Date of Project
College of Arts and Sciences
Dr. Charles T. Hatten
Dr. Conor A. Picken
Francis Ford Coppola’s 1979 film Apocalypse Now affirms the key message of its source material, Joseph Conrad’s 1899 novella Heart of Darkness, to suggest that the imperialist mindset continues to significantly affect international interactions even in modern times. While the original novella reflects and criticizes contemporary British imperialism in Africa, the adaptation shifts the setting to Vietnam in 1968 and primarily satirizes the American army’s actions during the war. While the subject of the story’s critique is different, Coppola preserves the core message of the novella – that all humans are capable of falling into their inner darkness and doing despicable things – partially through his reuse of Conrad’s themes and narrative structure. Both stories also engage with the racism that permeates imperialist thought, criticizing the dehumanization of African and Vietnamese people (respectively).
Many of these changes are related to the different functions the main character plays in each version of the story. In Heart of Darkness, Marlow undergoes a character arc that leads him to realize the folly of imperialism, being profoundly affected by Kurtz’s insanity. He tells this story to an unnamed narrator in the novella’s framing device, making him a key player in establishing the story’s themes by playing to the strengths of the written word. Willard, Apocalypse Now’s protagonist, is comparatively more of a bystander that has already been traumatized by Vietnam. The film instead uses deliberate tonal dissonance, audiovisual techniques, and the audience’s knowledge of popular Hollywood cinema to communicate its themes of darkness and madness.
Battle, Samuel, "How Apocalypse Now Adapts Heart of Darkness’s Imperialist Critique to a New Medium and a Different Culture" (2020). Undergraduate Projects. 2.