To declare, as is often done, that ‘books are better than films’ is a ridiculous comparison of two very different mediums, yet unfortunately cinematic adaptations of beloved classics and modern masterpieces time and time again do their best to force this comparison. The pressure of making box-office millions and fitting a traditional feature run-time often results in an abandonment of character development, a lack of subtlety in script and a general simplifying of the author’s original vision.
There are, of course, some gleaming exceptions to the hordes of disappointing film adaptations; Kubrick’s The Shining (based on the novel by Stephen King) and Tomas Alfredson’s Let the Right One In (based on the novel by John Ajvide Linqvist) being two significant examples. There is one adaptation, however, that stands leagues ahead of the rest. Francis Ford Coppola’s nightmarish vision, Apocalypse Now is not only deservedly heralded as one of the greatest films ever made in its own right, but is also unique in its relationship with its literary ancestor, Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. Coppola makes his own significant changes from the original text while still maintaining a modest loyalty to its events and atmosphere, creating a fascinating visual interpretation of a modern classic.
Apocalypse Now not only merits an artistic comparison with Heart of Darkness, it demands one…
The most obvious point of comparison is the dramatic change of setting. Heart of Darkness first appeared in 1899, and tells the story of a trader’s experience in the Congo, then brutally colonised and exploited by Belgium. The events of Apocalypse Now take place during the Vietnam War, which started more than fifty years after the publication of Conrad’s original masterpiece and did not end until 1975. This in itself is a daring statement of intention to modernise the horrors of Heart of Darkness, which deals heavily with themes of race and empire, by bringing the story into a more familiar setting for the modern spectator. The infamous and unwinnable conflict that claimed many lives on both sides is, although of a very different time period, the perfect setting to entertain the reflective and existential troubles that Conrad explores in the novel. Here the heavy hand of European rule becomes the military muscle of the USA, the exploited slaves of Africa become innocent Vietnamese locals, and the bemused and troubled narrator of these events turns from a trader to a soldier. The bizarre and violent events of Vietnam are an ingenious setting to parallel the (albeit ambiguous) criticism of empire by Conrad, both cases in which we are forced to look at ourselves as a society that would let these events happen.
Loyal to the plot of the text, Apocalypse Now has its main character, Captain Benjamin Willard pursuing the mysterious figure of Colonel Kurtz (‘Mr. Kurtz’ in Conrad’s original story), making his way by riverboat. Willard is tasked by his superiors with assassinating Kurtz, a rogue US colonel who is reported to be insane and beyond US control and using mass violence to enforce a hitherto unknown agenda. In a similar fashion, Kurtz in the novel is a rogue ivory trader who begins to act violently outside of his company’s jurisdiction. His role as a quasi-religious figurehead is a theme consistent in both book and film, constantly occupying the mind and interest of both protagonists to a point bordering on obsession. His cult following of natives is also a feature in the novel, and the way one disciple talks of him as a ‘poet’ and a ‘genius’ is quoted almost word for word in Apocalypse Now, including the same quotation from T.S Elliot’s poem The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock. The crucial difference between the two Kurtz’s is his role as a military leader in the film. This creates the opportunity to directly compare his activity to that of the ‘legitimate’ US army presence, highlighting the insanity of the conflict. This also lends some credibility to the way that people wilfully follow him given his natural military authority (in Heart of Darkness Kurtz appears to be simply talk his way to the top). The deceptive power of rhetoric is an interesting area of criticism in the novel but for the purposes of the film Coppola’s Colonel, with his more easily explained authority, is a more immediately impactful character. The military setting also provides a more tangible platform for violence to take place and push him towards insanity.
What ultimately makes both novel and film unique, however, eludes any specific description; something that can only be described as an unsettling churning in the pit of the stomach.
The majority of significant events of both film and book also take place on a river, which acts as the narrative and symbolic driving force. While also a measure of physical progress through a journey, the ominous river in both the Congo and Vietnam is a crucial metaphor. It is a pathway not only to Kurtz, but to insanity and chaos. The untamed jungle that surrounds the eerie quiet of the water is also visually important to Apocalypse Now, which with the advantage of film is able to more successfully, or at least more immediately, convey the intimidating nature of their surroundings than through written description.
What ultimately makes both novel and film unique, however, eludes any specific description; something that can only be described as an unsettling churning in the pit of the stomach while reading or watching, a lingering sense of uneasiness that you can’t put your finger on. It goes beyond the superficial horrors of war and slavery, it’s something that disturbs the very essence of our humanity. With English incredibly being only his third language next to Polish and French, Conrad’s prose seems free and adventurous, cutting through the noise and pretention that characterised the travel fiction of many English authors before him, and as such the horrors of this existential nightmare, whatever exactly they are, reach us loud and clear. Faced with a seemingly impossible task, Coppola not only mirrors perfectly, but also adds to this enigmatic atmosphere through an inspired combination of vibrant and dizzying visuals and subtle and ambiguous scenes of quiet conversation, both radiating with intensity.
In most cases (Aside from knit-picking through what was cut out and thinking how much the lead actor does not suit the character you imagined in your head), a comparison of film and book is worthless. However, Apocalypse Now not only merits an artistic comparison with Heart of Darkness, it demands one. It is at once outspoken and modest, outrageous and dignified, and it puts itself forward as a film that not only matches the success of its written predecessor, but utilises the visual capabilities of the modern day to perhaps achieve even more.
By Peter Simmonds
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