Conrad and Coppola and the Heart of Darkness Within:The Symbolic Value of Darkness in Heart of Darkness and Apocalypse Now

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2003

26 Pages, Grade: 1,7 (A-)



I. Introduction: A question of fidelity

II. Heart of Darkness and Apocalypse Now
1. The plot structure of Heart of Darkness and Apocalypse Now
2. The Characters of Marlow, Willard and Kurtz
3.The rivers as symbols for the inner journey
4. The Heart of Darkness within: the metaphorical meaning of darkness in the novel
5. The narrative structure
6. The question of point of view

III. The Language of Film: Signs and Syntax
1. The syntax of film: Mise-en-scène and Montage
1.1. Mis-en-scène
1.2. Montage

IV. Film analysis with special focus on the implication of darkness
1.The beginning
2. River sequence: The Mekong Delta
3.The air raid of Vin Drin Dop (00:24:00- )
5.Du Lung Bridge (1:36:00)
5. River sequence: The arrow attack
6. The Kurtz Compound

V. Conclusion

VI. Works cited

I. Introduction: A question of fidelity

“When a great artist in one medium produces a work based on a masterpiece in the same or other medium, we can expect interesting results” (E. N. Dorall: Conrad and Coppola: Different Centres of Darkness).

In his essay The Rethoric of Narrative in Fiction And Film, film critic Seymore Chatman observes that

‘a lot of ink has been spilled in recent years on film adaptations of novels (…). Too much of the discussion has centred on questions of story content, with particular respect to ‘fidelity’, as if the source novel were some sacrosanct object whose letter as well as spirit the film had to follow.’[1]

He continues that this approach ‘often leads to an unproductive prescriptivism that finds the film inadequate because it does not ‘read’ like the novel’[2]. It seems that John Milius and Francis Ford Coppola who both wrote the screenplay for the movie Apocalypse Now[3], had the same thoughts in mind when they decided to adapt Conrad’s novel Heart of Darkness[4] -as Milius stated himself – ‘in some shape or form’[5]. They certainly did not want to spill any ink and he also did not see the novel as a sacrosanct object. Apocalypse Now is not a conventional film adaptation of Conrad’s novel since -at least at first glance- it does not pay particular respect to ‘fidelity’; a Vietnam war movie does not seem to have much in common with a novel written in 1898 and dealing with colonialism. However, it is said that HD can be seen as the ‘root’ for AN, because ‘a seventeen-year old John Milius heard his English reader, Irwin Blackter, extol the splendour of Conrad’s novel Heart of Darkness[6]. And if we take a closer look at the movie, the parallels to Conrad’s novel become obvious. This essay will be divided into two major parts. The first one of will focus on the comparison of the plot and narrative structure of HD and AN. It will establish a general overview of the formal aspects of novel and film as well as of the similarities of characters appearing in both HD and AN. Special attention will be paid to the symbolic value of the plot of the story- the metaphorical meaning of darkness- appearing in both Conrad’s novel and Coppola’s movie and the question of how and why the screenplay-writers of AN applied Conrad’s ideas on their film adaptation. The second part will be with special focus on Coppola’s film adaptation of Conrad’s novel. The analysis of several scenes will pay special attention to details of techniques for visualisation and sound used by Coppola to depict the plot.

HD has not only inspired Milius and Coppola for their movie AN. It has served several other producers as an inspiration for their film. The Spanish filmmaker Manuel Aragon, for example adapted HD into film, interestingly, his film titled Heart of the Forest came to cinemas in the same year than AN came out. Both adaptations are not conventional ones as Conrad’s novel is being transported into a different time into a different context. In Heart of the Forest is placed in the time of the Spanish civil war, and AN the movie this essay will pay special attention to- places Conrad’s story right into the Vietnam War. The first question that arises to people’s minds knowing both HD and AN is: Why is it that Conrad’s story, playing in a different era 100 ago is so present in Coppola’s movie.

II. Heart of Darkness and Apocalypse Now

1. The plot structure of Heart of Darkness and Apocalypse Now

On the surface it seems that Coppola’s film is very different from Conrad’s novel. In HD Joseph Conrad recreates a Congo journey that he himself has made as a young man. The story of HD is at least in part based on ‘The painful experiences [Conrad] underwent during his brief employment by the Société Anonyme’[7]. It is narrated by its central character Charlie Marlow, a British sailor employed by a European trading firm as captain of one of their steamboats. The story takes place in the Belgian Congo at the turn of the twentieth century, a time when much of Africa, South America and Asia, having been divided up, were still under the control of a handful of European countries. Marlow is being sent on a mission in order to find and bring back Mr Kurtz, an ivory trader who disappeared into the interior of the jungle and never returned. As Marlow proceeds on his journey, the strange rumours of Kurtz’s unorthodox behaviour fascinate him. As Kurtz seems to gradually engulf ‘the atrocities of the other agents in his own horror’[8] his character grows in mystery and grandeur, and Marlow’s journey soon becomes ‘a series of impressionistic vignettes exposing the brutalities of colonial, and particularly Belgian colonial rule’[9] ; Conrad severely criticises the corruptive power of colonialism and has Marlow express his contempt for expansionism:

‘The conquest of the earth, which mostly means the taking it away from those who have a different complexion or slightly flatter noses than ourselves, is not a pretty thing when you look into it too much. What redeems it is the idea only.

