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Film / Heart of Darkness (1958)

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"Ever since 1902, when Heart of Darkness was first published, readers have found in its tale of adventure many meanings and interpretations. Tonight's interpretation [...] represents one understanding of this fascinating story."
— from the introduction

A Made-for-TV Movie which aired as an episode of Playhouse 90 in November 1958. A loose, psychoanalytically inflected adaptation of the Joseph Conrad novella, it stars Roddy McDowall as Marlow, Boris Karloff as Kurtz, Eartha Kitt as Kurtz's African mistress (here known as the Queen), Inga Swenson as Canon Foreigner Maria Kurtz, and Oskar Homolka in a One-Scene Wonder turn as a doctor.

This adaptation provides examples of:

  • Adaptation Personality Change: The Queen is vocal, mercurial, and sympathetic. She is based on a character in the book who has no lines and whose main function is to show up and look ominous.
  • Age Lift: In the original, Kurtz is a relatively young man who appears prematurely aged because of illness. In this adaptation, he is played by 70-year-old Boris Karloff and is written as having an adult daughter.
  • Big "NO!": Marlow, after the Accountant reveals the content of Kurtz's report.
  • Broadcast Live: This seems to have been the last Playhouse 90 episode to consist of mostly live material (although Eartha Kitt's appearance was pre-taped because of a scheduling conflict).
  • Canon Foreigner: Maria is one, with slight Composite Character tendencies. On the one hand, she is Marlow's love interest and Kurtz's daughter, neither of which matches a character in the original. On the other hand, she does take on the functions of two of Conrad's minor characters: like Marlow's aunt, she helps Marlow get a job with the trading company; like the Intended, she is the object of Kurtz's preoccupation.
  • The Cavalry: The company makes its attack on the Kurtz compound just in time to save Marlow from receiving Kurtz's brand.
  • Celibate Hero: Marlow, as an aspect of his overall asceticism.
  • Clothing Damage: Marlow's clothing deteriorates during the second half of the story. Of particular note, he is flogged with his shirt on, shredding it.
  • Compressed Adaptation: All the riverboat scenes — which make up a significant portion of the original novella — are omitted.
  • Conversation Cut: Exaggerated in the final scene, to the point that it contributes to the Gainax Ending.
  • Darkest Africa: The setting for the second half of the story.
  • Death by Adaptation: The Queen is killed in this version. The fate of the equivalent character in the original is never revealed.
  • Discretion Shot: The Queen climbs into a curtained palanquin before being executed by spear-thrust. This not only keeps it TV-friendly, but also gives the character a chance to Face Death with Dignity.
  • Dying Curse: The Queen has one for the absent Kurtz: "Die, you devil. Die, you cur. Die, before you drag that sweet boy down into the hell you made here."
  • Eerily Out-of-Place Object: There are sheer curtains in the middle of the jungle.
  • Evil Colonialist: The trading company and its various functionaries, including Kurtz. However, this element of the story is not emphasized nearly as much here as it is in the book.
  • Evil Feels Good: Marlow, after he joins Kurtz.
    Kurtz: I celebrate my hatred.
    Marlow: I celebrate my hatred!
    Kurtz: I celebrate my cruelty.
    Marlow: I celebrate my cruelty!
  • Gainax Ending: The last scene takes enormous liberties with space and time. Marlow walks away from Kurtz's body, declaring himself to be reborn. He calls out to Maria — who is six thousand miles away in England. She answers him and tells him the current date. Marlow walks out of Kurtz's camp and directly into the hothouse where he and Maria played as children. She is waiting there for him, seeming a lot more mentally stable than she did when they last saw each other. Marlow declares his intention to kiss her. There is a cut as he goes in for the kiss, and in the cut his rags change to new clothes. Finally, without any apparent passage of time, the background changes to a street scene and the episode ends with the couple walking together. So was the bulk of the story All Just a Dream? Or is the ending itself a Dying Dream? Or is this just a decorative time-compression of Marlow's perfectly mundane return home?
  • Go Mad from the Isolation: Teased and Played for Laughs when Marlow is wandering in the jungle: "Somebody! Anybody! I need human companionship here!"
  • He Is All Grown Up: Maria observes this of Marlow: "You're not a cub anymore, are you? You're a panther now, grown black and shiny."
  • Heel Realization: Kurtz's is fairly explicit: "Exterminate all the brutes. Exterminate me!"
  • Holier Than Thou: Marlow, at the beginning of the story, is judgmental of everyone who fails to emulate his rigid (though brittle) self-control.
  • Hollywood Natives: Kurtz's followers tick most of the boxes, being a jungle-dwelling tribe of half-naked, painted, spear-wielding, drumming, dancing, cannibalistic Africans.
  • Honey Trap: The Queen is assigned to sweet-talk Marlow into giving up his bus fare and staying the in jungle.
  • Hysterical Woman: Maria starts out unstable, helpless, and drunken, though she is much better by the end of the story.
  • Incest Subtext: From two different directions: Kurtz's heavily implied Pervert Dad tendencies, and Maria's open attraction to her (admittedly adopted) brother Marlow. The two cases are linked if, as is likely, Marlow's generalized Paralyzing Fear of Sexuality is a reflection of his father/idol Kurtz's specific fear of his own feelings toward Maria.
  • Ironic Echo:
    • "Little cub, the hunter won't hurt you." When Maria says it to Marlow, she's being flirtatious. Later, Marlow says it to a native boy in a straightforward attempt to gain his trust.
    • Meta-example: "It's strange how out of touch women are," says Marlow. In the book, a similar line was presented at face value; here, it's his reaction to a Cassandra Truth.
