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Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now lacks the impact of its inspiration, Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. While the basic elements of imperialism and human nature remain intact, the characters of the film bare little resemblance to their literary counterparts. The film serves as a re-interpretation of Conrad’s novella, updated from 19th-century British imperialism in the Congo to a critique of 20th-century U.S. imperialism in Southeast Asia. Coppola’s changes in setting and plot structure, however, force the film to sacrifice the character development so crucial in the literary work. This detracts from the overall effectiveness of the film.
The most important difference between novella and film is the development of their main characters, Marlow and Willard, respectively. In Heart of Darkness, the reader is introduced to Marlow through his various philosophical ruminations about imperialism, morality, and human nature. He learns of the mysterious Kurtz through first-hand accounts of his accomplishments and his bizarre behaviour. As Marlow spends more and more time in the jungle, his pre-occupation with Kurtz becomes an important refuge from the brutality of the Belgians for whom he works. Although critical of the Belgian bureaucracy, it is unclear whether his displeasure stems from their immoral practices or their incompetence and inefficiency. Conrad never reveals Marlow’s true feelings, forcing the reader to confront the issues of racism and human nature themselves.
Willard, on the other hand, is a psychological mess from the beginning of the film. The opening scenes depict him confessing his own mental imbalances as a result of prolonged service in the Vietnam War. While Conrad’s Marlow borders on complacency, Coppola’s Willard behaves erratically and without reason. His fascination with Kurtz is also less profound than in Heart of Darkness. According to literary scholar and cinema aficionado Mark A. Rivera, “In Conrad, Marlow is in awe of Kurtz, comes to identify with him in some dark recess of his own psyche; Willard, on the other hand, is more impressed with Kurtz’s credentials than moved by his force of mind and will.”
Despite the fact that the film is told through Willard’s eyes, his skewed perception does not affect the film’s clear moral intentions. Coppola is sure to let his viewers know that he disagreed with the Vietnam War and with the senseless bureaucracy of the U.S. military. This type of moral direction deprives the viewer of the forced introspection created by the novella.
The film also depicts the character of Kurtz in a very different light. Conrad builds up the appearance of Kurtz so much that his first scene is intentionally anti-climactic. He is discovered to be an ailing, elderly gentlemen, malnourished and on the verge of death. Marlow himself is simultaneously impressed with and disappointed by Kurtz. He enjoys listening to the old man’s philosophies, but he is let down by Kurtz’s lack of realistic thinking. He has clearly lost his mind, and with it, some of his credibility and mysticism.
The character of Kurtz in Apocalypse Now, however, is never de-humanized as it is in Heart of Darkness. Coppola’s casting of Marlon Brando as the eccentric army major forced Kurtz’s character to take on the burden of Brando’s infamous weight problems. As a result, Kurtz was transformed from an emaciated, sickly old man to a powerful, overweight, middle-aged soldier. This transformation has been noted by many critics, most significantly Roger Ebert, who stated in a review of the recently re-released Apocalypse Now, “In the film, Kurtz is portrayed by Marlon Brando, the father of American method actors, who lends weight (both physically and dramatically) to the figure of the megalomaniacal Kurtz. Brando’s massive girth is all the more ironic for those familiar with Heart of Darkness who recall Conrad’s description: I could see the cage of his ribs all astir, the bones of his arms waving'” Kurtz’s frail state was a key plot element in the novella, acting as the impetus for Kurtz to pass his knowledge along to the eager Marlow. In Apocalypse Now, however, Kurtz imprisons Marlow and forces him to listen to his deranged and nonsensical philosophies.
This brings up the most important plot discrepancy in the film, the relationship between Willard and Kurtz. In Apocalypse Now, Willard’s character is a U.S. Army special forces operative assigned to go up the Nung river from Vietnam into Cambodia in order to “terminate the command” of one Colonel Kurtz whom, he is told, has gone totally insane. He does not reflect the deep psychological and philosophical insights that are an important feature in Marlow’s character. He is sent on his mission specifically to kill Kurtz, unlike Marlow who is simply piloting others as captain of a steamboat. This completely changes the dynamic between himself and Kurtz. Instead of simply being an admirer of Kurtz’s, he is also his assassin. Although the internal conflict is interesting, it detracts from the relationship between Willard and Kurtz. In the words of movie critic Patrick Galloway, “His mission to kill Kurtz gives him some measure of pause, but his military protocol mentality ultimately rules the day. Compared with Marlow’s deep, searching ruminations on the dark, enigmatic Kurtz, Willard is a government-issue automaton.”
The depth and focus of Heart of Darkness have not survived the passage from literature to film. Rather, through excessive plot manipulation and character distortion, the clarity of Conrad’s message is lost. In Heart of Darkness, Kurtz’s last words “the horror, the horror!” hold profound meaning. To quote literary scholar Brian Gatten, “Marlow will ponder Kurtz’s words (“‘The horror!'”) and Kurtz’s memory for the rest of his life. By turning himself into an enigma, Kurtz has done the ultimate: he has ensured his own immortality.” Kurtz’s status as an enigma serves to propagate an endless number of interpretations. Could his words be a declaration of the horrific dark side of man that lives within us all? Could they be a reaction to his first glimpse of the afterlife? Could they be a regretful look back on a life of sin? Kurtz’s last words leave the reader to draw his or her own conclusions about their meaning. Conrad does not tell us what to think, he makes us think. That is the sign of great art. Those very same words, however, when spoken by Marlon Brando in Apocalypse Now, hold far less meaning. The fact that Willard makes the decision to kill Kurtz convinces the audience of Kurtz’s insanity, and his words can be most literally interpreted as a reaction to his own murder. These words, meant to hold the most impact of all dialogue in either work, serve as an accurate metaphor for the works as a whole. Conrad’s Heart of Darkness forces its reader into meaningful introspection, while Apocalypse Now fails to capture the depth of Conrad’s vision.