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Heart of Darkness vs Apocalypse Now

Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now (1979) is widely considered to be a masterpiece. The cinematography, screenplay and direction come together to create a dark, yet fantastic movie. Coppola’s film of 1979 is a loose adaptation of Joseph Conrad’s book titled Heart of Darkness and is a perfect example of how a filmmaker can transform a story from one medium to another in an incredibly skilful way. 

I was introduced to Apocalypse Now by my dad, as it was one of his favourite films. It quickly became a film that made me understand the great talent and work that goes into a film. I am repeatedly impressed with the famous ‘Ride of the Valkyries’ scene – I have never seen a war film quite like it.

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After watching the spectacle of Apocalypse Now at a young age, I would go on to read Heart of Darkness as part of my university studies. Since I saw the film first, I found myself reading the novella as if it were an accompaniment to the movie. I loved the deeper characterization that the book provided, especially concerning the hypnotic Kurtz (played in Apocalypse Now by Marlon Brando).

Although there are many discrepancies between Apocalypse Now and Heart of Darkness, the bare bones are similar. Some of the characters’ names are different (Martin Sheen’s Captain Willard stems from Charles Marlow in Heart of Darkness), and they have completely different settings; the film is set during the Vietnam War, and the novella mainly on the Congo River in Africa. 

What is most interesting to me is that both beg the same question: is the true ‘darkness’ in individuals, or is it forced upon them by greater horrors? Against the backdrop of the brutal Vietnam War, the audience of Apocalypse Now are provoked to question the consequences of war and violence. In a similar vein, Heart of Darkness put colonialism under the microscope, at the time of its publication in 1899. It condemned the cruelty and exploitation that was at the heart of colonialism around that time.

It is a rare occasion for me to say that I prefer a film over its adapted book, but I maintain that the thrill of watching Apocalypse Now cannot be matched in any novel. Coppola took elements of Conrad’s work and transformed it into a thought-provoking piece of cinema. An extravagant film equipped with a clever soundtrack, cinematography and famous lines such as “I love the smell of napalm in the morning” and Brando’s “horror” monologue. 

I believe that the success of the adaptation is largely due to the short length of Heart of Darkness. There’s no frustration at missing details or omitted characters. What is to be most appreciated is the combination of Coppola and Conrad’s ideas; together, they create an unforgettable cinematic experience.

Image courtesy of Christopher Dombres via Flickr