Literature and film feed at the same breast, considering the affinities between them. Since its very beginning, Hollywood has used works of fiction as source material for films. One of the most discussed adaptations is Francis Ford Coppola’s Film Apocalypse Now (1979) based on Joseph Conrad’s novel Heart of Darkness (1902). This paper compares and contrasts these works of art, arguing that while there are obvious differences, the film generally general remains true to the core meaning of the novel. One can say that Coppola’s film is a thematic and structural analogue to Conrad’s novel.
Differences On the surface it seems that Apocalypse Now deviates largely Heart of Darkness. The differences can be seen in settings, events, characters, and other snippets of information such as quoted lines and strange actions of the major characters. The settings of the two stories are different and written in different periods of time. The setting of Conrad’s late nineteenth century novel is the Belgian Congo in the 1890s. By contrast, Coppola’s 1979 film takes place in Southeast Asia in the 1960s during the Vietnam War.
In addition, the novel centers on Charles Marlow, a British sailor employed by a European trading company as captain of one of their steamboats, whereas the film focuses on an American army officer, Benjamin Willard. Another major difference is that the ivory traders are in the Congo of their own greed and free will, whereas the American soldiers are drafted into Vietnam and engage in the war against their will. At the first glance, there seem to be character differences in the novel and film – Copolla’s Willard is nothing like Conrad’s Marlow.
In the novel, Marlow is very eager to meet Kurtz and perhaps gain knowledge about the secrets of the ivory trade in the former Zaire. On the other hand, Willard seems to have a death wish. Copolla portrays Willard as a depressed human, having a soldier’s killer instinct, throughout the entire film. The effectiveness of point of view also differentiates the novel and the film. While it is true that Willard remains on the screen more than anyone else in Apocalypse Now, and his comments are often heard on the film’s sound track, viewers still do not see others completely from his perspective as readers do in Heart of Darkness.
Hence, the film is robbed of some of the emotional intensity that one feels when one reads the novel. This is simply because the narrator in the novel communicates his subjective reaction to the episodes from the past. In the film, the audience does not grasp the extent to which the narrator is profoundly affected by Kurtz’s tragedy. Many of Marlow’s sage reflections about Kurtz’s life and death are absent in the film. Moreover, while Coppola successfully creates a staggering experience of the war’s madness, he seems to confuse the moral issues.
This is perhaps because of his view of personalizing the novel. The director identifies so strongly with Kurtz that he modifies the issue of power and disturbs the delicate balance between Conrad’s story and the subject of Vietnam. Apocalypse Now succeeds in making its viewers experience the horror of the war and to realize their own complicity in it, but it fails to highlight the nature of Kurtz’s horror illuminated in Heart of Darkness. Coppola’s failure to combine Conrad’s story and the Vietnam War in this respect points largely to The film’s adaptation of Kurtz.
In the novel, Kurtz is corrupted by his isolation in the wilderness, resulting in an obsession with power and unfolding frightening truths about himself: I think it had whispered to him things about himself which he did not know, things of which he had no conception till he took counsel with his great solitude-and the whisper had proved irresistibly fascinating. It echoed loudly within him because he was hollow at the core. (133) in the film, Coppola tries to resonate Kurtz’s “hollowness” by having the character recite The Hollow Men by T. S. Eliot.
But this can be seen as more of an emblematic solution that does not somewhat applies in the Vietnam War context. Parallels While the settings, backgrounds, characters, and approaches of the novel and film are somehow different, the narration, structure, and that theme are similar. The following paragraphs summarize some of the essential parallels between Conrad’s Heart of Darkness and Coppola’s Apocalypse Now. In the novel, Marlow introduces his narrative with a passage about “devotion to efficiency”, the idea behind how the ivory trade makes profit, justifying cruel exploitation (Kinder 16).
