One of the big reasons book-to-film adaptations are particularly interesting is that filmmakers can have such a different take on the source material that he or she actually can tell a whole new story off of it. These are the truly fascinating adaptations, where we get to see what someone who already has been established as an auteur matches creative wits with the original author. It’s a kind of intellectual battle being waged across time, and it’s something that can be one of the best things about following film.
All that leads us to this week’s subject. In 1902, Joseph Conrad published “Heart of Darkness,” a chilling tale based on Conrad’s own journey through the heart of the Congo. The book follows a sailor named Marlow as he tells of his foray deep into the wilderness on a mission from a trade company to bring a high-rising ivory trader back to civilization after he had gotten out of their control. Along the way, Marlow witnesses some of the worst of mankind, from the treatment of the natives to the way power and greed can turn the most promising of men into monsters.
Nearly 80 years later, Francis Ford Coppola took the ideas of Conrad and focused them into one of the signature films portraying the horrors of the Vietnam War. This time, American Captain Willard (played by Martin Sheen) is called in by the Army to bring back the renegade Col. Kurtz (Marlon Brando). With a team of mostly young soldiers, Willard travels deep into Cambodia to see what the war has turned the men who fought it into.
Both of these stories are tough to get through. Watching and reading the terrible things the characters do throughout both works breaks the spirit after a while, which I suppose is a credit to both. They were meant to illustrate the absolute worst of humanity, and neither can be accused of sugarcoating it. Plus, I watched the redux of “Apocalypse Now,” which features an extra 49 minutes of scenes.
The movie, though, is capable of so much more on this front than the book, and Coppola utilizes all of it. Willard’s narration is more impacting because it happens it the moment, rather than Marlow’s recanting of the events long after the fact. While Conrad does a brilliant job of painting the picture and letting readers’ imaginations do the rest, his writing style does get rather grating. One of his paragraphs ended up being four pages long; that’s a lot to take in all at once. The movie, while the redux does drag at times, still keeps the audience thinking throughout the majority of the movie, and actually seeing the terrible things involved in the war leaves a more lasting impact.
Which one of the endings you prefer depends on your personal preferences. “Apocalypse Now” wraps things up immediately after the climax, leaving the audience to cope with all that has happened on its own. “Heart of Darkness” obviously has less of a concern over whether the main character survives as he is telling the story at a later time, but it also gives some details about what happened after Kurtz uttered his famous last words: “The horror … the horror …”
And this, I believe, is the definitive comparing point between the two works: the portrayal of Kurtz’s claimed madness. In “Heart of Darkness,” he certainly behaves abnormally, but he seems much more subdued, mostly because he is actually shown as sickly. Conrad humanizes him more, making him more myth than man once Marlow finally meets him in person. “Apocalypse Now,” however, brings out the monster in Kurtz. We see him bring Willard a severed head he likely removed himself. We see him speak of understanding and embracing the horrors of war. We really believe that his subjects see him as a god; we don’t have to rely on hearsay.
Yet Coppola provides enough other characters to, oddly enough, balance out Kurtz’s insanity. The first and most prominent of these is Lt. Col. Kilgore (played magnificently by Robert Duvall), who goes back and forth with no trouble and no hesitation between organizing an explosive, bloody attack and trying out the surfing waters on the nearby shore. (His is one of the film’s most iconic quotes: “I love the smell of napalm in the morning.”) After seeing characters such as these throughout the course of the movie, the audience can’t help but wonder, just what is it that makes Kurtz so much more horrible in everyone else’s eyes?
Certainly, the book is a fascinating read. It has its own strengths, and its 100 pages carries more weight than a lot of 300- to 400-page novels. For its originality alone, it will remain a must-read in English literature. But if you’re looking for a more modern, exciting or (for lack of a better word) enjoyable experience, go with “Apocalypse Now.”