Adaptation of Heart of Darkness to the Movie, Apocalypse Now


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Adaptation of Heart of Darkness to the Movie, Apocalypse Now


I chose to do this essay on the idea of story adaptation, and why changes are made to a story. I originally wanted to look at it just in terms of Apocalypse Now, and how the story of Heart of Darkness was updated to fit a different environment and time period, while still being true to many of the events, characters, ideas and themes presented in the story. I was curious about what changes were made, and what that indicated about how the director, and maybe society as a whole, felt about some concept that maybe were no longer acceptable or satisfactory.

However, when I started looking also at the biographical information about Conrad, it became clear that the story itself is an adaptation of sorts. Even though I already knew that Conrad had taken a trip similar to one Marlow takes, I had not been aware of the 'departures of adaptation' that were made to the story. In 1890 Conrad was given a captain's commission of a steamboat on the Congo, due to the influence of a female relative. He traveled down the coast and up the river, and hiked 200 miles overland to reach his boat, which was sunk. But from that point on the story is a departure. Conrad, rather than waiting and fixing the boat, enlisted on another steamboat and traveled up river, getting very sick along the way. On the way back down the river, the captain was sicker than he was, so he got to captain the boat then. When he finally reached the station where the boat he had a commission for was supposed to be waiting, he found that his job had been given to someone else, so he returned to England.

So why did he take what starts out looking like a fictionalized autobiographical account, and then half way through the story start being totally fictional? The important changes made seems to be that he is in charge of the boat, and thus is in control of his own journey to the heart of darkness. The other is the significance of the Kurtz character.   Prof Abel mentioned Kurtz was loosely based on someone named Klein, but presumably the significance of Kurtz is much more symbolic than biographical. Perhaps Conrad creates Kurtz to embody the issues that he thought about during his trip on the Congo, but which never actually personified themselves so concretely.

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(The corruption and hollowness of 'good' intentions, the capacity for evil and greed, the fantasy of both 'going native' and being worshipped because of some inherent European superiority.)

In terms of Apocalypse Now, there were many little plot differences, the most significant seeming to be that the Marlow character (Willard) is being sent down the river, not to bring back Kurtz, but to kill him. In the book, Marlow is disgusted by Kurtz, yet feels some connection and loyalty to him that he can not quite explain. He lets Kurtz die and then becomes the protector of his memory. In the movie, Marlow is disgusted, but kills KurtSz himself! Why is there the need to personally destroy the evil? There is even the implication that Marlow seriously contemplates staying in the jungle and taking Kurtz's place, but decides not to at the last minute.

It seems like in the book the message is that imperialism is a horrifying evil, but it is destined to either totally fail and die out, or else evolve, but must be tolerated in the mean time. In the movie, the message seems to be that the evil of the imperialistic war is terrible, and ought to be destroyed, but the evil can not be simply personified, and the entire system ought to actively destroyed too.

Works Consulted

Page, Norman. A Conrad Companion. St. Martin Press, NY: 1986. 1-16

Phillips, Gene Conrad and the Cinema: the art of adaptation .  Peter Lang Publishing, Inc. NY: 1995. 133-142.

Wilmington, Mike Worth the Wait Apocalypse Now.   Madison Press Connection. 1979


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