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Subjectivity On Screen - Orson Welles and the Art of Adaptation

Adaptation of a story from one medium to another is one of the fundamental practices in creative story-telling. Foundational classics of literature and mythology from Homer to Shakespeare have often simply been reimaginings or continuations of even more ancient legends. Shakespeare's tragedies, King Lear or Hamlet, are adapted from ancient myths of Britain and Scandinavia respectively (DeGrazia & Wells, 2010). Adaptation of a piece of fiction is an illuminating process in the critical analysis of a text, demonstrating different interpretations and preoccupations both of the text itself and also of those adapting the work. Joseph Conrad’s seminal 1902 novella Heart of Darkness has held a critical fascination from the time of its publication, and has endured for over a century as a focal point of postcolonial and racial literary criticism. The work has thus inevitably inspired the engagement of other artists, especially filmmakers. In fact, it would be the prime ambition for the first film of a radical creative mind that would go on to shape cinematic story-telling forever - although not with this film. This essay will discuss Orson Welles’ failed 1939 project of adapting Heart of Darkness for the screen, analysing the ways an intricately subjective narrative was intended to take advantage of -and subvert- the possibilities of cinema. Even though the script never made it to a finished production, the script for Welles’ film nonetheless provides excellent insight into the translation of these concerns into an audio-visual medium.

The novella Heart of Darkness is the tale of a colonial ivory plant deep in the Belgian Congo, told through the lens of Marlow, a British sailor sent to recover the lost captain Kurtz deep in the rainforest. Kurtz has renounced the company and indeed the outside world completely, having installed himself as a brutal leader over an isolated tribe of local Africans deep within the rainforest. The story is a critique of the brutally exploitative colonial system, drawing attention to the ‘savagery’ in all men and contrasting civilisation with the apparently archetypal and primitive African. Equally, the book is greatly concerned with the subjectivity of narration and storytelling, with Marlow’s story being embedded within layers of frame narration and a proto-stream-of-consciousness writing style:

Conrad’s Marlow narratives do not adapt easily to the screen. Though a great many richly adventurous things happen to Marlow, the yield in cinematic terms is low. This is because of the way Marlow tells his stories - he is sparing with concrete details, he prefers to summarise rather than to dramatise, and he likes to envelop what he reports in lengthy metaphysical disquisitions and musings… (Welles’ problem) was to fill in Marlow’s vast silences and make them dramatically palpable (Carringer, 1985, p. 3).

Figure 1: Illustration of a Belgian encampment on the Congo River, 19th Century (Universal History Archive, n.d.).

In the 1930s, cinema continued to be a captivating and transformative artistic innovation. The still-young medium offered a solution to the dilemmas of language and meaning that had preoccupied modernist writers for the previous generation, allowing for a message of pure image to be transmitted to the audience without the mediation of word or metaphor that a written text required. The field of cinema itself was identified as being a fundamentally modern art form, existing in a circular relationship with modernity: it both shaped and was shaped by the transition into mass society and the revolution in representation that this move necessitated (Klein & Moses, 2021). The “obsession” of artists and theorists in the early 20th century with the relationship between photography/cinema and the written word was foundational both to Conrad and to Welles in the development of their respective artistic philosophies (Schotter, 2013, pp. 29-31). The need for literary realism had also been quelled by the capabilities of photo-representation, giving cinema the edge in naturalist story-telling. Perhaps most importantly, cinema’s ability to manipulate images through editing and montage gave the form an edge when it came to subjectivity and non-traditional storylines and perspectives (Sontag, 2008). In the 1920s and 1930s, these new creative possibilities represented an intriguing prospect for creatives: key modernist painter Salvador Dalí, for example was heavily involved in the creation of Luis Buñuel's surrealist work Un Chien Andalou (1929), a prime example of how early cinema utilised the image-based medium to explore surrealist representation.

Orson Welles won an unprecedented creative freedom with RKO due to the success of his radio adaptation of War of the Worlds
Figure 1: Orson Welles recording the infamous 'War of the Worlds' radio broadcast in 1938 (Gastonia Daily Gazette).