An idea at the back of it, not a sentimental pretence but an idea; and an unselfish belief in the idea- something you can set up, and bow down before, and offer a sacrifice to …’[10]

It is exactly ‘this idea only’ that provides the context for both journeys in HD and AN; the idea in people’s minds thinking that they have to gain control over people who are different to them, different because of their culture or their race or their religion. Conrad may have written his novel more than a hundred years ago, but the statement he brings across is transcendent. Francis Ford Coppola wrote synopsis for the film ‘as much for his own consumption as for the public’[11] in which he explains his intentions behind the movie. The first thing he mentions is that AN is ‘a retelling of Joseph Conrad’s short classic HD. Set in Vietnam during the war in 1968.[12]

This synopsis clearly stresses the parallels between the novel and the film. Coppola himself calls the American war in Vietnam ‘to bring civilization to the ignorant millions’… the ‘extension of mercantile colonialism’. For him, ‘the horror and savagery lie not in the jungle, but in the American culture itself’ The story of AN that is, as mentioned above set in the 1960ies in Vietnam and Cambodia, features a corollary to Marlow in Captain Benjamin Willard, 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 Walter Kurtz who, he is told, has gone totally insane. Kurtz has taken his men over the border into Cambodia, where they are indiscriminately killing Vietcong, South Vietnamese and Cambodians. With the character of Kurtz, both Conrad and Coppola show us a man who was once very well respected. However, both men have decided to put themselves beyond the law of their commanders. Coppola’s Kurtz, as he experienced his epiphany of the horror of war and the cultures he met, used to be an officer and a sane, successful, brilliant leader. Conrad’s Kurtz, once he runs his own trading post single-handedly in the heart of the jungle, loses control and ‘plung[es] into an abyss of moral degradation’[13]. Their hearts of darkness from within turn from the inside out. Their methods become ‘unsound’(HD, 61), as they start using violence in order to control the natives. Conrad’s Kurtz exploits them by trying to get as much ivory as he can form them. Coppola’s Kurtz does not seem to have any method at all. Both Kurtzes let themselves worship by the tribesmen as demi-gods in order to keep them subservient to him. They use barbaric rituals held in his own honour:

‘his nerves went wrong and caused him to preside at certain midnight dances ending with unspeakable rites. (HD, 50)

2. The Characters of Marlow, Willard and Kurtz

Both HD and AN are the story of Willard’s and Marlow’s journey up the river to Kurtz, their encounter and its consequences. Willard differs from Marlow in several ways, the most significant one being that he is sent on his mission specifically to kill Kurtz, unlike Marlow who is simply piloting others in the capacity of captain of a steamboat. Even though Willard holds the rank of captain, tying in with Marlow’s occupation, he is not the captain of the boat which takes him and a party of others up the Nung river. However, Willard does communicate Marlow’s fascination with Kurtz: ‘I’d heard his voice on the tape and it really put the hook in me…’(SP, 18)[14] He continues reading Kurtz’s dossier on his journey upriver and allows the Colonel’s personality to ‘penetrate and absorb his own’[15]. While both of them travel up a primeval river to fulfil their respective assignments, each speculates about the character of the man he is seeking, with the information each has pieced together about him. On their journey both characters are confronted with the negative aspects that are a result of the deeds of their home countries: The representatives of their own society are only interested in one thing: fulfil their task- which is, in the case of AN war and in the case of HD ivory trade -to bring civilization to the ‘untamed’. In both cases this is done through ruthless methods and without any respect towards the people. Marlow’s description of the natives illustrates this brutality:

‘Black shapes crouched, lay, sat between the trees leaning against the trunks, clinging to the earth… in all the attitudes of pain, abandonment and despair….They were dying slowly… they were not enemies, they were not criminals, they were nothing earthly now, nothing but black shadows of disease and starvation …’ (HD, 20).

Both Willard and Marlow reject the behaviour of their ‘Companies’ and by doing so show themselves as being morally superior to them. Willard describes the mission he is given by the U.S army as ridiculous: ‘Charging a man with murder in this place was like handing out speeding tickets at the Indy 500’ (SP, 15) Their physical quest gets them into a country strange and unknown to them. However, the psychological aspect of their quest plays the more essential role in both book and film as both questers start putting into question the methods used by their ‘companies’ and start their own, internalised quest.

