When he created Apocalypse Now, Francis Ford Coppola did not discard the original theme of colonialism in Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness.
What he did do was radical in the extreme. Coppola changed the original settings and time-frames by transporting it from the late nineteenth century centre of Africa into the undiscovered depths of Vietnamese jungles, creating links between past and present events. Coppola departed from conventional, familiar war themes which rely on history and media coverage of live events.
What he did was delve into the dark hearts and minds of the story’s characters and pushed the boundaries of exploring the origins of human madness and its consequences, particularly that of Colonel Kurtz (Marlon Brando) in the same way that Conrad did in his original novel.
Coppola’s radical departure included the work of screenwriter, John Milius. They collaborated to create original narratives. They created their own screen texts and character dialogues. One of the memorable scenes from Apocalypse Now came from the lines of Lieutenant-Colonel Kilgore (Robert Duvall). This made colonel was meeting the film’s protagonist, Captain Willard (Martin Sheen) on the battlefield. In this pivotal scene, Kilgore remarks that:
“I love the smell of napalm in the morning.”
As opposed to the smell of a garden, or the smell of coffee, in the morning.
Captain Willard resembles Conrad’s original second narrator. The above scene foregrounds the cruelty of man’s profane nature. Lt.Col. Kilgore and his men “swoop down on a yard full of children.” This surfing fanatic motivates his attack on the beach, believing that it “offers great waves” rather than the masquerade of liberating oppressed villagers. Through such an exploration of personalities, also emphasised in the novel, the director escalates callous behaviour and brutality. Such explorations reappear in Steven Spielberg’s Schindler’s List.
The literary critic, Robert Stam, mentions that source-novel texts are transformed by a complex series of operations which include “selection, amplification, concretization, actualisation, critique, extrapolation, popularization, re-accentuation and transculturation”. On most of these counts, Francis Ford Coppola’s reinterpretation of man’s “heart of darkness” is successful. Coppola’s screen adaptation of Heart of Darkness is successful for its uniqueness in elevating the Vietnam sub-genre into a cult following. Audiences from different walks of life have either rejected Coppola’s work for its banality, or lauded it for the way in which he transfers a literary work of art into a work of art in film which reflects radically a universal conversation on the human condition. Because of its commercial success, Coppola’s films, unlike one of his later films Youth Without Youth (which replicates the theme of reverse ageing by F Scott Fitzgerald in his short story The Curious Case of Benjamin Button) is not entirely recognised as an art film.
Italian writer, Niccolo Ammaniti’s original novel, I’m not Scared, is both vivid and colourful. The narrative’s short paragraphs are ideal for adaptation as a screenplay. It “retains a cinematic feel about it.” Narrating time is in the immediate present and events unfold rapidly towards an eventful climax. Such a story also has an eventful happy ending familiar to family-oriented films produced by Disney studios which also produced Ammaniti’s Italian language film Io Non Ho Paura.
Alan Pulverness of the British Film Council makes the claim that filmmakers regularly source libraries for novels that have not yet been adapted. Ammaniti’s work is an exception to this claim. His novel was originally conceived as a screenplay which he wanted to direct.
Alan J Pakula compensates for the lack of film space available to closely replicate William Styron’s novel which uses detailed characterisation to tell the story of Sophie Zawistowska through the first person narrative voice of Stingo. The choice of Kevin Kline as the psychologically damaged Nathan Landau was inspired and encouraged by the film’s lead actress, Meryl Streep who portrays Sophie. Pakula directs Kline’s skills as actor to tell the story of Sophie’s mad lover in a handful of scenes which show the trio of friends in conversation with one another in the Pink guesthouse of their Jewish landlady.
There is one masterful scene in which Kline is shown vigorously and passionately conducting a symphony while facing the alcove windows of Sophie’s room. It is a short scene and does not draw the audience away from the film’s main focus, the telling of Sophie’s story and the choices she is forced to make at the hands of her cruel Nazi oppressors. Sophie’s narrative is a crucial part of Sophie’s Choice, Pakula replicates it as close as possible, from the interior seating of the coach in which Sophie and her two children are travelling, to the moment when the Nazi officer carries her daughter away to be murdered. Both film and novel narrate Sophie’s story in medias res.
In Roman Polanski’s adaptation of The Pianist, there is a heavier reliance on characterisation with far less character dialogue (from the protagonist) and a reliance on physical gestures to create the visual effects required to authenticate the original narrative voice of Wladyslaw Szpilman’s own biographical account of his traumatic experiences in Poland during the Holocaust. In the event, actor, Adrien Brody, with gaunt, lanky features remarkably similar to Spzilman, undergoes a strenuous programme of physical transformation (weight loss).
While Thomas Keneally relies on fiction to accentuate issues highlighted by Hammond and Regan – “the exploration of personality”, the setting of characters in a “solidly imagined milieu”, foregrounding “the effect of the past upon the present and future events” and create a realistic “texture of everyday happenings” – in Schindler’s Ark, Steven Spielberg uses graphic images to recreate the grim circumstances in which Oskar Schindler’s Jews found themselves. In his foreword, Keneally unnecessarily explains his use of fiction alongside the historical facts he has collected during his research through interviews with the surviving Schindler Jews. In keeping with the period (in which films were shown mainly in black and white in any case), Spielberg’s photographic reproduction is highly effective in using the black and white cinematic newsreel effect to create a realistic-looking film which mirrors the horrors suffered by the Jews at the hands of the Nazis.
With the exception of The Pianist, the novels mentioned here do justice, in various artistic ways to fictionalise important historic and cultural events which are preserved for present and future generations. While all the films mentioned are successful in “communicating definite ideas about the integral meaning and value of the literary text” and bear the fruits of successful collaborations between directors, technicians and their actors, both Francis Ford Coppola and Steven Spielberg’s films are notably distinct from the formulaic and secure methods relied upon to enhance and interpret the text.
In Coppola’s case, he goes against the grain of society’s perceptions in idealising war. Spielberg’s creativity and innovation is successful in creating a timely and shocking artistic interpretation of the Holocaust so that those who view it, particularly, those who view Spielberg’s film without having experienced the Holocaust directly or indirectly, may never forget what happened.