For these reasons, the cinema attracted the creative ambition of a young Orson Welles (1915-1985). Welles had gained both admiration and notoriety for his work in both theatre and radio, most notably his adaptation of H.G. Wells' novella War of the Worlds into a radio play: although the true impact is debated, the broadcast is associated with a mass panic amongst the population of New Jersey, believing the events to be a real news story of an extraterrestrial invasion. The infamy of this incident and his emerging celebrity status propelled Welles to an unprecedented deal with RKO Studios to produce two films with almost total creative liberty and selection of his own staff, free of the traditionally oppressive studio system (Carringer, 1985, p. 1). Welles chose Heart of Darkness as the subject of his first film script. Welles’ planned adaptation of the novella is revelatory for how it takes the experimentalism of early cinema to wrestle with this subjectivity and the unreliability of perception. Nonetheless, Welles himself described the script as ‘terribly loyal to Conrad’, and the initial script was often dogmatically faithful to the novella (Billy, 2002, p. 173). The innovations in Welles script focused not on altering the plot of the novella but on using the unique codes and signifiers of cinema to capture the thematic preoccupations of the original.

Welles script utilises wildly experimental imagery in order to render Conrad’s obsessively individualistic perspective legible in cinematic form. The film would feature an extensive preamble, in which Welles was to speak directly to the viewer, isolating them even from other audience members:

Welles: Ladies and Gentlemen, this is Orson Welles. Don’t worry. There’s nothing to look at for a while. You can close your eyes, if you want to. But please, open them when I tell you to. First of all, I am going to divide the audience into two parts: you and everybody else in the theatre. Now, open your eyes (Welles, 1939, p. 1).

This introduction continues and grows increasingly strange and surreal: the point-of-view shots persist with the ‘viewer’ sequentially gagged, electrocuted, treated as a canary in a cage, and threatened with a gun. Welles, in his first foray into cinema, is intent on highlighting the very extremes of the medium’s immersive audio-visual capabilities. These bizarre opening scenes are of course unrelated to Heart of Darkness as a story. However, they are an essential component of replicating the fundamentally individual experience which so characterises the narrative. “This is not a story about a canary of course” Welles voice-over continues, “but I do want you to understand that you are part of the story… everything you see on screen will be seen through your eyes” (1939, p. 2).

Figure 2: Prospective Poster advertising Welles' completed film (RKO Studios, 1939).

This translation of Conrad's perception-dependent narration into cinema was one of the most ambitious and practically difficult elements of the script. In an effort to literalise this subjectivity, Welles devised an first-person story-board, a style never before utilised in major movie productions. Where traditional cinematic productions would have relied on the use of implication of point-of-view based on clues and short shots. For Welles, Marlow's perspective needed to be literally grafted onto the view of the camera. The camera would take in the totality of experience -without cuts- just like an uninterrupted human consciousness (Carringer, 1985, pp. 9-10). Bringing this ambitious vision to reality provided immense logistical difficulties to the RKO crew tasked with planning filming. Excerpts such as Marlow's arrival at the First Station which in the novella comprises two pages worth of descriptive reflection on the horrors to which the native labourers have been reducedwould have required several minutes of uncut panning, alternating close-ups and wide shots tracking the dynamite-led construction of a railway through a cliff-face. Where Welles had succeeded in devising a narrative strategy that allowed him to replicate the interiority of Conrad's original novella, the practical application of this strategy proved extremely limiting.

Another pertinent point to address in Welles’ Heart of Darkness is the planned parable of fascism. Conrad’s original story had a very clear target -the direct setting of colonial exploitation in Africa and its practitioners in European capitals. Welles, however, wanted to redirect the political connotations of the story away from this immediate presence, drawing attention instead to parallels with the contemporary rise in fascism across Europe, especially in Germany. Welles had used previous theatre productions to make similar cases against fascist movements, e.g. his 1938 production of Shakespeare's Julius Caesar reimagined the events and set design with Nazi imagery (Degrazia & Wells, 2010). The escalation in tensions and political violence in 1938-9, while Welles was working on the script, exerted a significant influence on his conception of the film and how its themes resonated with his own political climate: Kurtz, having taken control of a small native tribe deep within the Congo, directly tells Marlow in fact that "there is a man in Europe who is attempting to do exactly as I have done" (Welles, 1939, p. 80). Later radio adaptations that Welles produced based on the script featured almost all company characters speaking in German accents (with the exception of Marlow, voiced by Welles himself) (Billy, 2002, p.174). For over a century since its publication, Heart of Darkness has been the center of a debate regarding colonialism and ideology, with renowned Nigerian author and critic Chinua Achebe arguing that despite Conrad's intentions of criticising the colonial system as exploitative, his language and descriptions of Africa and its inhabitants are inherently racist and condescending themselves, propagating an equally 'othering' concept of Africa that functions in an imperialist mode (Achebe, 1977). Indeed, given the longstanding debates of the depth of Conrad’s colonial critiques, it may be argued that the Welles script is more explicit in its political stance than Conrad’s original:

