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Film And Literature: Narrative Techniques

Updated on April 2, 2015

Contents:

  1. Introduction to Narrative Techniques
  2. 'Heart Of Darkness'- Joseph Conrad
  3. 'Apocalypse Now'- Francis Ford Coppola
  4. Comparing Both Texts
  5. References and Bibliography
  6. Video-'Apocalypse Now' trailer

Introduction To Narrative Techniques

A narrative describes a chain of events which is situated in time and space and is used in literature and film alike. It refers to how a text is written and communicated to the readers. It is not the voice of the author, rather, it is a disembodied observer. Although the term is centrally used to describe literary techniques, it is also an important dimension in film. The narrative aspect in film is crucial both for the way the film functions and for the effect it has on the audience. This hub will examine the narrative techniques used in both Joseph Conrad’s ‘Heart of Darkness’ (Conrad, 2007) and Francis Ford Coppola’s film adaptation ‘Apocalypse Now’ (Coppola, 1979), looking in particular at the beginning and final scenes. Both texts are framed with mediating narrators that are both present and not present simultaneously. The main features of narrative strategies in literature can be found in film, although the characteristics of these strategies differ significantly. In many cases, it appears to be appropriate to speak of similarities between literary and filmic storytelling and to analyse the relevant differences between the two in narrative representation. These equivalences are far more complex than is suggested by any mere translation or adaptation from one medium into another.

Heart Of Darkness

Heart of Darkness’ employs dual narratives, using first person and third person accounts. The largest portion of the text is concerned with the narrators recounting of Marlow, the protagonists story. His story, although told by the narrator is recounted in Marlow’s voice and thus, his narrative is placed in on-going quotation marks throughout the text. Therefore, it is a narrative within a narrative. The presence of the narrator is so subtle that we either do not notice it, or we soon forget that it has been placed between protagonist and the reader (Lothe, 2000). Although ‘Apocalypse Now’ appears to only have one narrator, the protagonist Benjamin Willard, it is important to note that the camera’s eye is also a narrative device and works the same as the unseen narrator in literature. Similar to this, editing can also be seen as a narrative method. Camera, editor and unseen narrator place themselves between the stories of both men and the audience, distancing the action from the viewers. They also both control what we see, hear and read. Their role is to describe the scene that is not being described by the characters; “Marlow sat cross-legged right aft, leaning against the mizzen-mast. He had sunken cheeks, a yellow complexion” (Conrad, 2007). In this instance, it would be awkward for Marlow himself to explain his complexion and how he sat, and unnecessary. However, it is the narrator’s position to describe the scene in order to bring the reader into the story. It introduces the characters and setting which gives way to the recounting of Marlow’s tale. We are first introduced, by the unseen narrator, to five men sitting in an anchored boat; “the air was dark above Gravesend, and further back still seemed condensed into a mournful gloom, brooding motionless over the biggest, and the greatest, town on earth” (Conrad, 2007). This frame narrator introduces us to the narrative situation and to Marlow as the main character. Marlow is one of the five men and performs the function of narrator and character.


Apocalypse Now

The narrative techniques employed in ‘Apocalypse now’ also introduce the scene, but with many varying methods. We first only see trees, then we hear a sound of what we can associate with helicopter blades spinning. As the trees begin to blaze, the face of a man is merged with the scene along with the song by The Doors ‘The End’. This audio over the chaotic portrayal represents the film’s title. An apocalypse describes the end of everything, a doomsday, and thus, the first scene represents the end. Once Willard has been introduced, he takes on the role of narrator to explain how he got the meeting that compelled his excursion up river. This also happens in ‘Heart of Darkness’ as after Marlow is properly introduced, he explains how he received the job as the captain of a ship going to Africa to collect ivory. From there on out, Marlow tells his story through the invisible narrator: “One thing more remained to do- say good-bye to my excellent aunt” (Conrad, 2007). As a first person narrator Marlow characterizes himself both by his experiences in Africa and through his comments on these experiences (Lothe, 2000). This is also done in ‘Apocalypse Now’, however, using different narrative methods. Although the camera serves as narrator between Willard and audience, there are certain things that restrict the narration of the story, such as the inner thoughts of Willard. Without being able to show his thoughts (which he rarely does throughout the film), he interjects at specific parts with a voice over explaining certain issues. This happens in the first scene: “Every time I think I’m going to wake up in the jungle” (Coppola, 1979). Film is not a verbal device, but a visual one, so the need for voice-overs are vital in adapting a story like Conrad’s where Marlow radically questions his own nature and values after meeting Kurtz.


