It is not often that a novel is adapted into a film, and done well. Much less, it has to be said, when the story then takes a life of its own, born of equal intent, but beats the original story to its punchline.
The Heart of Darkness, a novella published in 1899 by Joseph Conrad, is considered one of the greatest works of literature of the 20th century. The story is centred around the narrator, Charles Marlowe who tells his story of travel to Africa, down a great river into the heart of darkness.
The story, as it relates to the book and film, is a critique of racism and imperialism.
The screenwriter for Apocolypse Now, John Milius, attended the University of Southern California with a fellow classmate who would incidentally cross paths with Milius later on again, namely George Lucas. While attending the class, his professor, Irwin Blacker, stated that no screenwriter had ever perfected a script adaptation for Conrad’s book. This comment would stick with Milius for years to come.
Milius would rise to the professor’s challenge; he had intended to write the script and ultimately have the film directed by George Lucas. Later on, the film’s director who would assume the role and take the project from Lucas’ hands, Francis Ford Coppola, recalled sitting in a room with the two: “We sat around talking about our dreams. Obviously, many of them were trying to get their projects going. I recalled George Lucas and John Milius mentioned a lot of guys returning back from Vietnam, bringing word of the craziness of it, the drugs, the hallucination, and the surfing. They were cooking up a script that John would write for George to direct.”
During University, Lucas had won a competition that landed him a scholarship award that would pay for him to attend a major production studio and watch how movies were made. This is where he met Francis Ford Coppola.
It was through this scholarship that Lucas met Coppola. “At the time, I was working on an idea to do a student film about a soldier doing hand-to-hand combat with a P-51 Mustang. And it was out of those conversations that we developed Apocolypse Now in terms of what became,” Lucas commented.
This resulted in Apocolypse Now being a kind of Vietnam documentary initially. Eventually, Lucas became distracted with wanting to shoot and direct his magnum opus, Star Wars.
Fortunately, it would turn out to be a good thing when Francis Ford Coppola took over. Milius was able to see his vision through, and Coppola created the perfect cinematic representation of Conrad’s novel. It was after he directed the successful film The Rain People in 1969, that his production company American Zoetrope was given a development deal from Warner Bros. Pictures.
Milius and Lucas’ first attempt was not completely in vain. Lucas had hit a creative wall, and a few years had passed without being able to complete it or visualise the complete product.
It was the production deal with Warner Bros. Pictures and a string of successful hit productions, including The Godfather, and The Godfather Part II, and The Great Gatsby that Coppola agreed to take over and complete it.