Critical Contrast – The Horror (Part 1)

So everyone says the books are better, that the miniseries had a better grasp of the characters, the comic’s ending made way more sense, or why the hell did they try to make a film of Doom in the first place (answer: money. Lovely, lovely money). We live in a time of superhero sagas of the silver screen, condensing decades of continual storylines into something watchable; a time when franchises are multimedia, and everything has been remade at least twice.

But what does this mean to you? You being the kind of person who’d spend an hour drunkenly slurring your well thought out tirade against Zack Snyder’s Watchman to a total stranger (where’s the squid Zack!?).

Welcome to Critical Contrast. Come in, sit down, there’s coffee on. We’re going to take a semi essay like look at the tricky art of adaptation, taking a theme or two and analysing its journey through the intestinal tract of multimedia. With spoilers, obviously.

So why not start with something upbeat, like a harrowing descent into humanity’s evil nature?

The Horror. The Horror.

In this run of Critical Contrast we’re going to look at Heart of Darkness, a 19th century novella, a somewhat grim journey down the Congo river in the height of the Belgium Ivory trade. Why? Because it spawned Apocalypse Now, the 1979 film that set the benchmark for portraying the Vietnam War, and Spec Ops: The Line, the 2012 video game that downright eviscerated the hyper masculine modern warfare genre by pretending to be one.

It’s going to be a rip roaring adventure of sun, sand and suffering alright, but before we get to the glorious soundtracks of the Vietnam war or the slightly awkward xenophobia of the modern shooter craze, we’re going to have to do a bit of reading…

Don’t look at me like that its only 160 pages. Here, have some Jimi Hendrix, he’ll see you through.


“I think it had whispered to him things about himself which he did not know, things of which he had no conception till he took counsel with this great solitude—and the whisper had proved irresistibly fascinating.”

Heart of Darkness opens on the river Thames, a group of sailors waiting for a change of tide. Charles Marlow, one of the sailors, proceeds to tell the Novella’s actual tale of his time on the Congo river, particularly his meeting with Mr Kurtz; a highly successful agent of the ivory trade deep within the African Interior.

Published in 1899, Conrad’s (naturally) period writing style is descriptive and verbose like a ripping yarn, generating images of pith hats and empires and absurdly large mutton chops. The tone however is a tad different. Its morose, thoughtful, and uneasy. The bulk of the prose is tangential, serving as texture and tone for the central narrative rather than furthering it, the long sentence structures threatening to swallow the modern reader just as the jungle threatens to swallow the story’s protagonists.

Through these tangents the novella explores the metaphor of Marlow’s journey as a descent into humanity’s evil nature in its two major themes- individual descent into savagery away from the checks of civilisation, and civilisation’s own capacity for barbarity.

As Marlow makes his way into the African interior, those he meets typify the callous greed and corporate backstabbing that makes up The Company, which runs the ivory trade. Arriving in the outer trading station, he finds himself in “the gloomy circle of some Inferno,” surrounded by African workers, starved, exhausted, and left to die of disease and fatigue, implying the indifference of The Company to the natives whose land they plunder.

Apathy and inaction typify the white men of The Company. The tension of being in a foreign and hostile environment weighs them down, breeding lethargy and procrastination, something that Marlow looks down on with contempt, and their disinterest is seen as the antithesis of Mr Kurtz, seemingly the only man who has been able to achieve anything.

Although he does not appear in person until the novella’s end, Kurtz is the focal point of the narrative, and from here scarcely a passage goes by without his mention. It’s here that the framing of the novella is most important. Many of the Marlow’s lengthy tangents are on the man and would be ponderous if told straightforwardly. The nonlinear framing however makes it akin to a turn of the century fever dream, flirting back and forth through its own timeline, choosing to provide flavour to the themes surrounding Kurtz rather than outright telling his tale.

All contact has been lost with Kurtz however, and as a first class agent who sends in as much ivory as all the others put together, Marlow is sent down river by The Company to discover his whereabouts.

Heart’s description of Africa and the Congo River in particular is summed up in three words: dark, eerie, and unknowable. These characterisations are treated as antagonistic, or at the very least unwelcoming to the interloper, fuelling the uneasiness felt throughout Marlow’s journey upriver.

It’s here that Heart begins to explore it’s themes more candidly, such as this quote from when the ship passes a gathering of natives through the trees, where the question of civilisation and savagery is practically spelt out through Marlow’s thoughts;

” Well, you know, that was the worst of it—this suspicion of their not being inhuman. It would come slowly to one. They howled  and leaped, and spun, and made horrid faces; but what thrilled you was just the thought of their humanity— like yours—the thought of your remote kinship  with this wild and passionate uproar.”

As they near the Inner Station, the steamboat is attacked by the natives, and the helmsman is impaled by a spear, dying at Marlow’s feet. Upon escaping however Marlow’s true concern remains with Kurtz, whose sheer power of personality fascinates him.

As they approach the inner station, Marlow spies a figure known merely as the Russian, who informs the crew that Kurtz is alive, but sick. Some of the crew step ashore to meet him, and Marlow is left with this strange man.

if Marlow is fascinated with Kurtz, then the Russian is obsessed- a devout follower who hangs on his every word, and spouts his rhetoric like a religious disciple (“‘I tell you,’ he cried, ‘this man has enlarged my mind.’”) .

It’s through him that we learn what Kurtz has been up to, far away from civilization- Kurtz has made himself a god amongst the natives, rallying their warriors, and using increasingly barbaric methods to secure as much ivory as he can. As Marlow learns this, he uses his spyglass to look upon a row of heads on spikes surrounding Kurtz’s house.

Again, the novella explores this descent into savagery away from the gaze of civilisation more openly, as Marlow’s train of thought leads him to suggest that it was the jungle itself that opened Kurtz to the indulgences of his darker impulses.

Kurtz, sick and dying, is stretchered away from the camp (along with all the ivory naturally), as the natives that had worshipped the man look on, stalking the steam ship throughout the return journey. As Kurtz speaks with Marlow, we learn what drives him- belief in both himself and his immense plans, which he considers unfinished. Kurtz is torn between returning home and returning to the jungles that he has succumbed to, at one point crawling on his hands and knees towards his native army before Marlow convinces him return, lest he be lost. But in the end he eventually succumbs to his sickness, and utters the most iconic line from the novella:

” ‘The horror! The horror!’ “

Marlow describes these final words as a judgement, a glimpsed truth, and it’s easy to extrapolate it as a summary of the novella’s themes; acknowledging the darkness inherent in man’s heart let loose from society’s checks whilst condemning the barbarities committed by society under imperialism and colonialism.

In the final passages, Marlow is given the opportunity to tell her Kurtz’s Fiancée his last words, but instead lies, saying that Kurtz spoke only her name. The truth, he says, would have been “too dark altogether.”

Marlow’s journey was a fatalistic one, and although we the reader have known from the start that he survives the ordeal, it’s apparent that he hasn’t survived it intact.

So there we have Jospeh Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, a 19th century look into man’s innate propensity for evil, both as a driven individual with personal goals and morality, and man as a society, keeping the darkness of the individual hidden and unseemly whilst committing horrors on mass in the name of civilisation. But how were these tenants carried over to another time, another medium, and another bloody chapter in the history of man?

Check back next time for a similarly harrowing adventure in Apocalypse Now- with bigger explosions, better soundtrack, and a conspicuously fat Marlon Brando.

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