This statement is also applicable to the Vietnam War context as they are both in the stages of Western imperialism: The conquest of the earth, which mostly means the taking it away from those who have a different complexion or slightly flatter noses than ourselves, is not a pretty thing when you look into it too much. What redeems it is the idea only. An idea at the back of it; not a sentimental pretence but an idea: and an unselfish belief in the idea-something you can set up and bow down before, and offer a sacrifice to. (70)
Coppola does not retain this speech in the film, but it becomes the groundwork for the dramatic events that unite Kurtz and Williard: the former’s recounting of the inoculation story and the latter’s murder of a wounded Vietnamese woman. The two are driven into a situation in which “military efficiency is totally undermined, yet they have been trained to worship it and to internalize it as the source of their own personal pride” (Kinder 16). In the novel, although Kurtz embodies all of Europe, he can be viewed as a “universal genius” who shows what lies ahead for those who take the challenge to look into the abyss.
Despite the shortcomings in the handling of Kurtz, Copolla’s conception of film remains a masterful work that complements the power of Conrad’s vision. The novel and the film embody the theme of insanity and madness and insanity caused by the evil of imperialism. Madness in the novel is the result of being removed from ones normal environment and how people cope with their new environment. The same theme is explored in the film. Many soldiers who are drafted into Vietnam are barely 18 or 19-year-olds. Their mental stability is shaken when they are thrown into a harsh environment, where their lives hang on by the minute.
Soldiers such as Lance and Chef are ready to snap at any moment due to the shock and realization of what kind of situation they are in or what is the purpose of fighting fellow men. They also fear the fact that they do not know where they are headed. Copolla and Conrad literally and metaphorically confront the madness and insanity brought about by Western imperialism and colonialism. Through Kurtz and the American soldiers, Copolla is able to portray what war is like for them, and why so many of them suffered from Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome. The film suggests that wars are an imperialist tool that drives the weak into their destruction.
On the other hand, Conrad exposes how the imperialist agenda leads to the exploitation of foreign lands and its people, leaving the imperialist agents themselves deranged and empty (Papke 583). Both the novel and the film also give rise to a race discussion. Conrad and Coppola portray White men as the dominant. They not only rule over their respective crews; they also dominate the local peoples. Marlow and Willard look at the native people as if are the savage culture and White men are the civilized one. But it is interesting to note that each of the two main characters see a little of himself in Kurtz, a degenerated savage White man.
Coppola’s take on Conrad’s Heart of Darkness has gained much attention from film scholars. In “The Power of Adaptation in ‘Apocalypse Now’”, Marsha Kinder states that “Coppola rarely hesitates to change Conrad’s story-setting, events, characters-whenever the revision is required by the Vietnam context. ” (14) Moreover, the dialogues in the film, especially Willard’s voice-over narration, have been attacked by several film critics for sounding more like a parody of author Raymond Chandler than an adaptation of Conrad’s novel. But a deeper look suggests that Willard’s character and tone are not intended to be Marlow’s.
To suit the Vietnam context, Willard has been totally transformed into a trained assassin, whose life has been drained of all meaning. Coppola retains Conrad’s focal image of the river. In the film, just as in the novel, each of the main characters embarks on a literal and metaphoric central journey. Marlow’s description of the Congo is an enormous snake uncoiled that fascinates him as a snake would a bird. The film’s structure is controlled by the image of the river “that snaked through the war like a main circuit cable,” carrying Willard to Cambodia.
The novel and the film begin with the protagonists’ explanation of how they got the appointment which necessitated their excursion upriver. Marlow is dispatched to steam up the Congo in to find Mr. Kurtz, while Willard is mandated to journey up the Mekong River in a navy patrol boat to find Col. Kurtz. Moreover, while they travel up a primeval river to fulfill their respective assignments, they speculate about the character of the man they are seeking, with the help of the information they have pieced together about him.
