persuade an unnamed listener not of his innocence, but of his sanity. Poe’s original story and its film adaptation are renowned for their disturbing, nerve-wracking tone and masterful use of an unreliable narrator. Following in the footsteps of UPA’s ‘less is more’ visual approach, Parmalee and Julian’s film captures much of the original story’s tone while streamlining Poe’s narrative, placing the viewer in the immediate perspective of the principle character, and visualizing the narrator’s descent into madness through the use of disturbing, surrealist imagery.
The original story The Tell-Tale Heart and its film adaptation follow largely similar, but not identical narrative structures, both with their respective strengths and faults. Remarkably brief at only a few pages long, Poe’s original story relies on frantic, nerve-wracking repetition to draw the reader into the disturbed mind of the narrator and create tension: “I undid the lantern cautiously – oh, so cautiously – cautiously (for the hinges creaked) – I undid it so much that a single ray fell upon the vulture eye”. In contrast, the film’s structure is streamlined and simplified, cutting much of Poe’s frantic, almost neurotic narration and presenting the narrative with a more straightforward, direct approach. This allows the film to rely on its masterful imagery and tone to build tension and convey the plot events.
In two specific moments of the narrative, the film and story diverge in their narrative structures, creating contrasting results. In the climax of the story, when the narrator murders the old man, and shortly after, in the description of the disposal of the body, Poe writes with his narrator’s obsessive attention to detail. “In an instant I dragged him to the floor, and pulled the heavy bed over him…First of all I dismembered the corpse. I cut off the head and the arms and the legs” (4). The film, however, does not show the death of the old man in objective terms, or describe every gory detail of the body’s disposal. Instead, the old man’s tortured face disappears in a swirl of the checkered pattern of his bed sheets, and afterwards, his limp hand is almost immediately covered by fabric. This works in the film’s favor; by freeing the narrative from excessive specificity, the film taps into the innate dread and horror of the unknown, and the narrator’s distorted, maddened view of the world around him. This contributes greatly to the film’s surrealist tone and oppressive atmosphere.
However, the film’s direct, clarifying approach to Poe’s narrative does not always work in its favor. While the original story concludes with the narrator’s horrified cry that “it is the beating of [the old man’s] hideous heart” (5), its adaptation does not stop there. The film circles back to its opening scene, showing the narrator’s grasping hand as he peers out of a cell window, ominously repeating his initial narration, a paraphrase of Poe’s opening paragraph. Although this approach simplifies the ambiguity of the narrative and clarifies the nature of the framing device, it consequently diminishes the impact of the story’s powerful conclusion. Poe’s narrative relies on the vagueness of the setting, the ambiguity of context, and the tension built through frantic repetition to carry the story forward. By needlessly making explicit what Poe only implied, the film’s conclusion lessens the payoff of its buildup of tension. Ultimately, while streamlining Poe’s plot may have freed the film of some unnecessary details, it ironically allowed it to fall prey to others in the name of clarifying the narrative.
Many of the narrative and structural disparities between the original story and its film adaptation come down to their differing approaches to character. Both Poe’s story and its adaptation revolve almost entirely around the narrator and the old man, and in both versions of the story the principle character is faceless, nameless, and unreliable in his narration. His insanity is equally disturbing in both the story and the film, and the events of the plot are similarly unsettling. However, the film and story differ in their use of character point of view. In Poe’s story, while the reader experiences the events of the old man’s murder according to the narrator’s own experience, the reader is also distanced from the direct point of view of the narrator. We read as if reading a confession, or listening to the narrator’s protests against the accusation of madness; when the narrator questions “why will you say that I am mad” (1), he appears to address the reader themselves. While this lends another layer of ambiguity to the story, as we are given only the narrator’s version of events and are limited to an outside point of view, it also distances the reader from the narrator’s overwhelming, oppressive insanity.
The film, however, places its viewer entirely within the perspective of the narrator. The viewer never sees the narrator’s face or hears his name, as in Poe’s story, but in contrast, the film is shot, so to speak, through his eyes. Point of view shots are extremely prevalent, such as the narrator’s descent down the staircase to the policemen at the front door, and they are often highlighted by the narrator’s own hands reaching into the frame as if viewed from their owner’s eyes. Similarly, the viewer experiences the narrator’s distorted view of the world first hand. Events are not shown objectively, but subjectively, according to the narrator’s twisted perspective. The film is populated by disturbing, hallucinatory imagery: a moon disintegrates into a crescent in mere moments, crude, distorted impressions of the policemen’s faces haunt the screen, and imagined droplets of water fall in time to the old man’s heartbeat.
This contributes greatly to the film’s oppressive atmosphere; by presenting the viewer with only a distorted, subjective view of the story’s world, with no objective version given as comparison, the film effectively forces its audience into the frightening mind of its narrator. The filmmakers remove the distance and separation between the audience and the madman, a clear example of Parmalee and Julian’s streamlined and direct approach to the film’s source material. Consequently, the film confronts the viewer not only with an untrustworthy narrator, or deceptive madman, but with the terrifying experience of, for the duration of the film, actually being that madman.
Both Poe’s original story and its film adaptation seek to convey an unnerving, oppressive mood, amplifying the narrator’s descent into madness. Where Poe’s story expresses his character’s insanity, and the resulting mood, through the use of jarring, repetitive narration and bluntly shocking imagery, the filmmakers choose to convey this madness largely through surrealist, disturbing visuals.