Comparing Both Texts

There are other certain filmic techniques that need to be engaged in order to refer to the original text. The closing sequence of both film and novella contain these reference points. Although it is not a direct copy of Conrad’s story, it is an extension of the link to the original text (Lothe, 2000). In the final scene the camera (or narrator) shows us Kurtz’ room by panning around it. We are shown a few books and finally a manuscript belonging to Kurtz. On one of the pages the words “Drop the bomb, exterminate them all” are scrawled over the original typing. This relates to a report in ‘Heart of Darkness’ which Kurtz is requested to compile. Having read the report, Marlow describes it as a rhetorically refined justification of Europe’s Colonial Involvement in Africa. He adds: “It was very simple, and at the end of that moving appeal to enemy altruistic sentiment it blazed at you, luminous and terrifying, like a flash of lightning in a serene sky: ‘exterminate all the brutes!’” (Conrad, 2007). The use of the verb ‘exterminate’ links the film with Conrad’s novella, however, the impact of the words is achieved far more effectively in ‘Heart of Darkness’. It is received as a terrifying and alarming statement in the novella surrounded by symbolic language and meaning which gives it the greater impression. In the film though, the words lie dead on a page, which the camera looks at. There is no impression of the impact of the words on Willard and thus leaves the viewers without said impression.

The word ‘exterminate’ in both texts can represent a form of insight into the character Kurtz, and his hostile, dissatisfied actions. It may be linked to his final words “The Horror!” which makes an appearance in both ‘Heart of Darkness’ and ‘Apocalypse Now’. In Conrad’s story, Marlow retells the final words of Kurtz to his widowed wife, which could summarize the entire experience he had in Africa. Coppola however, used the words twice, firstly as a direct statement from Kurtz himself and the second as a voice over, which implies the strong impression it had on Willard.

A narrative is a way of telling a story. Narrative techniques in literature introduce the plot, characters, setting and tone of the story. In film, the narrative techniques, although different, work in the same way, introducing the narrative to audiences with the use of images, sound, camera movements, point of view shots and voice-overs. With each method, the story unfolds into a linear narrative. In ‘Heart of Darkness’ the unseen narrator retells the story of Marlow and his journey through the Congo, through Marlow’s own voice, creating a narrative within a narrative. This allows us to read through Marlow’s words, but with extra information from the invisible narrator. This is also used in ‘Apocalypse Now’ as the camera tells us Willard’s story, with voice-overs of Willard explaining further the action on screen or his inner thoughts. Narrative methods can have a better effect in film, as there are more techniques used in filming to create the story. However, as the final scene in ‘Apocalypse Now’ and ‘Heart of Darkness’ proves, literary devices can also prove more effective as they can verbally explain the importance of certain aspects of the story.

Bibliography

Bordwell, D. (1985). Narration in The Fiction Film. University of Wisconsin Press.

Branigan, E. (1992). Narrative Comprehension and Film. Routledge.

Conrad, J. (2007). Heart of Darkness. London: Penguin Classics.

Coppola, F. F. (Director). (1979). Apocalypse Now [Motion Picture].

Lothe, J. (2000). Narrative in Fiction and Film. Oxford University Press.

veel, k. (2009). Narrative Negotiations: Information Structures in Literary Fiction. Vandenhoeck and Ruprecht.

Watch Apocalypse Now

© 2015 Astrid North's Study Guide

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