book Heart of Darkness and the film Apocalypse Now:
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
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
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
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.
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
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
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
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
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.