Comparing and Contrasting Coppola's Apocalypse with Conrad's Darkness
While Francis Ford Coppola's Apocalypse Now is framed by the music of The Doors, Joseph Conrad's novella Heart of Darkness, upon which the film is based, uses the narration of Marlow as a framing device for the murky tale of the "horror" that hides in the human heart. The difference in framing devices has more to do with the difference in medium and inspiration than it does in overall meaning (Greiff 188) -- and yet the music of The Doors provides a much bleaker context for the narrative that Coppola explores in Apocalypse Now than the stylishly literary and ultimately ironic narrative woven by Conrad. Coppola, in fact, updated the narrative in a number of other ways -- namely in the shift of time and setting from the Congo at the turn of the century to the Mekong River in Vietnam during the Vietnam War. However, if Conrad is writing at one remove from the Age of Faith, writing as he says out of love for Fidelity as an ideal (Najder 204), Coppola is filming at one remove from Conrad, illustrating a world that has regressed even beyond the idea of Fidelity and fully embraced the "horror" that Kurtz sees within himself (Ebert). For Coppola, the conflict in Vietnam was the perfect illustration of this horror, and rather than appeal to a sense of what has been lost and the fear of approaching it (as Conrad does in Heart of Darkness), Coppola rather relishes in it and offers an indictment of what has been attained: a mad empire, a heartless new imperialism, a lunatic fringe. This paper will compare and contrast Coppola's Apocalypse Now with Conrad's Heart of Darkness and show how Coppola's epic may be better understood as a modern-day re-interpretation of Conrad's novella rather than as a modernized adaptation.
Louis K. Greiff observes that Conrad receives no screen credit in Coppola's film. This omission, furthermore, has been viewed by some as "confirmation that Apocalypse Now insults its literary predecessor by repeatedly violating the novel's original shape and substance" (Greiff 188). However, Greiff argues that Coppola is not as slighting to Conrad's vision as critics might suggest. On the contrary, Greiff contests that Coppola does indeed pay "meaningful homage to Conrad by preserving the essentials of Heart of Darkness on screen in striking and unexpected ways" (188). A number of conclusions may be drawn from Greiff's comparison of the two very different works, not the least being that Apocalypse Now is, as a matter of fact, an "homage" to Conrad's novella rather than a cinematic adaptation. But it is also a response to Conrad's novella -- a cinematic cry that Marlowe's attempt to diffuse the darkness and spare the civilized world of its existence has been in vain. Coppola appears to suggest that the darkness cannot be swept under the rug -- and that though it may be seen most readily in the primitive savage it is present in everyone, exposing itself more and more frequently at every turn. This may be seen in Coppola's main character Captain Willard.
While Martin Sheen's Captain Willard is a poor interpretation of Conrad's Marlowe, Sheen's Willard does provide the kind of dry, monotone, spiritually paralyzed perspective that Marlowe might eventually embrace were he to live long enough and lose enough of the wisdom and prudence he has accumulated. Indeed, Marlowe does possess an unmistakable wisdom in the novel that Willard in the film is too shattered to dare approach. If Marlowe provides the eyes through which Conrad's reader might better understand the "horror" that threatens the modern world -- and that must not be talked about to the Intended, Willard provides little more than a blank slate upon which that "horror" might etch its name. Indeed, even before Willard begins his journey up the Mekong he is already displaying a spiritual atrophy, a kinship with Kurtz, his idol in the waiting. It is the military this time that insists that Kurtz and his "darkness" be swept under the rug -- annihilated, rather -- an ironic insistence, since everywhere Willard ventures he sees nothing but "darkness," whether it is in the voice of the man he "loves the smell of napalm in the morning" or in himself, a cold-blooded executioner on a senseless mission. Yet because Willard lacks the grace needed to place his situation in perspective, Coppola must appeal to an outside source. Thus, Coppola turns to The Doors as a framing device in the film, knowing full well that the character he has created in Willard is too far sunk into an abyss to provide any set of eyes or poeticized context. That is left to Jim Morrison, who bleakly and perhaps blithely croons that "this is the end."
But does Coppola's use of modern popular rock and an empty-shell Willard coupled with dazzling images and chaotic characters truly do justice to the substance of Conrad's novella? Coppola's film is about the "horror" and emptiness of modernity. Conrad's novella is about the "horror" of sin and the civilized world's reluctance to own up to it. Coppola's Willard is torn between embracing the "horror" that Kurtz represents and assassinating Kurtz in obedience to his superiors in the military. (Indeed, Kurtz represents the soul of the darkness seen everywhere along the Mekong, in the military men, in the war itself and rising up through the veins of the modern world: the voyage to Kurtz is like the voyage to the source of darkness, the plague of the soul -- which is why Greiff argues that the film does remain true to the substance of Conrad's novella). Yet, Conrad's Marlowe is torn between something else: he "tries to be faithful both to his code and to Kurtz" (Najder 204). In a way, Marlowe is Conrad's moral guide, like Virgil is Dante's. He is there to lead the reader through Jim's crisis of conscience in Lord Jim, and he is there to secure the reader to an anchor of old world ideals in Heart of Darkness. Whereas Coppola's Willard tries to expel the "horror" by killing Kurtz, Conrad's Marlowe tends to Kurtz and hears, so to speak, his final confession -- or, rather, his "self-condemnation…words suggestive of the flames and sulphur of Dante's Inferno" (Najder 204). Marlowe does not try to expel the "horror" through murder: He merely covers it up and hides it from the one who loved him.
And such is the irony of Heart of Darkness. It comes when Marlowe visits Kurtz's Intended only to lie to her about the state of Kurtz's soul at the hour of death. Marlowe saw very well that Kurtz's soul was "struggling blindly with itself," but it is such a bleak and disturbing vision that he dare not suggest it to Kurtz's Intended. In other words, by attempting to spare her the "horror," he denies her the reality. Marlowe fabricates an illusion in order to protect the naive. To his sailor friends he will tell all: they, he feels, are able to understand. Whether this is an unwarranted delicacy on Marlowe's part or a satirical twist of the knife by way of juxtaposition (her "name" with the horror) is grounds for speculation. (Could it be that the very "refinement" of modern culture has produced mere insensibilities, incapable of addressing the dark truths of human nature? Could it be that the Intended is part of the "horror" as Marlowe unintentionally implies? This does seem to be Conrad's message.) One thing is certain, however: the substance of Conrad's Heart of Darkness is concerned with the contrast between an unknowing and unwitting "civilization," which prefers "tact" to reality and exterior manners to interior life, against a degraded and uncivilized world that has lost all sense of higher truth, noble ideal, and Fidelity (to what, Conrad never says). Marlowe believes in Fidelity, but his fidelity is marred by the fact that it has no object. It is Romantic in nature but not in origin. Nonetheless, it must be said that Marlowe believes in something.
Coppola's Willard believes in nothing -- and this is illustrated at every step of the way, at every turn up the river in Vietnam. He is continuously frustrated by the fact that his life has been given a purpose -- a mission. It appears to make no difference whether this mission were carried out. The fact that Kurtz exists, however, is unbearable to the military -- and he must be eradicated rather than exposed. Yet, Apocalypse Now is nothing if not an exposition on the darkness. Indeed, Conrad's Heart of Darkness is substantially the same sort of exposition. All of Conrad's works are like looking glasses into the soul; they ask the reader to strip away the illusions, the veneer, and boldly view themselves without pretension or false belief. As a boy in his native land of Poland, Conrad "had announce that he would go to the heart of Africa" (Jean-Aubry 153).…