The stories of the past are still capable of reaching the modern-day audience, but many are being re-told through the media of the movies. Hollywood has faithfully reproduced classics like Hamlet and Oedipus Rex, but they have also ‘borrowed’ the plotlines from other classics as a means of creating new and completely modern stories with a hauntingly familiar element. This is the case with Francis Ford Coppola’s production of the film Apocalypse Now, which is loosely based on Joseph Conrad’s novel Heart of Darkness. To determine just how loose this base might be, the purpose of this paper is to compare the novel to the film to discover the similarities and differences.
The first glaring similarity between the book and the film is the purpose of the main character. In each case, the main character is sent into the jungle after a man named Kurtz. This shadowy character named Kurtz becomes an obsession for the main character – Marlowe in the book and Willard in the film. As he is eventually revealed, the character of Kurtz remains essentially the same in both texts. He is a company man who has gone insane with the power he’s been given and completely savage with the company he’s been keeping. Kurtz has delusions of grandeur that far surpass the intentions the ‘company’ – literally in the book and in the form of the military in the film – had in mind for him when they groomed him for the position. The physical appearance of Kurtz is fundamentally changed from one text to another since Kurtz in the book is described as so thin Marlowe “could see the cage of his ribs all astir, the bones of his arms waving. It was as though an animated image of death carved out of old ivory had been shaking its hand with menaces at a motionless crowd of men” (Conrad, 1978: 135). The character in the film is played by a plump Marlon Brando.
This initial similarity also brings forward several differences, though. For instance, the main character in the book is Marlowe, who worked as a boat captain and is characterized by in-depth philosophical ideas and expressions. He reveals this aspect of his character at the very beginning of the book as he talks with his shipmates while they wait for the tide to turn. He tells them, unexpectedly and almost without explanation, “and this too has been one of the dark places on the earth” (Conrad, 1978: 18). The main character in the film, Captain Willard, also shares his thoughts at the beginning of the film, but these thoughts are much more mundane and filled with the kind of macho preoccupation one would expect of a war movie. Although Captain Willard is not the captain of a ship as is Marlowe, his rank provides him with a connection to the original character. Finally, while Marlowe is requested to steer a boat up the Congo River to ‘rescue’ Kurtz from the deep, dark jungle into which he seems to have disappeared, Willard is sent in with the specific assignment to kill Kurtz who has become an obvious liability to the ‘company’.
This change in the focus of the mission changes the underlying dynamics of the story. While Marlowe is sent up the river to rescue a man who has undertaken ‘unsound’ practices, Willard’s mission to kill Kurtz causes him to focus more upon the credentials and experience Kurtz has rather than the motives that have led him down the path he’s selected, the source of Marlowe’s fascination with the man. Marlowe is seen to be attempting to discover the soul of the man, understand how he came to be this depraved lunatic in the jungle from the once well-educated and well-rounded individual he has been told about on his journey. This is completely in keeping with the deeply philosophical man the reader is introduced to on the boat on the Thames at the beginning of the story. In contrast, Willard is merely acting out his orders as he attempts to learn more about Kurtz the man, and his knowledge and experience to become a more effective and eventually successful killer. Just as his thoughts at the beginning of the film are much more mundane than the thoughts expressed by Marlowe, Willard’s motives in getting to know Kurtz are much more mundane and disappointing.
Through this comparison of the characters Marlowe, Willard, and Kurtz and their relationships to each other, it can be seen that while Apocalypse Now utilizes several of the major elements of Joseph Conrad’s book as a means of telling its story, borrowing heavily for impact and coherence, the story is fundamentally changed in the transition from printed novel to filmed video. While Kurtz continues to represent the power-mad, savage beast unleashed when one is unrestrained by social rules or constant scrutiny in both novel and film, the depth of this meaning is somewhat lost in the confusing and graphic film thanks to the watering down of the main character. Willard is not as attractive to me as Marlowe simply because he seems more like a machine of the company rather than a living, thinking man. The difference between Willard and Kurtz as he is known through the book – a man of arts, letters, and talent – is too much to be able to complete the comparison when the two men finally meet. This is not the case between the deeply thinking Marlowe and Kurtz as they seem to understand each other from a much deeper base.
Apocalypse Now. Dir. Francis Ford Coppola. Perf. Martin Sheen, Marlon Brando, Robert Duvall. Zoetrope Studios, 1979.
Conrad, Joseph. Heart of Darkness and The Secret Sharer. New York: Doubleday, 1978.