Den of Geek has an interview with Michale Staininger, who is making his directorial debut with a contemporary film adaptation of Edgar Alan Poe’s “Ligeia” (which previously furnished the inspiration for 1964’s TOMB OF LIGEIA, starring Elizabeth Shepherd in the title role). The story follows a man who believes his late wife willpower was strong enough to extend beyond the grave. Taking a new bride after Ligeia’s demise, he finds himself in a life-or-death struggle as his second wife succumbs to illness, apparently expiring and reviving several times over the course of a night – until she rises from her sick bed, revealing herself to be Ligeia reborn.
THE TOMB OF LIGEIA one of the best of a series of Poe films directed by Roger Corman and starring Vincent Price in the 1960s. The screenplay by Robert Towne had to expand the original quite a bit, but it kept the essentials of original tale. The new version sounds quite a bit different from the 1964 film. Says Staininger:
The original of The Tomb Of Ligeia…I didn’t even watch it before we started shooting. I saw it afterwards, but not before, because it is not a remake; it’s an adaptation of the short story, and it’s a contemporary adaptation. If I would be making a remake, then of course we’d be watching the original. When I watched it afterwards, I was very pleased – it has classic charm to it, and I actually liked it a lot. But I’m glad I didn’t watch it before.
The biggest difference between the first adaptation by Roger Corman and the short story is that in this movie, we actually get to know Ligeia, to spend time with her – she’s actually alive in the beginning. She’s only actually dead in the third act of the movie, and then back to haunt Jonathan. The big set-up is that in the early acts she gets her claws into Jonathan and pulls him away from his life.
It is true enough and close enough to the short story that it will satisfy Poe fans…the core fan-base. I’m, sure of that.
I don’t want to come down too hard on Staininger, because I’m curious to see how the film turns out, but it sounds as if he is amplifying the error of the earlier film – an error of interpretation that has existed almost since the story was first published.
The standard reading of “Ligeia” is that it is about an ordinary man (the unnamed husband who narrates the story) who falls under the spell of an obsessive woman, her power reaching out to him even beyond the grave. The narrator insists that his wife had both extraordinary willpower and a hunger for life that were strong enough to defeat death, but the few glimpses we see of Ligeia portray her as a morose, feeble invalid who is terrified of dying. There are also several quirks about the Narrator (he cannot recall his wife’s maiden name, for example) that give us good reason to doubt his reliability. In fact, it is completely possible to read “Ligeia” as a fever dream in the Narrator’s mind, in which he only imagines his dead wife’s spirit resurreecting in the body of the Lady Rowena.
Poe himself never openly advocated this interpretation, but there is reason to believe he supported it. One admirer of the story objected to the finale, in which Ligeia’s presence in Rowena’s body is indicated by having Rowena take on the physical characteristics (hair color and eyes) of Ligeia. In reply to a letter, Poe admitted that it would have made more sense of Rowena had displayed only Ligeia’s expression. Yet Poe, who was in the habit or revising his stories and reselling them to other magazines, never made this change. Why?
A compelling case can be made that the story makes sense as written because Rowena’s transformation into Ligeia takes place only in the Narrator’s mind. If Ligeia had possessed Rowena’s body, there should be no change in physical appearance; but if the Narrator imagines that Ligeia has returned to life, he might very well delude himself into thinking that he saw her as he remembered her.
Maybe this interpretation is a bit too complicated for the movies, or maybe it works better on the page, where we read the Narrator’s words and must decide for ourselves how much to believe. In any case, on the eve of a new film interpretation, it is worth noting that the portrait Ligeia as a woman whose “essential core” is the will “to overcome death, to cheat it, to become immortal” is based on taking the story’s distraught and highly unreliable narrator at his word. This did not stop TOMB OF LIGEIA from achieving greatness, and it might not stop the new LIGEIA. Someday, however, it would be nice to see a film version based on the other interpretation of the story.