  • Ironic Nursery Tune: "Bobby Shaftoe" is heard several times during the first half of the story, in ironic counterpoint to both Marlow's sufferings as a sailor and Maria's stymied wish for love.
  • Jungle Drums: The "bush telegraph" version is Played for Laughs when the Accountant dictates his "interoffice memo" to a drummer, who relays the message with surprising terseness.
  • Lady Drunk: Maria at first seems to be turning into one: in her first scene she rushes out of her house, drunk and barefoot, and makes a crowd of Christmas Carolers very uncomfortable.
  • Lonely Rich Kid: Maria responds to Marlow's idolization of Kurtz by saying that she recalls her father as distant and neglectful, devoted to mankind in general but indifferent to the happiness of his own children.
  • Maid and Maiden: Though they only appear together briefly, it seems that the Abby the housekeeper is a sort of ineffectual mother hen towards Maria.
  • Mind Screw: A lot is left unresolved:
    • What is the significance of the bus fare? Is it just a #1 Dime that helps Marlow hold onto his sanity? Or does its continuing prominence suggest that he never went to Africa at all?
    • Marlow calls Kurtz "father" with an air of realization. Is Kurtz supposed to be Marlow's biological father? (If he is, the story ends with an unacknowledged case of Surprise Incest.)
    • The Gainax Ending raises its own questions: How literally should we take the rest of the story? It's not even clear whether The Ending Changes Everything or not.
  • The Missionary: One turns up in the third act, resembling The Vicar. He comforts the escaped Marlow and expresses interest in administering last rites to Kurtz.
  • Mood Whiplash: The reunion conversation between Maria and Marlow takes a dark turn.
    Maria: Have you had adventures, too, Little Brother?
    Marlow: I was tortured.
  • Noble Savage: Referenced: Kurtz wants to go to the Congo because it is "the one place left on Earth that still [has] innocence."
  • Noisy Nature: Stock jungle noises can be heard in the distance during the African scenes.
  • Not Blood Siblings: Maria and Marlow each have a speech recollecting the day Marlow came to the Kurtz home from the orphanage, and they both emphasize that he is not really her little brother. Maria thinks that would make a relationship okay, while Marlow initially considers it out of the question for completely separate reasons.
  • Nubile Savage: The Queen is a downplayed case of this. She isn't really used for visual Fanservice, but she is intended to be attractive to both Marlow and the audience even though the rest of her tribe are portrayed as grotesque Hollywood Natives.
  • Pervert Dad: Implied with Kurtz and Maria. (For one thing, he renames all his concubines after her.) Some of the doctor's comments suggest that Kurtz's running off to the Congo after Marlow left was an attempt to avoid a slide into full-blown Parental Incest.
  • Planet of Steves: The Queen reveals that she is one of many women named after Kurtz's daughter Maria.
  • Princess for a Day: A rather cruel version with the Eartha Kitt character, who is credited as "The Queen" and referred to in-universe as "Kurtz's queen," suggesting that she is hereditary royalty or a favored consort or both. Eventually she admits the truth: she's just one of a small army of interchangeable concubines, and her royal guise was manufactured by Kurtz to manipulate Marlow.
  • Related in the Adaptation: Marlow, a stranger to Kurtz in the original, becomes his adopted son.
  • Self-Injury: A minor case when Maria goes out in the snow without shoes on. "I wanted to feel something," she says, "even if it was just my feet being cold."
  • Sex Is Evil: Marlow speaks deprecatingly of "desire" at least twice. Part of his redemption involves overcoming this attitude.
  • Slave Brand: All of Kurtz's slaves are branded with the letter K.
  • Slave Collar: Marlow claps a collar onto himself after his Heroic BSoD.
  • Sliding Scale of Adaptation Modification: This rates about a 2 (Recognizable Adaptation). The changes are many: scenes are cut out, the critique of colonialism is pushed to the background, relationships are altered, the ending is changed to a happy one, and it's implied that part of the story was a Vision Quest. On the other hand, the basic movement of the story remains intact (Marlow goes to Darkest Africa in search of Kurtz, finds him, and is appalled) and several minor elements, such as secondary characters and lines of dialogue, are retained in recognizable form.
  • Slut-Shaming: Marlow towards the Queen — interestingly, not after she first attempts to seduce him, but shortly later, when she begins pressuring him for the coins.
    "Slut! Hypocrite! Harlot!"
  • Survival Mantra: "I know who I am! There's a bus at the end of this journey that will take me home!" Spoken three times by Marlow when he sees Kurtz wearing a miniature portrait of Maria.
  • A Taste of the Lash: Used repeatedly. Of particular note: the Accountant claims that he whips some of the natives every day just because he finds it cathartic.
  • Tastes Like Friendship: Subverted. Marlow offers a biscuit to a native child, but the boy spits it out: he'd prefer to eat Marlow.
  • That Reminds Me of a Song: Though music is not involved, Marlow does something very similar to this. While raving alone in the jungle, he muses that he should think of a description for the surroundings in case he wants to write about his experience someday. This provides a setup for his speaking aloud a couple of the more florid bits of prose from the book.
  • Vision Quest: A likely interpretation of the African scenes: Marlow symbolically "kills" his false images of Maria and Kurtz, thereby conquering his own self-righteousness.
  • While Rome Burns: Marlow calls the Accountant out on this: "You, sitting there in your spotless white suit in the midst of all this depravity, this hog-wallow!"
  • Ye Olde Butcherede Englishe: Marlow's prayer: "Bring happiness to all thy creatures no matter what form thou hath [sic] cast them in."