The transition of great works of fiction from text to film obviously and without fail must lose some of the original material and present new material. While the text contains a great deal more information than the film might have room for, the film also must provide visual and aural information that the text perhaps never intended. In making this transition, the director of the film, almost always the secondary text, must make selections carefully so that the major themes of the work might be preserved and reinforced while he is limited in the selections he makes.
How the text is interpreted will have tremendous impact upon the final film version of the story in terms of setting and themes brought forward as is evident in a comparison of such transitions as Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness as Apocalypse Now and the ancient English epic poem Beowulf into a screen animated version.
In Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, the main character Marlow continuously calls into question the modern assumptions that are made by his listeners as well as his readers, blurring the lines between inward and outward, civilized and savage and, most especially, dark and light. Through the use of setting, Conrad illustrates the journey to the inner soul and its primitive nature, an approach that is also taken within the film Apocalypse Now.
Heart of Darkness begins in London, as several men are gathered together on the deck of a ship waiting for the tide to turn. As the narrator notices the sun setting over the Thames, a condition that most would view as the onset of darkness, the narrator notes that “the serenity became less brilliant but more profound” (Part 1). This in itself suggests that though the sky is becoming darker, the meaning of this darkness is becoming clearer. This consideration is echoed in Apocalypse Now as the opening scenes reveal hallucinatory images of the Vietnam war, emphasizing the concept that outward impression and agreed upon definitions do not necessarily indicate truth but somewhat confusing the sharp differences recognized by others between the civilized and uncivilized and thus losing some of the impact.
This confusion of terms in the novel is repeated in the depiction of the haunted nature of the man Marlowe. In the book, his clarity of vision in blurring standard definitions is seen to have been gained in the years after his experience in the Congo and as a result of his experience searching for Kurtz. The film version of the character is seen to already be haunted by visions of darkness and light even prior to his taking up the mission of finding Kurtz.
This is seen as he moves about his hotel room, obviously struggling with the concept of being alone and with little explanation provided regarding his situation, his reasons for being alone or the demons that haunt him. Filmatic elements emphasize his confusion as he passes through conflicted bars and beams of light and shadows, making it difficult to truly determine whether the room is seen in daylight hours with blinds drawn or in nighttime hours with ambient light leaking in from other spaces.
However, the play of light seen within the movie, not just in the hotel room but elsewhere as well, perpetuates one of the major themes within the book. As the book continues past its opening introduction, light and dark is used to illustrate the difference between civilized and savage, with the light always referring to the civilized world. The other men sitting on the ship on the Thames at the opening to the story understand that bringing light to dark areas is a positive thing, always helping the savage people who are affected by it whether they know they want it or not.
However, in this scene, as in the bulk of the novel, Marlowe tends to turn everything inside out, making dark seem light, in seem out and civilized seem barbaric. Keeping in mind how the light tends to blind people to the truth, Marlowe suddenly breaks the reverie with a startling observation. “And this also … has been one of the dark places of the earth” (Part 1), a concept reinforced in the film.
Thus, starting from the very first chapter as Marlow challenges the assumption that London is the center of the civilized world, Heart of Darkness can be seen to challenge many of the assumptions regarding basic values as they relate to those who exist outside one’s personal cultural background. While these types of deep meanings are typically thought to be difficult to translate to film, director Francis Ford Coppola manages to retain this difficult theme through the lighting and settings of his film.
Although he has reset the novel into a more modern context dealing with issues that were faced by the young men of the nation as they experienced Vietnam, the traditional ideas regarding ‘savagery’ and ‘darkness’ held by ‘civilized’ society remain as questioned in this sometimes confusing film as much as they are in the equally often confused novel.
By confusing the concepts of light and dark, civilized and savage and inside and outside, both author and filmmaker make it clear that no single definition of such terms can be applied as universally good or bad when one is discussing the journey to the true nature of the human soul. Instead, they suggest that the actions of men, looked at from the outside and as objectively as possible, can only indicate where definitions fail and new understandings must be sought.
This same condensing of theme can be traced through the poetry of the original Beowulf poem and the 2007 animated film of the same title directed by Robert Zemeckis. Like Apocalypse Now, Beowulf the film changes the setting only slightly as a means of condensing the story as well as making it more appealing to a modern consumer, which also requires a subtle changing of the text. An example of this occurs when Beowulf does not travel back to his homeland to be king but instead inherits King Hrothgar’s lands upon the suicidal death of the old king.
This provides a sense of continuity to the story that hadn’t existed before as a link is made between Beowulf and Grendel’s mother as lovers rather than duelers to the death and between Grendel and the dragon as half-brothers and the cause of their fathers’ respective downfalls that had never been made in the past. Another change in setting is made at the end of the film that seems to have little to do with story continuity and everything to do with exciting a modern screen audience as the battle between Beowulf and the dragon is brought out into the open and into the skies rather than taking place within the dragon’s underground tunnels.
However, like Apocalypse Now, the film Beowulf manages to retain the more important themes of honorable heroism conveyed in the epic poem. Beowulf still comes to Hrothgar’s province in response to a family debt owed and is still accepted in this light. He has a name to make as a hero, having suffered some embarrassment in times past and a name to keep once he has defeated Grendel.
Both heroes also fall victim to the alluring power of Grendel’s mother despite Hrothgar’s warning to Beowulf to look to his future and his honor rather than giving in to greed and ambition. In the film, it is this failing in each that leads to the production of the son that will eventually bring about their downfall while the original text does not make this connection as strongly. Instead, it is merely suggested as a given element of the ancient culture that bad things happen to a kingdom as a result of some sin on the part of the ruler.
While the translation from text to film necessarily involves making some changes as new material is presented in scenery and other elements and old material is cut away to incorporate the entire story within the relatively short context of the film, important themes and ideas can be retained and passed along. Although both Heart of Darkness and Beowulf have seen significant changes in their storylines as they became Apocalypse Now and the animated film version of Beowulf thanks to the limitations and expansions of film, these changes can be seen to attempt preservation of the important themes and ideas conveyed in the original.
Although some may feel that reading the original is not necessary once the film has been seen, the reverse should be the case in which seeing the film should encourage one to investigate the further meanings and connections found within the original.
Alexander, M. (Trans.). (1973). Beowulf. London: Penguin Books.
Apocalypse Now. Dir. Francis Ford Coppola. Perf. Marlon Brando, Martin Sheen, Robert Duvall & Harrison Ford. Zoetrope Studios, 1979.
Beowulf. Dir. Robert Zemeckis. Perf. Robin Wright Penn, Anthony Hopkins, Ray Winstone and Brendan Gleeson. ImageMovers, 2007.
Conrad, Joseph. Heart of Darkness. 1902. The Literature Network (2006). Web.