Words by James Novello
Heart of Darkness is one of the most chilling fictional accounts of the Belgian Congo. Written during an era of international European colonial domination, the frame narrative details a normal trader, Marlow, describing his life-changing foray into the Belgian Congo while working for a rubber company. The description of the Dark Continent grabs readers with horrific depictions of a world that was portrayed as the antithesis of civilized European industrialism. Although so much time has passed since it was written, the narrative structure and themes found in Heart of Darkness still permeate popular culture. After all this time, why are we still so invested in the narrative structure of Heart of Darkness?
Heart of Darkness was written in 1899 by Joseph Conrad. A Polish-British man that lived during the height of Britain’s modern colonial ventures, Conrad’s fictional accounts of the high seas and far-flung lands brought his novels to acclaim during a time when the European mind was entranced with the limitless possibilities afforded by the newly discovered colonies. Detailing the horrors of the colonization of the Congo River Basin, Heart of Darkness opened the door for more modern critiques of Europe’s interventionism in Africa, the most famous of which being Things Fall Apart, a genre-defining novel by the Nigerian writer Chinua Achebe.
Remembered through various forms of media such as radio and television, the story’s largest and most resonant adaptation in popular American culture is Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now. The first adaptation of the novel that found mainstream success in American culture, the film follows the general plot of Heart of Darkness with modern themes, set in the Vietnam War. Since the success of Apocalypse Now, the general plot of Heart of Darkness has been reused in many other popular movies, and most recently, video games. What is this general plot line, and why is it still so popular within the modern consciousness?
The story’s basic narrative is as follows. A trader named Marlow details a short stint working for a Belgian-backed company (which is based upon a real organization) within the Belgian Congo, a company that is clearly mismanaged and is wreaking havoc on the Congo Basin. The story he tells others describes a boat trip up the Congo River in an attempt to find Kurtz, an agent of the company who has gone rogue. While experiencing the horrors of the Congo, he eventually finds Kurtz, who quickly succumbs to sickness, and Marlow returns to Europe.
Of course, this does not do the plot justice, and ignores the nuances of European representation of the colonial areas, as well as the overt themes of racism and dehumanization that Conrad sought to critique. Other important themes include the aspect of the company’s mismanagement of the colony, the cultural differences between Marlow and the African natives he encounters, and the overwhelming sense of dread manifested by the Congo itself.
Heart of Darkness lives on not only in older films like Apocalypse Now, but also in more modern mediums, like the video game Spec Ops: The Line. Both of these retellings of Conrad’s seminal work have a couple things in common, which include praise from critics and a product that utilizes modern storytelling mechanisms.
The first theme in both adaptations is the presence of an overriding Western force that is obliterating the area in question. In Apocalypse Now, the main force is the US Army in Vietnam, which is run by shadowy men at the top with strange intentions and lower-ranking officers like the surfing-obsessed madman Lieutenant Colonel Kilgore, who all come off as extremely unprofessional. Within the world of Spec Ops: The Line, the overriding mismanaging organization is, again, the armed forces of the United States as well as agents of the CIA, who are seen as terrorizing the civilians of Dubai, who eventually cause the city’s destruction. In addition, there are various time events and plot points that show the player themselves mismanaging the situations the game forces them into. In both instances, the overall narrative of the story allows for a critique of American imperialism and military objectives, in the same way that many analyses have viewed Conrad’s portrayal of the Congo as a display of Europe’s gross mismanagement of the situation.
The second theme is the cultural differences between the protagonist and the native people he interacts with. Within the confines of Vietnam in Apocalypse Now, the differences between the Americans and Vietnamese are somewhat unsurprising, as the Vietnamese are displayed as savage fighters and silent watchers. Again in Spec Ops, the main character constantly miscommunicates with the natives, who, over time, become more of an unseen blanket threat. Truly, in Heart of Darkness itself, the role of the native population of the Congo Basin is that of an almost unseen malevolent force. Very few of them have any distinctions from one another, and could be classified as a sort of darkness themselves that inhabits an unforgiving, harsh, and hostile place.
Finally, the overwhelming aura of absolute dread is prevalent in Apocalypse Now and Spec Ops. From the savage jungles of the Congo to the equally humid jungles of Vietnam to the sandy remains of Dubai, the environment itself provides a conflict with the viewer, slowly reclaiming modern man and threatening to turn him into a savage.
The savage dehumanization of the main character is possibly the greatest reason why Heart of Darkness has retained its relevance to popular culture. In modern society, the main attraction of the novella isn’t the emphasis on cultural differences or a good setting (although in a modern context it may reflect the growing critique against United States neo-colonialism). The core component that draws readers in – and, consequently, the one that sells tickets or copies – is the almost sadistic feeling of seeing a relatable, proud individual made speechless by the horrors he experiences.
The near-symmetric stories of both Kurtz and Marlow follow the path of hubristic lions forging too far into the dark wilderness and emerging as mice. In both adaptations, the Marlow characters begin their stories with some degree of haughtiness, prowess, or a skill set that sets them apart from an average man. As the plot unfolds, however, they slowly lose their edge and realize that none of their abilities can save them, and so they forge onward in almost complete silence, or even madness.
This vicious tearing-down of masculinity for all those haughty individuals that seek to steal their fortune from nature, is what truly draws crowds to continue to gravitate towards media reflective of Conrad’s piece. There is truly something voraciously captivating about watching a man experience the horrors of war, like in Apocalypse Now. The emphasis on user input within Spec Ops: The Line immerses the player in the experience, bringing to the forefront questions of what we seek from media that paints Western gentlemen into savage environments with hostile natives, and a commanding force that treats every life as negligible. With the ever-growing presence of user-focused media, the question will become whether or not we as individuals have fallen in love with Joseph Conrad’s novella because we enjoy seeing the myths of colonial superiority broken apart, or whether we subconsciously wish to be brought to the edge of madness ourselves.