Facts about Joseph Conrad and his Heart of Darkness, the famous tale first published in a collection entitled Youth in 1902: Born in Russian-occupied Poland in 1857, Conrad acquired a wide-eyed fascination with the sea from his father; orphaned by 12 (both parents died of hardship), he left Poland at 16 and headed to Marseille, from where, for four years, he sailed on French vessels, dabbled with “legitimiste” causes of a few French and Spanish pretenders, flopped at financial enterprises, and had a love affair bringing him to the brink of suicide. Needing to escape France for these and other reasons, he hopped aboard an English freighter—The Mavis—without much knowledge of the English language but in short time conquered it, became a master mariner, and a naturalized British subject by 1886. Until 1894, when he retired from his travels and married an Englishwoman (and went on to become the father of two boys), Conrad sailed the entire Mediterranean, and onto Australia, the Indian Ocean, Singapore, Borneo, the China seas, South America, the South Pacific, South Africa, and, places to be featured prominently in his writings, to the Malay Archipelago and up the Congo River, where he was stricken (and never fully recovered) from fever and dysentery. He didn’t start writing until he was 37; his writing was done in English—his fourth language, after Polish, Russian and French. Though he had received extraordinary praise from other writers like H. G. Wells and Henry James for his early works—Almayer’s Folly (1895), An Outcast of the Islands (1896), The Nigger of the ‘Narcissus’ (1897), Tales of Unrest (1898) and Lord Jim (1900)—he never made much money from his writings. (Two novels—The Inheritors and Romance—were collaborations with editor-critic Ford Madox Ford, who would later break down to famed muckraker George Seldes over publishers re-issuing editions of both books without his name appearing as co-writer.)

Conrad had a physically torturous time getting his prose on paper: when his masterwork Nostromo was published in 1904, he said it was “an achievement upon which my friends may congratulate me as upon recovery from a dangerous illness.” Neither false nor exaggerated: while in the process of writing, and often at a work’s completion, he’d suffer severe flare-ups of rheumatic gout. Some critics suspect his illnesses were psychosomatically induced: as writer, Conrad, like James, was attempting to dive into the unexplored darkness of psychology, fictionalizing the craze of Freud but through their own experiences. Unlike James, and unlike Melville, to whom he’s sometimes compared, Conrad’s visions of the human condition—the complexities and pessimism of his characters’ consciences and souls, the estrangement brought on by isolation, guilts, fears and sometimes courage—are literature derived from the challenge of a foreign language. While true the mazy chronology of his stories can be off-putting, sometimes irritatingly because, as in Heart of Darkness, supporting characters are unnamed, and often the florid prose is thicker than our palettes can absorb, a hundred years later we’re still in awe of how his command of English narrative blooms of mystery and psychological and moral perceptions. Heart of Darkness has the beauty of language comparable to Joyce’s The Dead and Dylan Thomas’s Under Milk Wood—a language of beauty for voices.

For many more years than movie makers have wanted to bring Malcolm Lowry’s Under the Volcano and Paul Bowles’ The Sheltering Sky to the screen they’ve wanted to film Heart of Darkness. John Huston managed to make both Under the Volcano and The Dead; in the case of the former, he was only able to bring a safe literal translation to Lowry’s sloshed, toxic voluminosity, and in the latter he seemed to impress a whole lot of Kaelettes with what looked like an invitation to an Evening of “Amateur Hour” Finals, until the very ending, when Donal McCann, off screen to boot, brings Joyce to glorious life. (Only 83 minutes in length, it seems three times as long.) Bernardo Bertolucci seemed to be having a Mass for the Dysenterics said during his version of The Sheltering Sky, when perhaps what might have been celebrated was one for sexual obfuscation. And, as most everyone knows, Francis Ford Coppola used Conrad’s Kurtz in Apocalypse Now to punctuate against the American intervention in Vietnam. Despite the expensive, impressive panoramas, Coppola didn’t find the connection between what Conrad was cautioning and the Vietnam War. As I see it, Conrad’s Kurtz, the ivory hunter turned jungle Messiah, is paralleling the Cortes expedition into Mexico: awaiting Kurtz was a tribe of black Montezumas, who, like the Aztec emperor, believed as destiny a God was to come. The Vietnamese were never looking for a “White God to rule over the dark hordes.”

