“Almost we are persuaded that there is something after all … something essential waiting for all of us in the dark alleys of the world, aboriginally loathsome, immeasurable and certainly nameless.”
– Orson Welles on Heart of Darkness, novel
In 1939, after rising to fame with his production of Julius Caesar and his radio version of The War of the Worlds, Orson Welles presented RKO Pictures with a 174-page script adapted from the Joseph Conrad novel Heart of Darkness. However, after a few months of debate RKO’s president George Schaefer decided to pull the project. Welles’ Heart of Darkness was seen as a risk on three fronts: financially, stylistically and politically. A fourth issue that the film may have encountered is the difficulty of transposing a literary masterpiece to the screen. With the power of hindsight, one can look at Apocalypse Now and see how adapting a complex book with such dark subject matter presents an additional set of obstacles.
The main reason Welles’ Heart of Darkness was never made was, quite simply, budget. It became clear in the early pre-production stages that the film would cost well over $1m. Welles’ film used extremely expensive and complex camera work such as multiple process shots (shots in which action takes place in front of a screen on which an image already filmed is projected). It also required matte paintings, miniatures and intricate jungle sets. RKO asked Welles for another, more conventional project, and he showed them his B film, Citizen Kane.
Yet it was not just the money that made RKO wary. Orson wanted to reveal a ‘new grammar of film-making’. He planned to shoot the film in 165 long panning shots in the first person, the camera being the eyes of the main character Marlow. The screenplay was to begin with on-camera “screen-tests”, where the audience would assume the role of a caged canary or seated in an electric chair. Fiona Banner, an artist who staged a screenplay of Welles’ script in 2012, notes ‘I’ve never seen a script that dedicates so much space to camera… You feel that if this film had been made, Hollywood might have been a different place”.
Not only did Welles want to use revolutionary cinematography, he also wanted to divert from the traditional Hollywood narrative. Although the film would be shot from Marlow’s point of view, with Welles playing him, glimpses of his face would occasionally be reflected in glass or water. He also considered playing Kurtz to reveal Marlow’s growing obsession with him, leading to a merging of their identities. This would have undermined Marlow’s narrative, giving a somewhat schizophrenic nature to the film. The studio may have baulked at this unusual approach to filmmaking, and Welles was not prepared to adjust his creative dream. He explains: “I wanted my kind of control. They didn’t understand that. There was no quarrelling. It was just two different points of view, absolutely opposite of each other. Mine was taken to be ignorance, and I read their position as established dumb headedness.”
The third reason for Hollywood’s reticence about the script was the overt political overtones. Welles took a strong stance against fascism and Banner explains that “when [Welles] started writing it, fascism wasn’t such a big story in Hollywood, but by the time he finished it, in 1939, it must have been something of a hot potato.” The script echoes the growing crises in Europe at the time and Welles made this clear by giving the company which Marlow meets German names.
Conrad’s dark and complex novella is regarded as one of the greatest pieces of literature ever written, and adapting such a difficult text is no small undertaking. Welles’ producing partner and actor John Houseman explains that “Joseph Conrad had used all sorts of subtle literary devices; the evil that destroyed him was suggested and implied but never shown. In the concrete medium of film no such evasion was possible. Orson was aware of this, but he had not given it much thought.”
One can look at the famous Apocalypse Now to see the difficulties in adapting the novel. The director of Apocalypse Now, Francis Ford Coppola, explains “the questions that that story [Heart of Darkness] kept putting me under… I couldn’t answer. Yet I knew that to not answer… would be to fail”. One of the novel’s most haunting qualities is Conrad’s “unique propensity for ambiguity” (Harold Bloom). It is exactly this pervasive sense of fear and madness in the novel that is dissipated when given form on film.
At the core of this complex and ambiguous novel is its dark subject matter. Friedrich Nietzsche said “if you gaze long enough into an abyss, the abyss will gaze back into you.” Heart of Darkness: A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse, a documentary about the making of Apocalypse Now, reveals how it almost drove Coppola over the edge. In a recording of Coppola during the filming, he says to his wife “the film will not be good, this film is a twenty million dollar disaster, why won’t anyone believe me, I’m thinking of shooting myself.” At the Cannes Film Festival in 1979 Coppola said “[during the making of the film] little by little we went insane”.
In conclusion, if Orson Welles’ Heart of Darkness had been made, it would most likely have been a brilliant and revolutionary film for its time. It is in the embryonic Heart of Darkness that we see themes that later came to characterise Welles’ work, such as the destruction of the meta-narrative and exploration of the ever-present primitivism of the modern self. Adapting Heart of Darkness is perhaps the ultimate cinematic challenge, yet if there was ever a director to battle with the beast and “the horror”, Orson Welles may well have been it.