On watching the first 6 minutes of Heart of Darkness (Nicholas Roeg, 1994)

by Mark Wallace

I have been reading Conrad’s Heart of Darkness recently, and have of course watched the much-admired semi-adaptation of the novella, Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now (1979). I also took a peek at the lesser known adaptation from 1994, directed by Nicholas Roeg, a noted filmmaker in his own right for works like Walkabout, Don’t Look Now and The Man Who Fell to Earth. Roeg’s HoD is not too readily available, but it has been uploaded onto YouTube in small segments, only the first of which I have watched, six minutes in which Marlow is introduced, sitting in a boat engaging in a conversation with an emissary of “the Company”, identified as a lawyer, come to collect Kurtz’s papers, which Marlow refuses to give him. The framing device for the film, then, is not Marlow telling a story to some sailor chums as in Conrad, but, it would appear, to the Company Lawyer. The dialogue for this opening scene is taken partly from Marlow’s preliminaries to his story in Conrad, and partly from the scene related towards the end of the novella between Marlow and the Lawyer.

Company Lawyer Guy raises a toast to Empire-building

What is interesting is the way some of Marlow’s dialogue is given to the Lawyer. This is a man of advanced years, stiff and respectable looking, stocky, ponderous in his movements, with a starched collar (played by Peter Vaughan). He is a quintessential, stereotypical Victorian man of business. He is also, somewhat improbably, drinking wine from a glass while on the boat talking to Marlow. The drinking of wine signifies his gluttony, his devotion to sensual gratification; his clothes and appearance signify his unthinking conservatism and lack of imagination; his lip-pursing while Marlow talks of the evils of colonialism illustrates his unsympathetic nature. In these opening minutes, we are given one of the most famous speeches from the novella:

It’s just robbery with violence, aggravated murder on a great scale. The conquest of the earth mostly means the taking it away from those with different skin tone, slightly flatter noses than ourselves. Not a pretty thing when you look into it too deeply.

That’s all, just those lines. Another part of the speech is, in fact, given to the Lawyer, a paean to the Romans: “A brave lot they must have been”, he concludes. It is in response to this that Marlow counters with the conquest/ robbery with violence analogy. Those familiar with the novella will note that after making this analogy, Marlow makes a very important qualification: “What redeems it is the idea only” etc. This part of the speech is left out.

By choosing which thoughts of Marlow’s can be retained, which must be removed, and which displaced onto an obviously demonized representative of corrupt authority, Roeg’s HoD does something a lot of adaptations of classic texts of recent times do. The thinking behind it goes, I believe, something like this: “Conrad was a great writer and Heart of Darkness is a great book – everyone knows that. Therefore he must have had properly liberal and progressive political views, as only moral and ideological correctness is consistent with classic literature”.

Thus Conrad’s irresolvable ambiguities are ironed out, and anything questionable is A) left out or B) communicated in an obviously disapproving way that also implies Conrad disapproved of it.  This is a feature of popular discourse on what it considers classic literature: ambiguity is not an appropriate feature, unmistakeably liberal politics are. With this reading we’re back in the pre-Achebean days of HoD criticism – not that I remember those days but if Achebe is correct then the work was discussed without reference to its colonialist sympathies. Not that I’m advocating a wholly Achebean reading, either. The text isn’t really reducible to any single reading.

This is a subject that has struck me in my studies of adaptations of Victorian writers like Dickens, Gaskell, etc. It seems adapters and their audiences are constantly looking for ways to read these writers as liberal-progressives, even radicals. I’ve recently been looking at Gaskell in some depth, and would describe her as a conservative and paternalist writer; yet adaptations are constantly trying to rewrite her politics. Conrad is politically a more complex case than Gaskell, but all of these writers function similarly in popular discourse: it seems that current popular discourse can’t gets its head around the notion of great literature and conservative and even reactionary politics, so, rather than adapting possibly not great literature with the right politics, it attributes the right politics to the ready-established greats, and adapts them through that lens. This is made abundantly clear in adaptations of relevant works. This is surely something that warrants study in the near future. What I have written here is not very original observation, perhaps, but it has not been fully dealt with, either.

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