As part of my revisiting the works of Joseph Conrad, last week I read Heart of Darkness, which stands somewhat apart from the rest of his tales.
Based on Conrad's experiences as a river boat captain in the Belgian Congo, it takes the reader on a physical but also spiritual journey in to the center of what was once called The Dark Continent.
It's structure is unique. While Conrad once again uses Marlow as the first-person narrator, in this work he is both a participant but also an observer. That is to say the centerpiece of the drama is the attempt to retrieve a mysterious ivory trader named Kurtz and Marlow's role is simply to repair a damaged steamboat which is then used to reach Kurtz's remote trading post.
Conrad's musings on human nature and the ease with which 'civilized' people can revert to savagery of the worst kind made it an instant literary classic.
Apocalypse Now is very loosely based on Conrad's story, with the setting changed from colonial Africa to Vietnam. This is not as ludicrous as it seems, and roughly the first half of the movie does a good job of drawing parallels between the breakdown of discipline and morality the farther one gets from organized institutions.
The problem is that near the midpoint, Coppola loses the plot and starts a meandering tale packed with lame tropes highlighted by inexplicably stupid behavior on the part of the characters.
I'm by no means the first person to observe this, and I'm sure lots of people have pointed out that it would not be difficult to recut the film to bring it into line with Conrad's story - and also provide a more satisfying ending. As it stands, the film builds up energy until instead of a climax, it just sort of grinds to a halt and everyone goes home.
For a fleeting instant I thought of writing the alternate ending out, basically giving the film the Man of Destiny series treatment, but the definitive take has already been written - by Joseph Conrad.
To my knowledge, this is a story that has yet to be fully realized as a movie. There was a TNT attempt some years back that was abjectly awful. Go look it up if you want, I'm not even going to link to it.
Heart of Darkness is a significant work and also something of a litmus test because it's a great example of how people can value a story enough to make a movie while missing the whole point of the thing.
See also: the hideous movie disfigurement of Evelyn Waugh's The Loved One. Ironically, the craptastic adaptation of a cynical book about Hollywood is altogether appropriate.