Scenes and Scenery: Versions of The Masque of the Red Death

By Sarah Winkler

The process of translating works to different mediums calls for a subjective ‘originality,’ in that elements in a given adaptation are often something reworked, if not added or subtracted when moved from one format to another. In the case of transmuting classic literature to classic film, there is a similar need for ‘originality’: visual themes often work in place of elements that could not be carried over. It is these contrasts that allow different senses of dread to come about from Poe’s works and their visual relatives. The sickness, death, and inevitability which highly characterize Edgar Allen Poe’s story, “The Masque of the Red Death,” may be separated from its derived (Roger Corman) counterpart of 1964– yet, all the same, the elements of horror first presented through written word resurrected and renewed.

The thematic elements that were presented in both the original story and adapted film centered around hues, lighting, food and drink, and character behavior (background and forefront). Not everything held complete similarity in how it was portrayed: both works took their own separate directions, simple and complex, where the overall narrative was concerned. In the story by Poe, narrative and thematic depth was more straightforward; there was not a need to focus on complex details, for the writing to accomplish its purpose.

Conversely, details were important for the 1964 adaptation and its thematic depth: the use of scenery is a default element for cinema, which is important, as it is a huge separation between literary writing and visual cinematography. Where one work, that of Poe, left elements to the reader’s imagination– the 1964 work by Corman did not, this through cinematic necessity. Although this divide; which stemmed from different formats of storytelling; may have made it necessary for the 1964 film to be more complex in its use of visual detail than the work it was based from, both still carried the overall same premise of death, temporary life, and a sense of grotesqueness that was connected to the idea of living.

The element of hue was a predominant theme in both works, despite that both works took relatively different directions in its application. In Poe’s writing: the scenery described in-text had uniform colors per room. Blue, purple, green, orange, white, violet, black hues were featured; with a focus on red and black as final elements and the elements of the death itself– ironic in that red, traditionally tied to the idea of blood, can be considered a sign of life until it leaves the body; after which it becomes attributed, in both works, to the titular “Red Death”.

In Corman’s 1964 work, the castle layout was presented differently. Around the set itself, colors were scattered and not made uniform per room, and there were more rooms throughout the film than what might be explicitly ascribed to the castle of Poe’s work. Further differences in the film included a number of multicolored and more expansive rooms that partly drew their own tones from smaller, hidden chambers. These chambers were also utilized as elements in the adapted cinematic work and were central to the plot presented throughout that work.

However, the difference in color usage; between the original text and adapted film; was not limited to the castle layout. The film version of The Masque of the Red Death also centered around the visual element of clothing. Clothing, as an element itself, surpassed the role it played originally in Poe’s writing; this occurred through the basic requisites of cinematography, and through the means which the film adaption operated. Essentially, in the film there needed to be more focus on the attire of the guests, who were dressed in equal colorful gaudiness to the cinematic version of Prince Prospero: an element that is glossed over in Poe’s work through lack of needed focus.

Perhaps in further importance: the concept of clothing was specifically given more depth beyond its mention as a physically/figuratively dividing element. This played into how each version of the personified Red Death and Prospero operated as characters, and as figures. Essentially, in both the original work by Poe and its 1964 adaptation, they were at their basis opposing, conflicting figures who exemplified material wealth and finality. Yet, themes of division go beyond the conflict between both characters, where the narrative of both works are concerned.

Essentially, in the original text, Prospero wasn’t physically divided from his own wealth/affluence; and this was an element that extended to the version of himself presented in the film adaptation. Further, the guests– courtiers– respectively mentioned and shown by both the writing and film, were also tied to opulence through their attire. Costumes, whether shown in film or left up to the imagination in writing, defined wealth as it was presented in both works; essentially, they served to tie the idea of wealth into the very event of the masquerade. The masquerade itself could be seen as a display of affluence and opulence of its own accord; this was a factor presented as an element in both works.

            Beyond this, inherent importance exists to the idea of changing hues: this is something also shared between both works. The focus that each work gives to specific elements of color and scenery causes a thematic, repetitive effect. However, due to the cinematically necessary, wider focus on scenery that presented itself in the film, the film could be seen as more ‘chaotic’, and somehow ‘less focused’ on specific elements shared between both works. Elements that existed in the original text by Poe were still forefront in the 1964 film, but other, newer themes (religion, humanity in adversity, romance, else) competed with the original foci. These additions may have caused earlier elements, from the original work, to lose their central focus. Further, these derivations were changed slightly to fit the cinematic format, in order to tell the premise of the story in a more complex and unique manner.

The element of lighting ties into the overall depth of color usage, in both the text and film. However, the elements of lighting– which echo other differences between both works where the concept of colors are applied– translated differently from the text to the 1964 film adaptation. In the original text, the described window panes were blue, purple, green, orange, white, violet, black. This contrasted with a constant thematic presence of both the derived element of windowpanes, and the unconnected, additional element of candles in the film adaptation. These film-exclusive candles, first shown around 11:35 were of a more limited spectrum: green, blue, white, purple, black and the windowpanes were shown around 27:13 to be light red, purple, white, red. These windows were displayed in a linear fashion and were placed uniformly throughout the row of similarly-hued chambers in which they were set.

In some significance to the elements of lighting presented in both works, there was a possible nod to the tripods mentioned in the original work, through their application in the film adaptation. In the background of one or more scenes of the 1964 adaptation, at least one nondescript tripod exists, unlit. This background tripod was almost placed there deliberately, while its presence was more discrete: being unlit, partly out of view, and an overall nondescript background element.