To Kurtz, progress is power and ‘civilising’ is merely the defeating of a people, destroying mens’ natural freedom and forcing it to conform to a system which he commands. In retrospect, Welles’ references to Hitler are quite noticeable (Wood, 1990, p. 155).

Welles' insistence on using Heart of Darkness as a vessel for a political message underlines the overlap that the script represents between literary modernism and film history, placing the work in a new context whilst maintaining the fundamental concerns of human nature and the corruption of the spirit by power - questions common both to imperialism and fascism (DeBona, 1994, p. 16).

Figure 3: Welles in a reimagined 'Julius Caesar' decrying fascism in Nazi Germany, Mercury Theatre (Coronet Magazine, 1938).

Ultimately, the two key innovations of Welles’ script proved to be its downfall. Paul Schaefer, the head of RKO who had given Welles his enviable contract, is said to have objected to the overtly political messaging of the film, deeming it potentially unwise to fit such contemporary political parallels into the film. However, the greater issue proved to be the greatly inflated budget demanded by Welles’ unconventional point-of-view shot structure (this issue was ironically compounded by the predicted financial stress of the coming war in Europe). Coming in over double the contractual promise, the projected budget of circa 1 million US dollars became an unsustainable millstone for Welles’ project, which was ultimately cancelled by RKO before primary shooting began (Carringer, 1985, p. 14). Welles time on the project would not go to waste, however. Many of the integral concerns of his Heart of Darkness script -the subjectivity of perspective, the ambiguity of language, frame narration, and the isolating and corrupting influences of power- would form the basis of his next picture: Citizen Kane (1941), often regarded as the most influential film ever made. The universally resonant subject matter of Heart of Darkness would continue to attract attempts at film adaptation, with Francis Ford Coppola bringing the story to screen in 1979's Apocalypse Now, with the story's themes and narratives adapted once more to contemporary politics via a new setting in the Vietnam War.

Bibliographical References

Achebe, C. (1977). An Image of Africa: Racism in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. The Massachusetts Review, University of Amherst.

Billy, T. (2002). ‘“So Little More Than Voices”: Orson Welles’ 1945 Radio Dramatisation of Heart of Darkness’. Conradiana. Vol.34, No.3. pp. 171-179

Carringer, R. (1985). The Making of Citizen Kane. University of California Press.

Conrad, J. (1902). Heart of Darkness. Blackwood.

DeBona, G. (1994). Into Africa: Orson Welles and “Heart of Darkness”. Cinema Journal. Vol. 33, No. 3. University of Texas Press. pp. 16-34

DeGrazia, M. and Wells, S. Eds. (2010). The New Cambridge Companion to Shakespeare. Cambridge University Press.

Gillespie, G. (1985). Savage Places Revisited: Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness” and Coppola’s “Apocalypse Now”. The Comparatist. Vol. 9. pp. 69-88

Klein, S. and Moses, M.W. (2021). A Modernist Cinema: Film Art from 1914 to 1941. Oxford University Press.

Rosenbaum, J. (2007). Discovering Orson Welles. University of California Press.

Schotter, J. (2013) ‘N=I: Conrad, Welles, and Narrative Form’. Literature/Film Quarterly. Vol. 41, No.1. pp. 29-51

Sontag, S. (2008 Ed.). On Photography. Penguin Books.

Welles, O. (1939). Heart of Darkness. RKO Studios.

Wood, B. (1990). Orson Welles: A Bio-bibliography. Greenwood Press.

Visual Sources


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Seán Downey

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