Heart of Darkness

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To what extent does cultural context influence the nature of adaptation from text to big screen?

To an extent, cultural context plays an integral role in the process of adaptation from text to film. It greatly influences our perception of the film, as the audience can relate their surroundings to the movie. In the case of Apocalypse Now, the prominent issue was the cold war. However, besides cultural context, other factors also influence the nature of adaptation. It’s incontrovertible whether all aspects of the text can be adapted to the film, as something that might be fascinating in the text may not evoke the same feeling when viewed on big screen. The judgment of the director comes into play in these situations, as he must distinguish which parts of the text are coherent in his adaptation of the novella and the audience’s reaction to it.

Coppola chose to retain the main themes of Heart of Darkness. The criticizing and mocking of imperialism was a prevalent theme that surfaced throughout Apocalypse Now. For instance in Heart of darkness, Marlow exemplifies the basis of imperialism.

"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.” (Conrad, p7)

An analogous approach is taken in Apocalypse Now, when Kurtz talks to Willard:

“Men who are moral and at the same time who are able to utilize their primordial instincts to kill without feeling, without passion, without judgment” (Coppola, 02:13:30)

By giving this dialogue to Kurtz, Coppola mocks the army and the soldiers. The irony is evident in this quotation as men with morals don’t kill, much less, kill with passion and without hesitation. Coppola has substituted military and war with colonialism in the text, as the issue of colonialism was to a certain level, obsolete. The cold war was the prominent issue in that time period, and adapting the text to the cold war seemed more pragmatic.

The success of the film depends on how well the reaction of the audience was. If Coppola had chosen to preserve the idea of Congo being the antithesis of Europe, its highly doubtable whether the film would have gained the same amount of appeal and praise. The issue of colonialism was not as momentous in that time period as the prodigious issue of the cold war. Coppola adapted Heart of Darkness in coherence with the cold war.

To expand on the point above, Coppola substitutes the “savage” Congolese with the Communist Vietnamese and the Capitalist Americans are the equivalence of the “white” Europeans. Just as Congo is the antithesis of Europe, America is the antithesis of Vietnam, where America is capitalist and Vietnam is communist. Based on the cultural context, Coppola saw it fit with the text when juxtaposed. The Vietnamese are never referred to as “Vietnamese”, which is their proper ethnic name. However, they are labeled as “Charlie” by the Americans.

“Charlie don’t surf!” (Coppola, 00:34:55)

Just as the Vietnamese are labeled as “Charlie”, the Congolese are labeled as “savages”.

“They passed me within six inches, without a glance, with that complete, deathlike indifference of unhappy savages” (Conrad, p16)

Coppola emulates Conrad in the use of removing the characters’ identities to emphasize the arrogance of imperialism. Another point worth mentioning is the fact that none of the Vietnamese people ever speak in the film. This is analogous to Heart of Darkness, where the endemic people of Congo share the same attribute of having no dialogues. The effect of this adaptation is similar to its effect on the text, that it portrays the disparity between the inferior and the superior. Nevertheless, the effects are augmented on the film using various techniques. For example, the scenes at 00:40:47 where the American helicopters are brutally killing the Vietnamese. We see that the Americans have the...
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