Anticipating a Scorsese or Zanuck Nostromo? the Lean-Hampton-Bolt Screenplays

By Watson, Wallace S. | Conradiana, Fall 2008 | Go to article overview

Anticipating a Scorsese or Zanuck Nostromo? the Lean-Hampton-Bolt Screenplays


Watson, Wallace S., Conradiana


2004 marked the centennial of Conrad's Nostromo, which the author called "the most anxiously meditated" of his recent novels and "an intense effort on what I suppose will always remain my largest canvas." (1) Conrad's story of Charles Gould's efforts in the late nineteenth century to revive the South American silver mine which had destroyed his father, and thereby to bring prosperity and stability to his troubled homeland, is arguably the author's most demanding book. Making use of frequent and often disconcerting shifts in time and point of view, it constructs a complex interplay among an unusually diverse cast of characters and the historical processes in which they are caught up; offers an ambiguous, if generally pessimistic, critique of efforts to bring about progressive political and economic changes; and dramatizes the personal costs of such efforts. The book continues to speak to such pressing current issues as the role of international capital in developing countries and U.S. global hegemony. The boast of Mr. Holroyd, the San Francisco financier of Gould's mine, continues to be prophetic: "the greatest country in the whole of God's Universe [...] shall run the world's business whether the world likes it or not" (Nostromo 94).

It is surprising that, until the mid-1980s, no filmmaker had seriously attempted to bring Nostromo to the screen, except for the 1926 silent Hollywood pot-boiler, The Silver Treasure, (2) even though almost one hundred other Conrad adaptations have been made, many of them forgettable, and some of them--such as Francis Ford Coppola's Apocalypse Now (1979, 2001) and Ridley Scott's The Duellists (1977)--major cinematic achievements. (3) Perhaps filmmakers were put off by Nostromo's large scale and narrative complexity. Or the book's relevance to contemporary international politics may not have seemed evident until well past the U.S. debacle in Vietnam. In any case, London critic Harlan Kennedy could write in 1990 (neglecting to take account of that 1926 film) that Nostromo was "the greatest English-language novel never filmed" (29).

Kennedy was writing about the then-current efforts by celebrated British director David Lean to adapt the novel to film, based on a screenplay he had developed with playwrights and screenwriters Christopher Hampton and Robert Bolt. The film was intended as Lean's magnum opus. However, the director died in 1991 at age 83, shortly before the scheduled start of shooting. For some time afterwards, Lean's former French producer, Serge Silberman, tried to mount an adaptation from a screenplay that Hampton had written for Lean and then revised for publication in 1996. But that possibility was not realized before Silberman died in 2003 at age 86. Meanwhile, Italian producer Fernando Ghia--whose award-winning The Mission (directed by Roland Joffe, 1986) had been shot in South America--persuaded the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) to back an international television miniseries based on Conrad's novel, which he had contemplated for years. That television Nostromo, first broadcast in 1997, is an ambitious and respectful adaptation, with many dramatically effective sequences. But it is painfully slow-moving, and the acting is problematic at many points. Ghia tried for several years to repair these problems by means of cutting and voice-over commentary but gave up that effort several years ago.

Thus what one writer has called "the curse of Conrad" upon filmmakers may still be alive with respect to Nostromo (Whitley). However, there is reason to hope that the novel will soon be given a film treatment worthy of its preeminent status among the author's works. The American filmmaker Martin Scorsese has been negotiating for several years with the David Lean Foundation and other interests for rights to take up Lean's Nostromo project. A provisional budget of $30 million and interest in the project from Marlon Brando and Sean Penn have been reported (Hastings). …

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