How The Pale Blue Eye Became an Edgar Allan Poe Origin Story

Netflix The Pale Blue Eye isn’t based on a true story, but there are details which are based in fact.

Harry Melling as Edgar Allan Poe in The Pale Blue Eye
The Pale Blue Eye. Harry Melling as Edgar Allen Poe in The Pale Blue Eye. Cr. Scott Garfield/Netflix © 2022 Photo: Netflix

The mystery thriller The Pale Blue Eye stars Christian Bale as renowned detective Augustus Landor as he’s hired to track down a murderer. Though it’s based on a book by Louis Bayard, the narrative is not a true story. However, in Scott Cooper’s movie adaptation, which has landed on Netflix, there are elements of truth, notably around the young man who assists Landor at the military academy he is investigating—one Edgar Allan Poe. Brit Harry Melling (once best known as Harry Potter’s Dudley Dursley, now better known for his outstanding, versatile performances in The Ballad of Buster Scruggs and The Devil All The Time) plays Poe, the real life writer who would go on to be known as the godfather of the murder mystery, as well as a celebrated writer of macabre stories and poems.

“Much like Edgar Allan Poe himself, I spent my formative years in the state of Virginia,” Cooper says while explaining his personal connection to the story. “My father taught English and literature and after my first film, Crazy Heart, he sent me the novel for The Pale Blue Eye, because there was lots of Edgar Allan Poe strewn about our house when I was a kid.”

He continues, “I found the novel incredibly clever and interesting, because the author has placed Edgar Allan Poe, who bequeathed to us detective fiction, at the center of his detective story. I took that seed and I said I can make this film into three things. It can be a whodunnit. It can be a father, son, love story about two men who operate on the margins of society who come together and forge this loving kinship. And it can also become an Edgar Allan Poe origin story [where] the events that take place in this film motivate Poe to become the writer he became.” 

Poe was born in Boston but spent his youth in Virginia with a foster family (the Allans) after his father left and his mother died. He had a fractious relationship with his foster father, so the idea that he was  looking for a replacement father figure while he attended the United States Military Academy at West Point, New York rings true.

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“What most people don’t know about Poe is that when he was younger, he was very warm, witty, and humorous,” Cooper says. “He was, by all accounts, thought to be a great companion. When we think of Poe, we conjure up these images of the macabre. And we’ve seen that daguerreotype photo of him, which was taken a few days after his suicide attempt, so we feel that this is a man who kind of toils in darkness. But in fact, he was much warmer and witty and humorous. And that’s what I wanted to explore.”

Melling says that the origin story element of the film was part of the appeal.

“What I really enjoyed was the fact that yes, he’s such an iconic character, but we’re looking very much at how he became that person. What were the moments in his life that turned him into the person everyone responds to now,” Melling tells Den of Geek. “Yes, he turns into this sort of very moody, somber character that everyone associates him with. But how do we get there?

“I knew from the off that I needed to give detective Landor reasons to fall in love with this Edgar. I had to give him reasons to be swept away and be amused at how smart he is, but also how stupid he is. And I thought that was going to be a really interesting territory to play with.”

Landor isn’t actually based on a real person, but Cooper did add a little easter egg for die hard Poe fans. 

“There’s a line that I wrote in the film, after Poe’s character has been attacked and Landor, of course, ultimately comes to his aid. Poe says to Landor, ‘I shall write a poem one day and send your name down through the ages.’ And in fact, Poe did write a story called ‘Landor’s Cottage.’”

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Cooper says there are shades of Poe’s other works throughout, including “The Telltale Heart” and, of course, “Murders in the Rue Morgue,” which features a prominent detective.

“I think you’ll also see one which I couldn’t help myself,” Cooper laughs. “A raven prominently placed in the frame. That is a wink and a nod to ‘The Raven.’ These are the types of things that the casual Poe fan may be aware of.” 

Spot any other Poe nods? Let us know in the comments.