Directors who wanted to make Heart of Darkness had two obstacles: getting the financing and producing a filmable script. No major movie company saw audience interest in a gloomy, disease-of-the-mind horror story, and they readily backed up their fears by pointing out the dismal box office of other Conrad-based movies: An Outcast of the Islands, considered to be the best of his stories on screen; the bummer Lord Jim starring Peter O’Toole; and based on Conrad’s novella The Duel, Ridley Scott’s The Duellists, its major virtue being the look of paintings. The larger problem for Heart of Darkness is in getting a coherent, playable adaptation; despite the persistent acclaim for the story, and all the scholarly interpretation, Conrad creates in Kurtz an astonishingly weak, vague megalomaniac—a mouse. Many academicians have been remiss in not pointing out, according to Marlow’s first person narrative, he saw Kurtz’s “soul was mad. Being alone in the wilderness, it had looked within itself, and by heavens! I tell you, it had gone mad...I saw the inconceivable mystery of a soul that knew no restraint, no faith, and no fear.” Eleven paragraphs later, Marlow says Kurtz “was an impenetrable darkness. I looked down at him as you peer down at a man who is lying at the bottom of precipice where the sun never shines.” How can we the readers “peer” at what Marlow is describing when what he’s describing isn’t there? As shrewdness, a literary and psychological construct, Conrad turns the tables on his own promise of an evil vision by not delivering; this journey into a blackened soul is all in the imagination. This the major frustration of the multitude of directors and screenwriters who have attempted to conjure movie imagery worthy of Kurtz’s psychosis, of Conrad’s nebulousness. Orson Welles had the most intriguing concept: he wanted to voice over an unseen Marlow and play Kurtz.

Risk-takers over at TNT-Turner Pictures believed they could get a version of Heart of Darkness made, and on the strength of his abilities at occult and visual decay in Don’t Look Now, and Castaway, which is something like an English Couple Robinson, accepted Nicolas Roeg as director. For what was accomplished, we have to call Roeg’s version respectable. One immediate success: Captain Charlie Marlow, played by Tim Roth, and for the reason we wouldn’t have thought possible: in spite what seems everyone’s obsession with the madman, in the written tale as well as the movie, Marlow does not get overshadowed by the demented Kurtz. With a voice at the beginning’s narration suggesting Daniel Day-Lewis’s Fryer in The Bounty and confirming this is indeed a play for articulation, Roth is who keeps us watching; his thin frame, large nose and sun-bleached hair combine to give his performance a strength that oughtn’t be there, because Roeg’s direction is, elsewhere, soft as room-temperature butter. More to the point: we as viewers sometimes don’t know exactly what Marlow’s doing up the river, as everyone else suspects—probably knows—Kurtz has gone bonkers. (More than one overly-attired White Man confirms “there have been rumors, rumors...”) Roth’s curiosity holds us to him: as actor he needed to see what was in store for him as much we wanted to see how Roeg would visual Kurtz’s demonic craziness. In fact, the movie was filmed in exact sequence, to help build the dread, the fear, the encroaching evil. (Only there isn’t much persuasive dread, or fear, or evil.) Watching Roth’s Marlow, especially when he smears blood on his face, I thought of Werner Herzog’s anguish in the documentary on the making of his Fitzcarraldo entitled Burden of Dreams, which would be a fine subtitle to the years-long quest to make Heart of Darkness. And the maxi-thin Fitzcarraldo seeps into our thoughts even before this, when seeing Marlow and the village blacks retrieve the sunken boat to be used to seek out Kurtz.

