The Routes into Conrad on Filming: Under Western Eyes and Outcast of the Islands

By Vineberg, Steve | Literature/Film Quarterly, January 1, 1987 | Go to article overview

The Routes into Conrad on Filming: Under Western Eyes and Outcast of the Islands


Vineberg, Steve, Literature/Film Quarterly


Of the perhaps dozen and a half films derived from the work of Joseph Conrad,1 the most famous are certainly Alfred Hitchcock's Sabotage (1936), out of The Secret Agent, and Francis Ford Coppola's Apocalypse Now (1979), in which the action of Heart of Darkness is-with considerable modification-transferred to Vietnam. Few Americans, on the other hand, have seen Razumov (France, 1937), based on Under Western Eyes and directed by Marc Allegret, or Carol Reed's Outcast of the Islands (England, 1951); in fact, Razumov is not even available in this country in a subtitled version. Yet both are remarkably affecting adaptations of difficult literature, and both merit more judicious examination in the light of all the attention that has been given to the relationship of film to its literary sources in recent years.

Although, as George Bluestone has pointed out,2 both Joseph Conrad and D. W. Griffith claimed their intention as artists was "to make you see," the failure of transposing serious fiction into film in the great majority of cases-the paucity of first-rate film versions of great novels-leads one to wonder why Conrad has inspired at least three good movies (Sabotage, Razumov, Outcast of the istands) when the style of most authors is more often evoked, as André Bazin has said, in movies with no direct connection to their work.3 (Thus we experience infinitely more of F. Scott Fitzgerald in Truffaut's Jules and Jim than in Jack Clayton's film of The Great Gatsby, Last Tango in Paris is more Lawrentian than Women in Love, and so on.) The measure of artistic success achieved by Hitchcock, Allegret and Reed may be a tribute to the richness of the "visual" imagery in Conrad's books; Paul Kirschner has written an analysis of "cinematic" techniques in Conrad that suggests that, long before he could have seen a movie, the author employed a kind of literary panning, editing and "active simile" (or "symbolic editing") in his work.4 However, this theory, fascinating as it is, bears much resemblance to Eisentstein's celebrated "cinematic" breakdown of Dickens,5 and Kirschner makes no attempt to apply it to any of the films derived from Conrad; the same claims might be made of Joyce, who resists filming. More likely, it is a question of good luck that three of the directors who have seized on Conrad have been skillful craftsmen-and much more, in the case of Hitchcock and Reed-who have either cared deeply about the material (Reed) or at least seen in it the potential for exciting filmmaking (Hitchcock). (Apocalypse Now , I would argue, is more interesting for its distance from Conrad than for its superficial similarities to Heart of Darkness.) Moreover, only Carol Reed has truly remained faithful to Conrad; both Hitchcock and Allegret have changed the text considerably and emerged with movies more reflective of their own time and place than of Conrad's. Since so much has already been written about Sabotage, both by Hitchcock's admirers and by Conrad's,6 this essay will focus on the virtually unknown Razumov, as an example of how a good novel, distorted, can still become an admirable movie, as well as on Outcast of the Islands, which proves that a remarkable (and underrated) director can produce an extraordinary film of a fine novel by practicing fidelity to the author's vision.

"Certainly it would be better if all directors were men of genius; presumably then there would be no problem of adaptation," wrote André Bazin. "The critic is only too fortunate if he is confronted with men of talent. . . . There is nothing to prevent us from dreaming of a Diable au corps directed by Jean Vigo but let us congratulate ourselves that at least we have an adaptation by Claude Autant-Lara."7 Similarly, we may dream of what Renoir or Pudovkin might have done with Conrad's "Russian" novel, Under Western Eyes, but at least we have an elegant, intelligent Razumov from Marc Allegret. The adaptation by H. Wilhelm, L. Lustig and Jacques Viot reduces the thick four-part novel to some ninety minutes of screen time by restricting the narrative to Part One (which transpires in St. …

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