On a further ambient note: food and drink played a larger role in the film than in the original text. In both the original text and the film 1964 adaptation, the focus on food is minute. However, despite this and the overall gloss-over of elements in the original text, the film presents a grotesqueness that exists around the food itself, besides eating and drinking by courtiers. In the 1964 film, they are visually shown to act beast-like in their appetites, which may exist in the original text. However, in the original text: this element is not explicitly shown through the wording. Imagination and inference is necessary to understand the chaotic behavior of that barely-described crowd, in the wording of the original work.

 In the story by Poe, the food and drink were hardly mentioned or described in-detail, perhaps echoing their perishable nature through their lack of presence in the ambiance. This disregard however did not include wine; which was utilized as a significant element in both works. Importantly, a specific reference to wine also occurs early into Poe’s writing.

“There were buffoons, there were improvisatori, there were ballet-dancers, there were musicians, there was Beauty, there was wine.” (Poe, May 1842)

Unless the wine in the original story was anything other than red [that is left ambiguous in the text], it may be assumed that the concept of wine echoed other color themes and meanings present in Poe’s work. That is, it may have been meant to exemplify a kind of duality in life and death, despite removing itself [through lack of specification] from the idea of religion, specifically Christian themes.

In the film, religious themes aren’t excluded. In fact, there is a constant reference to religion and religious themes: the adaptation essentially goes beyond the restrictions of the original story in order to highlight humanity, adversity, and hope in the face of death: the characters become more human and are given depth in the film, which separates it from the (perhaps surreal) minute narrative that occurs through the decisions of Prince Prospero.

Character behavior, background and forefront, held importance in both works, but to different extents. More characters existed in the film than in the original text, and through this addition, the thematic complexity to the film adaptation was supported by character interactions, dialog, and the thematic depth tied to both kinds of narrative.

It is important to note that Prospero stands out as a figure, alone, in Poe’s work. The other people he invited are beneath him, and are simultaneously separate from that version of him in not being given specific mention or detail. This is an element of nondescriptness that echoes in the film. However, in the film, there is some importance to the fact that people aren’t presented as ambiguous: they are visually shown to have faces, voices, and to make decisions of their own volitions, even when they seem to overall act according to Prospero’s whims. This, in the film, is at least until the masquerade starts, and ends badly, upon the introduction of the Red Death figure to Prospero. Even in that scene, however, their facial features are distinct.

In connection to this apparent humanity, it is perhaps an important fact that Prospero was more ‘human’ in the film adaptation, whereas the version of him presented in the original text was barely a person himself, and more a representation of wealthy persons. In the original text, there is emphasis on the fact of his anger and agitation in the face of potentially losing his wealth. In the film however, he mistakes the Red Death figure for an envoy of his deity (Satan): and follows that figure in a way that echoes back to the rush the original Prospero made, in attacking that figure. Both versions of the characters eventually die following a chase, but instead of rushing to his death as the original Prospero had, the film version flees from his own death and eventually is caught by it.

In the film, the courtiers weren’t ambiguous, or unanimous as a force– except at the end where they act out in possible desperation, which is a reach out that echoes an initial line in Poe’s work. In the original work, the guests repeatedly try to touch Prospero to make sure he isn’t false. This is a separation from the 1964 version however, in that around 1:20:12 they act more like mindless persons, even if it is still out of desperation to be saved. This is despite that, in the film, as of the original text; it is a salvation that never occurs. In fact, the idea of salvation isn’t a prominent element in the original text: there is only the ‘present narrative’ and a foreshadowing of ‘what will occur’, inevitably. Yet, in the film, the idea of an ‘afterward’ is presented and does occur. Yet, this ‘afterward’ is only for a select few characters, as opposed to the fact that no one survives the “Red Death” in the original text.

As an overarching and final element, the Red Death figure holds importance in both works. Yet, in the original text, that figure wasn’t ‘human’ at all. That the version of that figure in the film version actually spoke, and did so repeatedly throughout the film (this repetition starts around (1:00) and ends around 1:25:10 suggested a sense of humanity and possible rational thought, as opposed to its voiceless counterpart in the original text.

Throughout the film, the Red Death figure made multiple appearances in a set chronological order; a factor that differed from the chronological ambiguity of Poe’s work. That it allowed a few to escape at all shows mercy: which wasn’t something allowed in the original text. Significantly, continuation of life is allowed in the film, whereas it isn’t in the original text.

Further, more than one ‘death’ was also presented at the end of the film, as opposed to the singular disease shown in Poe’s work. There are seven cloth colors and figures in all who walk in a line at the very end of the film; this relatively echoes the seven, potentially linear chambers that were presented in the original text.

To a considerable extent, different linear paths were taken in the storylines and thematic depths of each work: the original story by Poe, and the 1964 (Corman) adaptation based on that work. This was perhaps by necessity, in order to satisfy cinematic necessities and to expand on the simplicity of thematic elements that were crafted by Poe in his work. It is because of this change in paths that both versions of the story work very differently from each other in their very natures, on a visual level, and in terms of how each story operated in overall narratives. They may compliment each other, but they may not genuinely be seen as truly ‘alike’ from an overall standpoint.

Citations

Masque of the Red Death. Directed by Roger Corman, performances by Vincent Price, Jane Asher, Hazel Court, Patrick Magee, and David Weston, ‎Alta Vista Productions, 1964.

Poe, Edgar Allen. “Masque of the Red Death” The Masque of the Red Death – Poe’s Works | Edgar Allen Poe Museum. https://www.poemuseum.org/the-masque-of-the-red-death. 4 October 2020.

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