In both novel and film, the river eventually leads Marlow and Willard to Kurtz and his dying words of horror (Kinder 15). This final destination for both men is their soul-altering confrontation with Kurtz. Overall, it is an expedition of discovery into the dark heart of man. It is also a close encounter with man’s capacity for evil. Coppola agrees with this observation and stated that he also saw Willard’s voyage upriver as a representation for the journey of life that people take within themselves and during which they decide which side to take: good or evil.
The horror of the world dominated by hollow men is at the center of both Heart of Darkness and Apocalypse Now. Kurtz, in his god-like acousmatic voice and morally terrifying manifestation, is invested with much greatness: He fully understands existence in all its repugnance. Repelled and terrified Kurtz pushed himself to go into the very heart of darkness, to fully engage in the dualism (good and evil) of Being. To call Kurtz heroic or rapacious or good or evil, is to miss the point entirely. He is forever shaped by a dark satori, by an understanding of the omnipresent nature of darkness.
Marlow and Willard are arguably Kurtz’s spiritual sons, and they experience the same realization. Both of them look full face at the great condemnation, at the dark obscurity of Being. Each of them faces moral terror in the shape human conduct forced beyond decent limits; and each of them is profoundly transformed by this experience. In her book, Double Exposure: Fiction Into Film, Joy Could Boyum states that “in substituting Willard for Marlow, a madman for a sane one,” Coppola creates a character incapable of “any shock of recognition,” a man unable to “know evil when he sees it” (114).
Boyum also argues that there is no discovery for Willard; he is a “murderer confronting a murder, a madman face to face with madness-it amounts only to a tautology. ” Thus, Copolla’s Apocalypse Now can be argued as a movie that has no moral center. Unlike Willard, Marlow returns from the river experience with intact moral perspective and sanity, inviting the reader’s trust and identification. But one can also say that, like Apocalypse Now, Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, itself, is a novel that has no moral center. The book suggests that Marlow’s great realization is that existence itself has no moral heart.
The character has not sustained the river journey with his intact moral perspective unchanged. Towards the end of the novel, Marlow is a transformed man, largely isolated and very different from those people aboard the Nellie. He is alienated forever in his wisdom. Willard, too, in the end, is vastly separated by his new knowledge. While many critics see Willard as immoral, insane, and unchanging, Kurtz’s view of him is more fitting. In the film, Kurtz describes Willard when he sees him for the first time as “an errand boy sent by grocery clerks to collect a bill.
” But in the end, Willard becomes wiser. He has been transformed, humbled by his face-to-face confrontation with the darkness natural in Kurtz, in himself, in existence. Therefore, the separate stories of Willard’s and Marlow’s river experiences follow a similar narrative pattern and arrive at a similar truth. Apocalypse Now is a thematic and structural analogue to Heart of Darkness. This is perhaps because, Copolla, in his authorial wisdom, fully understood that theme and technique, meaning, and structure are inseparable entities. To tell a story differently is to tell a different story.
It seems that, ultimately, Copolla and Conrad tell the same story. Conclusion This paper looks at the differences and parallelisms between Conrad’s Heart of Darkness and Coppola’s Apocalypse Now. In comparing and contrasting the novel and the film, this paper suggests that the film has some significant deviation from the novel. Despite this, however, Apocalypse Now generally remains true to the core of Heart of Darkness. Both the novel and the film follow the same story line but Conrad and Copolla have different ways of presenting this story. This results in surface differences.
But a deeper and closer reading of both the novel and the film reveals that they complement each other. This is one of the most important things in adapting a work of literature into a film. Works Cited Boyum, Joy Gould. Double Exposure: Fiction Into film. New York: Universe Books, 1985. Conrad, Joseph. Heart of Darkness. New York: New American Library, 1950. Kinder, Marsha. “The Power of Adaptation in ‘Apocalypse Now’”. Film Quarterly 33. 2 (1979-1980): 12-20. Papke, David Ray. “Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness: A Literary Critique of Imperialism. ” Journal of Maritime Law and Commerce 31. 4 (2000): 583-592.
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