Aliens, Madmen & Bob Dylan: How Conrad Sailed his Way into Popular Culture
Why are space ships in the Alien movies named after Conrad’s novels? What’s Joseph Conrad doing on the sleeve of Bob Dylan’s album? And did he inspire one of the greatest comic books in history?
The author of Victory and Heart of Darkness is surely one of the most accomplished British writers of all time, but his persona and impact extends far beyond his role in literature. Here’s a look at how Conrad’s life and work shaped popular culture, from Hitchcock to Ridley Scott, and from Bob Dylan to Corto Maltese, and how it continues to influence new media, from TV series (Taboo) to films (the latest King Kong movie) and video games.
Tinker, Sailor, Spy: Conrad in the movies
From early on, directors and screenwriters saw Joseph Conrad’s literary output as interesting film material. The first film adaptation of Conrad’s novel came as early as 1915 – and it was Victory, directed by Maurice Tourneur. In 1965, Conrad’s other seaside classic Lord Jim was turned into film by Richard Brooks, starring Peter O’Toole (the music was composed by another Polish emigré and Conrad’s compatriot Bronisław Kaper). And The Shadow Line, another maritime classic, was filmed by Polish Oscar-winning director Andrzej Wajda in 1976.
But it was Joseph Hitchcock’s 1936 classic Sabotage (also known as The Woman Alone), a film based on Conrad’s Secret Agent, that played a really important role in film history. As critics claim, the film paved the way and helped set the rules for a new emergent movie genre: the thriller. The Secret Agent on its part remained one of the most frequently adapted Conrad novels. This brilliant novel, dealing with the topic of terrorism, saw renewed interest particularly in the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks. The latest BBC TV version came in 2016.
Beyond Apocalypse Now
Perhaps the most famous case of adapting Conrad for the big screen was, however, Apocalypse Now by Francis Ford Coppola. Even before Coppola, Conrad’s ultimate colonial classic was approached by Orson Welles (who had managed to turn it into a radio drama) and George Lucas – the latter actually considered making the movie in Vietnam while the war was still raging, but, unable to get funding, he decided to postpone the shooting and turn to other projects before getting swept up by his Star Wars films.
In adapting Conrad’s short story, Coppola decided to transpose the plot from the late 19th-century Belgian Congo to 1960s Vietnam. Despite huge problems during production, including the time a monsoon destroyed the set, Apocalypse Now has became one of the most-lauded anti-war movies of all time.
Conrad, the eighth passenger of the Nostromo
But one of the greatest fans of Conrad in the film world is certainly Ridley Scott. Conradian motifs appear in a number of his movies, starting with Scott’s debut movie The Duellists. The film was based on Conrad’s novella The Duel, a story of two Napoleonic officers engaged in a conflict of honour that eventually stretches for two decades.
Scott’s second feature film Alien (1979) also contained references to Conrad. One of the most obvious was the name of the commercial mining spacecraft on which Ripley and the crew travel across space, and which turns out to contain a terrifying stowaway. The name - Nostromo - was a reference to Conrad’s 1904 novel of the same title, a fictitious tale set in South America about a conflict between big business and workers in a South American mine. As James Mahon explains:
The correlation reflects the theme of the conflict between the spaceship owners, the Weyland Yutani Corporation, and the civilian crew on the spaceship. The Nostromo’s shuttle is also called Narcissus after Conrad’s 1897 novel The Nigger of the Narcissus [...] which is about the a ship’s crewman who becomes infected with deadly disease. The parallel with the plot of Alien is almost too obvious to mention.
Subsequently, the other films in the series used Conradian references for the names of spaceships, like the USS Sulaco in Aliens (named after a fictitious town in Nostromo), the USCSS Patna in Alien 3 (named after the ship in Lord Jim), or even the USS Marlow in Aliens vs Predator (Conrad's narrator in several of his novels) and the USS Verloc in Aliens vs Predator 2, a reference to the protagonist of The Secret Agent.
It seems that in a way the eighth passenger on the Nostromo, and also in other films in the series, was none other than Joseph Conrad.
Bob Dylan vs. Joseph Conrad
Conrad’s novels also inspired composers. Victory and To-morrow were turned into operas by Richard Rodney Bennet and Tadeusz Baird (1966), respectively. However the most intriguing case of cross-influence comes in the work of Bob Dylan.
Conrad and his work made it onto Bob Dylan’s 1976 album Desire. A drawing of Conrad can be found on the album’s jacket where Conrad is, tellingly, represented next to Dylan’s ear. The literary influence of his novel Victory can be seen in the song Black Diamond Bay – a song which seems to describe the destruction of a tiny island following the eruption of a volcano. The main themes of the song, including its title, the island, the volcano, the gambling, and the Panama hat, were all traced back to the plot of Conrad's book.
And just in case you were looking for more Conrad in music, you can try turning to a quite unlikely source: the 1995 Iron Maiden song The Edge of Darkness was apparently inspired by Heart of Darkness.
Corto Maltese, or if Conrad wrote graphic novels
One of the most ‘Conradian’ comic books in history was created in 1967 by Italian artist Hugo Pratt. Corto Maltese wasn’t an adaptation of a Conrad novel, and yet it shared some fascinating affinities with Conrad’s life and work. Like Conrad and some of his heroes, Corto Maltese is a sea captain, travelling around the world in the early 20th century. Corto is an ethically-challenged adventurer and described as a 'gentleman of fortune' in an era no longer accommodated to such roles. The series itself, praised as one of the most artistic and literary graphic novels ever written, has been described as a Joseph Conrad novel in graphic form.
In fact, Conrad is one of the many historical figures and cultural references that appear in this sophisticated work. One of the novels suggests that as a young boy Corto met the famous writer while he was still serving as a sea captain.
Conrad today: it’s all about Heart of Darkness
Conrad’s legacy continues to wage influence over popular culture. This is particularly ostensible with the latest King Kong movie. The plot of Kong: Skull Island can be seen as a variation on the plot of Heart of Darkness – and if you remain unconvinced, the protagonists bear the names Conrad and Marlow, an obvious reference.
The authors of the successful 2016 British TV series Taboo also saw Conrad as one of the inspirations behind their dark production. According to Tom Hardy, the inspiration behind his character James, a haunted man who had been presumed dead, was Marlow in Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness.
With Heart of Darkness, Joseph Conrad has also made his way into the much more virtual realm of video games. The short story inspired one of the most praised games in recent years, Spec Ops: The Line (2012). But that’s not the end: in March 2017, Francis Ford Coppola announced the making of a game based on Heart of Darkness.
It seems Joseph Conrad will continue to inspire artists and creators well into the future, despite passing away a hundred years ago. Who knows what future mediums await Conrad-ising next?
Author: Mikołaj Gliński, 24 June 2017