Conrad knew our curiosities would be aroused by what is a tease of a look into (at the time unchartered) depths of psychology, and don’t we all know literary classes spend most of their time discussing Kurtz. Since Apocalypse Now, which unfortunately TNT used as a come-on in their ads, Marlon Brando has become too identified with the character: not only do students “see” Kurtz “Brandofied,” actors who might play the character probably will as well. Hence, we get John Malkovich wrapped in what looks like a raw silk curtain, reduced to a half-tub version of the idol. Though Brando’s voice, which seemed to be getting weaker and more whiny as the years pass, has its semi-deranged effects, what’s mesmeric is his piggish grotesqueness; it’s scary, all right, but not Conrad-scary. (Marlow describes Kurtz as “not much heavier than a child.”) Malkovich’s voice doesn’t have any resonance, either, and without it, he doesn’t have anything else to fall back on; he can’t even get Kurtz to visually penetrate. The depth Conrad supplies is how power corrupts, how it infects with consequences as horror, all through his arched prose. In this TNT version, it’s Marlow’s verbal account which supplies whatever depth because Kurtz speaks less than two hundred words. So it’s no surprise—may even be Conrad’s Revenge—this is where Roeg and screen adapter Benedict Fitzgerald get trapped: excepting four lines, nothing they’ve given Malkovich to say is in the novella; they’ve written for him phonied up mediocrity we could believe they’ve borrowed whole sentences from introductions published in various editions of the story, pedantry about “light, darkness, the abyss.” In trying to pin Kurtz down, we get this: “There is no more detestable creature in nature than the one who runs away from his demons”—not once but twice. There might have been the chance this Conrad-like fakery could have been forceful had Malkovich “discoursed” with a voice Marlow recalls “rang deep to the very last. It survived his strength to hide in the magnificent folds of eloquence the barren darkness of his heart.” Malkovich’s doesn’t; he’s limp, soggy—as if the humidity is more the disease killing him instead of the illness which inevitably does. The way he baby-shuffles around his thatched, ornate hut, you’d swear he wasn’t so much dying as recuperating from his Camille Port in The Sheltering Sky. But the larger issue is putting an American actor in the part: this is a role for searing craziness, for the kind of actor who can rattle our moral cages. Malkovich can get by with his masquerades in an Eastwood picture like In the Line of Fire and he somehow worked commanding magic against his own unattractiveness in Dangerous Liaisons, and brought a pleasing surliness to his photographer in The Killing Fields. Physically at least, he shouldn’t seem unable to mirror “the ivory face, the expression of sombre pride, ruthless power, (the) craven terror” of Kurtz. Instead, he’s become a master at measured prostitution, as seen in the gagger Places in the Heart; he grants his favors arbitrarily. He’s not Conradian here; like Brando, he’s Capotesque.

After Roth, there’s a second, albeit easier success—the use of Belize as a substitute for the Congo. You don’t have to be anything more than an armchair traveler to know Belize isn’t Africa, and some will point out the tropical settings practically film themselves—The African Queen, Apocalypse Now, The Mosquito Coast—but Roeg and photographer Anthony Richmond come very close to Marlow’s view: “Going up that river was like traveling back to the earliest beginnings of the world, when vegetation rioted on the earth and the big trees were kings. A great silence, an impenetrable forest. The air was warm, thick, heavy, sluggish. There was no joy in the brilliance of sunshine. The long stretches of the water-way ran on, deserted into the gloom of over-shadowed distances.” About the only things they don’t get, the avoidance of which is right, are the “silvery sand-banks hippos and alligators.” The substitution is most effective when, drenched in a twilight fog, the boat is closed in on by the warrior-clad tribe, some of whom wear headdresses out of The Creature from the Black Lagoon and Predator. Roeg succeeds in getting the beautiful Iman to look like “a wild and gorgeous apparition” whose “face had a tragic and fierce aspect of wild sorrow and of dumb pain mingled with the fear of some struggling, half-shaped resolve.” The only fun: the actor who plays Alphonse Degrief, a name as planted joke about the difficulties encountered while making the movie, wears what appears to be a Napoleon-like nightshirt.

Purists have argued Heart of Darkness is intrinsically unfilmable, insisting there’s no way to visually record Conrad’s inner sanctum of dementia. They’ve said the same about Under the Volcano and The Sheltering Sky and, in looking over those results, they may be right. Movies are, for the most part, intrinsic common denominators; by their very nature they dumb down original source material. This process can be exacerbated by movie makers wanting to secure the largest possible audience, and even if they don’t, their backers do. And it’s often compounded by the movie makers inaccurately weighing an audience’s interest in the source. These are some of the reasons why Under the Volcano doesn’t work as movie as it might as opera; the audience is pre-judged not to be as interested in Lowry’s hallucinatory verbiage as it would be about a literal story not making one damned bit of sense. As opera, the torrent of boozed psychedelic word heaps could be showcased and we’d be able to accept the central character’s dumb-dumb wife as operatic convention. Heart of Darkness has strong possibilities as opera too: it may be the only medium to present melodramtic punch to Kurtz’s megalomania, allowing for a show-stopping aria as caveat. Excluding politics, where but in opera can you turn a mouse into a giant? (03/2022)

River Painting by Malte Madsen


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Text COPYRIGHT © Ralph Benner 1996 (Revised 3/2022) All Rights Reserved.