The blacks in the book , the blacks today

The book Heart of Darkness and the film Apocalypse Now: a comparison
by Giacomo and Christoph

 

Apocalypse Now is not a film transposition of Heart of Darkness. In trying to compare Apocalypse Now with Heart of Darkness it is necessary to clarify that the film only was inspired by the book. Therefore things like the main plot (except the mission) and the first person narrator are the same, the only difference is that the narrator in the book is named Marlow and in the film he is named Willard. Both use the same words to describe their situation, they use the word "the horror". This happens again when Kurtz says that he hates the smell of lies. Another similar aspect are the notes that Marlow gets from Kurtz and that Willard finds after he kills Kurtz; the notes say : "Exterminate all the brutes".

In fact we can find in Apocalypse Now a lot of allusions or hints regarding the book; the descriptive sections of the book can be compared to the film's photography (even if Heart of Darkness looks darker, viewing it superficially) and even some characters were taken from the book and presented without noticeable modifications (except for the fact that a book character is always deeper than a film one, in my opinion), especially in the second part of the film, like the Russian-journalist-Kurtz's adept. Also whole scenes in the film are "copied" from the book. The helmsman for example dies in the film the same way as in the book, he is killed by an attack from a native man with a spear. Or the last wish from Kurtz, but the film ends earlier. In the book Marlow is searching for Kurtz's wife, we don't have that in the film anymore.

Coppola just puts allusions and hints in his films, but the deep meaning of it is much different.
While the theme of human degeneration has got its big importance in both the film and the book, in the film it is more clear because Willard gets arrested and he was treated brutally. Apocalypse Now is a film about the stupidity of war, while, although in Heart of Darkness we find a critic to colonialism, it is not its major purpose and not always so evident.
Apocalypse Now (and in particular the Redux version, during the “French” sequence) is not just a “political” film, but this issue has got a much bigger importance than in Heart of Darkness. 

The real differences between Apocalypse Now and Heart of Darkness is probably the character of Kurtz, and how Marlow and Willard react to his presence or his perception and that shows us how Marlow and Willard really are. All in all Marlow is more fascinated by Kurtz than Willard.
Speaking about this, we can find in the film and the movie the mental training the protagonists do, trying to figure out Kurtz's person and to prepare themselves to meet him by reading some US Army reports (in Apocalypse Now) and listening to different “testimonies”.


The gradual consciousness and identification of the protagonists into Kurtz's philosophy is important in both, but the film took much more “space” in proportion than the book did to speak about the meeting with Kurtz. 


The fact that Willard kills Kurtz with his own hands must not deceive us: Kurtz, in the book, is a much more negative character although he dies in a natural way because he is ill.
He appears sometimes a bit narrow minded and all inhumanly concentrated on achieving the acquisition of as much ivory as he can. In the film the word “Kurtz” is not linked to any material goods, but just to the gain of extreme power, up to the semi-God condition (like in the book).

Still talking about Kurtz, we can find in the film his immense charisma , the power of his voice, his capacity to rule every kind of man (Marlow-Willard included) and his being so smart and sharp (in the film, we hear from the protagonist that he increased his military grade in an extremely small time, like a genius), but we can't find his ivory obsession. His violence has the only goal to create an independent kingdom where to find his real nature and die peacefully, far from the real evil that makes the world sick.

In this sense (and because of his enormous culture), Kurtz is a positive character in the film, no matter about the method he uses; the involvement the protagonist feels is even deeper in the film, for this element.
The protagonist is a character that is also completely different. Marlow is often compared to a good Buddha that has learned a lot from his past experiences, while Willard is kind of fighting against his past, trying to “dismiss” it drinking intensively and forgetting himself; the experience of Kurtz is painful to Marlow, but I think it affected Willard more. He is a sad soldier that wants to give up with his life, looking really similar to Kurtz, so he must have taken in consideration the possibility to join his kingdom of madness.

Likewise we can find differences in the characters, different is also the “mission” the protagonist must accomplish: Willard had to neutralize Kurtz, notwithstanding his behaviour (the American Forces knew something wrong happened; they knew he refused orders from superiors and this was enough to persecute him), Marlow had just to explore what was going on deep in the jungle. 

What I think, then, is that Coppola just took an inspiration from the film, and it couldn't have been otherwise. Although the novel can be considered modern for many aspects it's still a Victorian Age book and it was impossible to “use” its story to speak about the Vietnam war with no modifications. 


We can say that Coppola put the whole story in a modern surrounding field.
He changed the setting of time from the 19th century to 1967. It was impossible to speak about the Vietnam war and use the story from Heart of Darkness without any modification (the Russian-trader becomes an American journalist and the boats don't have steam-engines anymore, and many other changes that needed to be done).


Maybe Coppola tried to make a transposition of Kurtz in a film; in this case I think he did not understand completely Konrad's Kurtz, Marlow, and the whole Heart of Darkness story.
All things considered, even in case we do not take into any account the book which it is based on, Apocalypse Now remains one of the best things that happened in American cinema in the second half of the last century.

By Giacomo and Christoph