3.The rivers as symbols for the inner journey

The image of the river is referred to in both book and film again and again. The rivers symbolize the inner journey and the inward changes of the characters:

‘Going up that river was like travelling back to the earliest beginnings o fthe world, when vegetation rioted on the earth and the big trees were kings. An Empty stream, a great silence, an impenetrable forest.’ (HD, 35)

AN adopts Conrad’s basic concept of the river,

‘resembling an immense snake uncoiled, with its head in the sea, its body at rest curving over a vast country, and its tail lost I the depths of the land’. (HD, 16)

Willard talks about ‘a river that snaked trough the war like a circuit cable… plugged straight into Kurtz.’ (SP, 6). Marlow also remarks: ‘The river was there- fascinating- deadly- like a snake.’ (HD, 14) Both characters are confronted with the ‘overwhelming realities of this strange world of plants and water and silence’ (HD, 36), as the river leads them deeper and deeper into the heart of darkness. The depiction of the river in AN is very significant and will be discussed in the sequence analysis of the film in a later chapter.


[1] Seymore Chatman, Coming to Terms. The Rethoric of Narrative in Fiction and Film (Ithaca:

Cornel University Press, 1990), 163.

[2] Chatman, Coming to Terms. The Rethoric of Narrative in Fiction and Film, 163.

[3] In the following, Apocalypse Now will be abbreviated with AN.

[4] In the following, Heart of Darkness will be abbreviated with HD.

[5] Peter Cowie: The Apocalypse Now Book, (London: Faber & Faber, 2000), 2.

[6] Cowie: The Apocalypse Now Book, 2.

[7] Richard Adams in: Joseph Conrad , Heart of Darkness (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books 1991), 105.

[8] E. N. Dorall, ‘Conrad and Coppola: Different Centres of Darkness’ in: Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness, ‘Backgrounds and Sources’, ed. Robert Kimbrough (London: Norton 1988), 303.

[9] Dorall, ‘Conrad and Coppola: Different Centres of Darkness’, 302.

[10] Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness, ed. Robert Kimbrough (London: Norton & Company 1988), 10. All references to this book will be to this edition and will follow the quotation in parenthesis.

[11] Cowie: The Apocalypse Now Book, 35.

[12] Coppola continues the synopsis of AN as follows:
‘It is the intention of the film- maker to create a broad, spectacular film of epic action- adventure scale, that however is rich in theme and philosophic inquiry into the mythology of war; and the human condition.
…As our protagonist travels through the insanities and absurdities of the American involvement in the war, he is more and more drawn to the jungle itself, its primeval mystique and immense power. It becomes clear that the American war ‘to bring civilization to the ignorant millions’ is merely the extension of mercantile colonialism and that the horror and savagery lie not in the jungle, but in the American culture itself, with its powerless [sic] technology and pop- culture.
…The story is metaphorical: Willard’s journey up the river is also a journey into himself, and the strange and savage man he finds at the end is also an aspect of himself…..The intention is to provide the audience with an exhilerated [sic] journey into the nature of man, and his relationship to the Creation.
It is the hope of the film- makers to tell this story using the unique imagery of the recent Vietnamese War, its helicopter, disposable weaponry; as well as the Rock music, the drugs and psychedelic sensibilities. (Francis Ford Coppola in: Cowie, The Apocalypse Now Book, 35f.).

[13] Gene D. Phillips, ‘Darkness at Noon: Heart of the Forest (1979) and Apocalypse Now (1979) ’ in: Conrad and Cinema: The Art of Adaptation. (New York: Lang, 1995), 129.

[14] John Milius and Francis Ford Coppola, Apocalypse Now Redux- Original Screenplay, ed
Anahid Nazarian (New York: Hyperion 2000). All references to this book will be to this
edition and will be referred to with the abbreviation SP and will follow the quote in parenthesis.

[15] Dorall, ‘Conrad and Coppola: Different Centres of Darkness’, 303.

Excerpt out of 26 pages


Conrad and Coppola and the Heart of Darkness Within:The Symbolic Value of Darkness in Heart of Darkness and Apocalypse Now
University of Bayreuth  (English Literature)
Literature and Media Transformations
1,7 (A-)
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
File size
595 KB
Conrad, Coppola, Heart, Darkness, Within, Symbolic, Value, Darkness, Heart, Darkness, Apocalypse, Literature, Media, Transformations
Quote paper
Silke Weishaupt (Author), 2003, Conrad and Coppola and the Heart of Darkness Within:The Symbolic Value of Darkness in Heart of Darkness and Apocalypse Now, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


  • No comments yet.
Read the ebook
Title: Conrad and Coppola and the Heart of Darkness Within:The Symbolic Value of Darkness in Heart of Darkness and Apocalypse Now

Upload papers

Your term paper / thesis:

- Publication as eBook and book
- High royalties for the sales
- Completely free - with ISBN
- It only takes five minutes
- Every paper finds readers

Publish now - it's free