While “Apocalypse Now” is based loosely on Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad, there are many key differences that contrast the two works. The differences in “Apocalypse Now”, however, highlight the main points of Heart of Darkness. Heart of Darkness is set in the European imperialism era, whereas “Apocalypse Now” is set during the Vietnam war in Cambodia. This difference makes the reader think of the moral justification of both settings, bringing out one of the controversial aspects of the book. The main characters in each work differ slightly, and because of this we see Marlow as more of a self-seeker whereas Willard is the dutiful green beret. These differences bring out characteristics of Heart of Darkness that we as a reader might not have noticed otherwise.
The first difference, visible from the beginning, is the two different settings. Wether it’s the Vietnam War or imperialism, the characters have the sense that they can do whatever they want in the foreign lands. There are no rules of society in either places. “Apocalypse Now” deals more directly with a war, whereas Heart of Darkness can be seen as an attack on Africa. This difference makes the reader think more closely about what exactly imperialism is. It can be seen as a war that is hidden, lurking underneath the image of the white man’s burden. Perhaps Conrad uses Heart of Darkness to expose the dangers and illusions connected with imperialism. Both war and imperialism are morally questionable. “Apocalypse Now” serves as a commentary on the way society now accepts war the way Europe used to accept imperialism, as seen in Heart of Darkness.
Another major difference is between the characters of Marlow and Willard. Willard is in his position because he was told that he was to kill Kurtz. His journey down the river is less of a personal experience than Marlow’s. Marlow, on the other hand, is self-motivated. His journey comes from his yearning for adventure and for change. He is unsure of his final goal until long into his trip, and even then he is unclear what his purpose is. As Marlow is re-telling his story, he is realizes and acknowledges that his sharing of the story is incomplete. Marlow says that “when you have to attend to…incidents of the surface, the reality…fades. The inner truth is hidden–luckily, luckily” (61). In watching “Apocalypse Now” and comparing the two journeys, the reader realizes just how much of a personal experience Marlow’s journey is. Without the comparison of Willard, who is under specific orders, we might not realize this important fact.
Another difference between Willard and Marlow is how each one metaphorically “looks over the edge”. Willard stands on the steps of the Cambodian Village, looking out at all the people bowing to him. This scene shows Willard’s power in the community, but he chooses to throw down his machete and leave. Willard’s “edge” here is deciding wether or not to stay and rule the people. He could become the god to the village that Kurtz had been and supplant his position. The “edge” in Heart of Darkness, however, represents death. Marlow uses the edge metaphor many times to talk about Kurtz, “he had made that last stride, he has stepped over the edge” (132), and also to represent himself , “I had peeped over the edge myself….I had been permitted to draw back my hesitating foot” (132). The comparison between the two interpretations brings forth a better clarity of their meanings.
Reading Heart of Darkness without watching “Apocalypse Now” is possible. After seeing the movie, however, Marlow’s character is better defined. In contrast to Willard, we see just how naive Marlow is at the beginning of his journey, and his unawareness of the cruelty of imperialism. We also see how the setting Heart of Darkness in Africa during imperialism is crucial to the story. There must be moral inconsistencies between Marlow’s observations of the treatment of the natives, and the rest of Europe’s opinion. Comparing the two works not only helps us better understand Heart of Darkness, but it draws our attention to points that we might have otherwise realized in reading the novel alone.