Don't Eat With Your Mouth Full

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From Woking to Grover's Mill... and Beyond!
Orson Welles had form when it came to Americanizing British novels - obviously. But I'm surprised that when he came to write a screenplay (unproduced till now) of Heart of Darkness in 1939, the year after The War of the Worlds radio show, he bothered to tow its frame-story 3,000 miles west from the mouth of the Thames to the mouth of "the old New York river" (which one?). After all, it only takes a few pages of the book.

I can see why he might want to make Marlow an American, given that he intended to play him himself, but Marlow has to be in Europe anyway to get his Congo gig. Why couldn't he be telling his tale in London? It would require far less rewriting of Conrad.

The answer is I suppose that Welles wanted to rewrite Conrad. Moving Marlow's telling to Manhattan means that his disquisition on how this too has been "one of the dark places of the earth" now applies to America, not Britain. The evocation of the hard times endured by Roman soldiers is transferred to the earliest European colonists, when "our fathers first came here". (This, according to Marlow, happened "four hundred years ago", which is way out for Manhattan, or indeed for any English colony - but perhaps the Spanish are "our fathers" too for his purposes?) And of course it implies a parallel between the Native Americans and the Africans colonized by the European powers of Marlow's own day, as well as obliquely asserting the nature of America's imperial present and future.

At the very least, it's an interesting choice. But how well does it work? And how convincing is James McAvoy's accent? I'd be interested to hear a transatlantic view on the first five minutes, even if you don't listen to the whole thing.
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The New York river is the Hudson, unquestionably. The East River is not really a river but an estuary, and it doesn't go anywhere. In any case, they both come out in the same place.

No, "400 years ago" is not out. Though settlement didn't begin until the early 17th century, European exploration of the immediate area dates to the 1520s.

Don't ask me how well it works. I don't really find Conrad a very comprehensible author, and little more so here. But McAvoy's accent seems OK in the opening minutes, particularly his first sentences which capture a mid-American drawl very well (it's not a specifically New York accent, but those are mostly an outer-borough working-class phenomenon, in the same way that only some Londoners speak Cockney).

Thanks for the clarification on the Hudson.

No, "400 years ago" is not out. Though settlement didn't begin until the early 17th century, European exploration of the immediate area dates to the 1520s.

But the context appears to be one of colonization, not exploration. Did the Europeans of the early sixteenth-century do much more than map the coast?

"But the context appears to be one of colonization, not exploration."

Not necessarily. He says they "came here," not that they settled here. It's ambiguous, and to my mind the fact that he says 400 years and not 300 years itself resolves the ambiguity.

Well, put it this way: the equivalent passage in Conrad is most definitely describing the experience of the Romans in trying to settle Britannia as a province, rather than the voyages of Pytheas, as it were; and the aptness of the passage in either version depends on its applicability to the contemporary situation of the Belgian Congo, which is again one of imperialist colonization. So if Marlow is trying to make us think of explorers rather than colonists he has rather missed his own point.

Then he definitely has. I find that far more credible than that Welles was a century off in his understanding of American history.

But, checking the original, again I find it less clear than that. Marlow imagines two Romans, the second a settler, but the first a military occupier who is not planning to stay ("keeping his eye on a chance of promotion to the fleet at Ravenna by-and-by"). I do not, in general, think of the Romans as the settlers of Britain, though some obviously did, not the way the Anglo-Saxons were settlers, but as primarily the military occupiers.

And that's the parallel with Verazzano. Not a close one, to be sure, but the situations weren't the same. He was the first one to come by and airily declare that this land now belonged to one European monarch or another. If Conrad is intending for the reader to think of a parallel with the Europeans in Africa, the possessive aspect is what fits. I don't believe that Pytheas sailed with such a goal or attitude.

I do not, in general, think of the Romans as the settlers of Britain, though some obviously did, not the way the Anglo-Saxons were settlers, but as primarily the military occupiers.

I think that's right, and I suppose that's one way in which the parallel between the Belgian Congo and Roman Britain is more exact than that between the Belgian Congo and the Eastern seaboard of America, whether of the sixteenth or seventeenth century. Perhaps if he'd relocated Marlow to California he might have found a better match in the Spanish colonists?

I was wondering about this myself (why does Welles do it, and how well does it work?), and am glad you posted about it. I wasn't sure about what he did with the Intended, either, though again I could see why he would go that way with it.

It was an interesting take, to be sure!

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